Features October 2003 Issue

Herbal Remedies for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

Herbal remedies can help treat Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).


By Gregory Tilford

Despite a ravenous appetite, Zack the Australian Shepherd becomes ill when he tries to eat a regular meal. A year ago he was chubby, but now his ribs show through a perpetually shedding coat of dull, dry fur.

Zack’s bowel movements are irregular, too. Last week he had diarrhea, but today he is constipated. He might not go potty again for several days, and when he finally does, his elimination will probably be strained, his stool covered with mucus and streaked with blood.

A dog with inflammatory bowel disease may suffer a bewildering combination of digestive problems, all of which are caused by chronic inflammation in the GI tract. Over time, his poor overall health is reflected in a dry, perennially shedding coat.

Like thousands of other dogs, Zack suffers from a concurrence of symptoms known as inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD.

All cases of IBD share one sign – chronic inflammation in the intestinal tract – but no two cases are identical. Common symptoms include diarrhea, labored or painful bowel movements, gastric distention, rectal bleeding, and mucus discharge. Inexplicable weight loss, indigestion, vomiting, and even chronic flatulence may also point to IBD.

Because the causes of IBD are often multi-faceted and difficult to pinpoint, finding an effective treatment for the disease can be challenging – for even the most experienced veterinarian. Immune system disorders, circulatory impairment in the intestinal tract, parasitic infections, defects in permeability of the intestinal wall, dietary sensitivities or food allergies, adverse drug reactions (such as with large doses of aspirin), and prolonged use of antibiotic or antiparasitic drugs are among the many possible causes and contributing factors.

Conventional approaches to inflammatory bowel disease often involve a controlled diet of highly digestible foods that are rich in supplemental dietary fiber. Often, cortico-steroid drugs (such as Prednisone) and other immunosuppressive drugs are prescribed to rapidly reduce pain and inflammation. These drugs may bring fast, temporary relief from painful symptoms, but they can be risky, especially if employed long-term.

Corticosteroid drugs work their magic by inhibiting the immune functions that trigger inflammation – meaning they work against the body’s innate defense mechanisms. During the time that the inflammatory response is shut down, the underlying causes of IBD remain unchecked. And because IBD is often linked to preexisting immune system dysfunction in the first place, long-term corticosteroid therapies can actually add to the complication of an already complex state of immune-mediated disease.

Looking at the bigger picture
Rather than focusing on the symptoms of IBD, the holistic herbalist’s approach centers on identifying and correcting underlying imbalances and influences that may cause or contribute to IBD. The first step is to optimize the diet for maximum digestion and improved waste elimination. Poor quality food ingredients and fillers, such as meat by-products, corn, wheat hulls, and other grains, should be replaced with a home-prepared diet of fresh meats and vegetables. At the very least, bargain brand foods should be replaced with a premium quality canned food or kibble.

When using dried herbs, always look for the freshest organic herbs possible.

Food allergies or intolerances are often at the root of IBD. Therefore, the dog’s diet should be critically assessed for possible food culprits. Start by eliminating preservatives, artificial colorings and flavorings, and anything thing else not recognizable as “good, healthy food” from the food dish.

Bring the diet to life. Digestive enzymes and a probiotic (beneficial bacteria) supplement are strongly indicated for the IBD sufferer, as these measures will aid digestion, absorption of nutrients, and efficient waste elimination. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for how much to feed.

Many dogs with IBD will make a special effort to eat grass. I see this as a normal, intuitive effort to provide the digestive tract with the long fiber that is needed to cleanse and nourish the stomach and colon. Provided the grass is clean, green, and tender, this behavior should probably be honored. However, keep a close eye on exactly what he eats; some types of wild grasses are very tough and difficult to digest, and can add to the irritation of IBD. Likewise, it is important to make certain that the grass your companion eats has not been sprayed with herbicide or any other type of lawn care chemical.

If your dog insists on eating every blade of grass in sight, try buying some live wheatgrass from the health food store and placing the container next to his food dish. Just be aware that his inner cleansing program might include vomiting and regurgitation.

Also consider adding a pinch of finely ground flax seed or psyllium husks to each meal, as this will help soften the stool and ease passage of rough particles.

An assortment of other supplements may also be useful toward healing and strengthening mucous tissues in the intestines. These include N-acetyl glucosamine, glutamine, proanthocyanidin complex, dimethylglycine, and vitamin C (calcium ascorbate). Consult your veterinarian to determine which ones may be appropriate for your dog.

