Native Americans used slippery elm bark, or slippery elm (Ulmus fulva), for hundreds of years. Used externally, slippery elm forms a soothing poultice for boils, cuts and skin abrasion. When taken by mouth, either as a capsule or tea, slippery elm bark soothes coughs and digestive upset.
About Slippery Elm Bark
Native to North America, the slippery elm tree's bark was used for hundreds of years by the Native Americans. They passed along their knowledge to European settlers, who welcomed an additional herbal remedy to their treatment options.
Slippery Elm Preparation
Slippery elm is a bit tricky to harvest and prepare. Only the bark is used for medicinal purposes. Some older herbals recommend using the bark of trees only when they are ten years old or older.
Herbalists harvest the bark at the appropriate time, dry it, then grind it into a fine powder. They mix the powder with water to form a tea or poultice. Today, the best way to use slippery elm is to purchase ready to use teas or capsules. It is fairly easy to find at health food stores and natural health supermarkets. Lozenges may also be found as a cold and flu treatment. Like cough drops, they're taken to sooth sore throats and irritating coughs.
Once slippery elm mixes with water, it forms something called mucilage. A mucilage is a thick gel. When smoothed onto the skin, it acts like a salve. It's frequently used as a boil salve and to sooth other skin irritations. When taken internally, the mucilage coats the throat, esophagus, and stomach. This makes it ideal for treating inflamed tissues and why it is known as such a soothing herb.
Uses of Slippery Elm
There are three major uses of slippery elm:
- To treat colds and coughs
- To treat digestive complaints, from minor complaints to serious illnesses such as Crohn's Disease and ulcerative colitis
- To treat boils and other external skin problems
Soothing Relief for Coughs and Colds
Slippery elm's ability to coat tissues with its thick mucilage makes it an ideal remedy for all those nagging problems experienced during bouts of the common cold. Slippery elm lozenges provide soothing relief for burning, painful sore throats. Slippery elm tea also coats the throat, and the warm steam from the tea may also provide relief from chronic coughing. Sufferers of chronic bronchitis may also benefit from slippery elm.
During Colonial times, slippery elm was used extensively to treat digestive problems. It's coating action calmed down upset stomachs, and the mucilage also helped bind loose stool associated with diarrhea. In days when dysentery and other digestive illnesses were quite common, it helped to have slippery elm on hand for emergencies.
Today, researchers are looking into slippery elm to help patients suffering from Crohn's disease. Crohn's disease is a serious autoimmune disease. The body's own immune system attacks the digestive system, causing damage to anywhere from the mouth to the anus. There is no cure for Crohn's disease, and symptoms must be managed by lifestyle modification and sometimes medication.
Researchers are hoping that slippery elm, with its ability to coat and soothe inflamed areas, can soothe the lesions found in the intestines of colitis and Crohn's disease patients. When the immune system attacks the intestines, the attack often leaves inflamed areas and lesions. The hope is that slippery elm will provide relief, allowing the areas to heal.
Cautions and Contraindications
Most herbalists say that slippery elm bark is one of the safest herbs to use. There are no known side effects from taking slippery elm. Caution should be used if you are taking prescription medication. Because slippery elm mucilage creates a thick coating, if taken too close to the time when you take a prescription medication, it may prevent the full absorption of the prescription medication. If that is a concern, just leave about two hours between the time you take your prescription medication and the time you take slippery elm tea, lozenges or pills.
Pregnant and nursing women should avoid slippery elm. While there is no evidence that it can pass through breast milk, care should still be taken to protect infants from any harm. For pregnant women, there is a small increase in the risk of