Clean up the environment
Toxic chemicals – such as lawn fertilizers, floor cleaners, harsh laundry detergents, pesticides, and motor oil – should be removed from your dog’s environment. Remember, as your dog walks, rolls, and plays in her environment, she picks up whatever residues exist there, and then licks it off her feet and coat. Although invisible and odorless, chemical residues may alter the functional abilities of mucous membranes and adversely affect beneficial bacteria that protect and serve digestive functions in the gut.

Use of oral antibiotics should be critically reconsidered and discussed with your veterinarian, as these drugs may inhibit reproduction and the protective capacities of beneficial bacteria in the intestine. Vaccinations should also be reevaluated, as they can have adverse effects upon the immune system – especially one that is already stressed or dysfunctional.

Herbs for IBD relief
The symptoms of inflammatory bowel syndrome can often be relieved with the use of herbs that reduce inflammation and help lubricate, nourish, and promote healing of mucous membranes.

At the very top of my list of favorites is a combination formula of marshmallow root, slippery elm bark, plantain leaf, and licorice root. I use this formula in an alcohol-free, glycerin-based tincture, but it can be used in powder form as well.

The main component of this formula is marshmallow root (Althea officinalis). Marshmallow root is rich with mucilage – a gooey, slippery, water-soluble substance that has a consistency similar to gear oil. While it is being digested, this mucilage helps nourish intestinal flora while providing a soothing, lubricating, protective barrier between inflamed mucous membranes and food materials that are moving through the intestine.

Marshmallow root may also help fight infection, as the herb is active against pathogens such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Proteus vulgaris, and Staphylococcus aureus. Marshmallow also stimulates the activities of fixed macrophages – immune warriors that serve as a first line of defense in the gut.

Slippery elm (Ulmus fulva), the second herb in my IBD formula, is also rich with nutrient-rich mucilage, but it also possesses an assortment of starches and tannin constituents that offer mild astringent qualities. This serves to moderate the excess transport of fluids across intestinal barriers while providing an added measure of lubrication for improved stool elimination. In other words, slippery elm can help reduce diarrhea, which is caused by excess fluid entering the intestine, and can also help relieve the opposite – constipation.

Plaintain leaf (Plantago spp.), the third component of the formula, is a ubiquitous weed with dark green, fibrous leaves. It also contains mucilage and tannin constituents, and is often used by herbalists as an earth-friendly alternative to slippery elm. However, plantain leaf provides measures of systemic support that slippery elm and marshmallow root cannot; it is loaded with antioxidant chlorophyll, fiber, and a very rich assortment of vitamins and minerals, all of which are beneficial in the healing and maintenance of mucous membranes and healthy flora.

Finally, to round out my favorite herbal formula for IBD, a measure of licorice root (Glycyrhizza glabra) is added.

Licorice root is well known by herbalists as a powerful anti-inflammatory, immune stimulant, vulnerary (speeds healing), antimicrobial herbal medicine that is remarkably effective in the digestive tract. It is especially useful for healing ulceration of the stomach and reducing the gastric acid secretions that often contribute to the severity of ulcers and IBD.

Part of licorice’s amazing healing ability in the gut can be attributed to its glycyrrhizin content. Glycyrrhizin’s chemical structure is similar to anti-inflammatory corticoids that are naturally produced in the body. The herb contains several other saponin constituents, as well. These soap-like compounds are capable of penetrating deep into mucous membranes to allow better transport of vital nutrients across impaired mucosal barriers and into the body system, where they are needed. This penetrating action also aids in the delivery of other medicinal components of the IBD formula.

Although long-term use of licorice root extract may carry adverse side effects of water retention and elevated blood pressure, this is seldom a worry in cases where the herb is used as a small component of a multi-herb formula like this one.


Greg Tilford serves as a consultant and formulator to hundreds of holistic veterinarians throughout the world, and is CEO of Animal’s Apawthecary, a company that develops herbal products specifically for use in animals. Tilford is also author of four books on herbal medicine, including All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets, (Bowtie, 1999). See “Resources,” for more information.


Also With This Article
Click here to view "What You Can Do."
Click here to view "A Formula for Dogs with Inflamatory Bowel Disease."



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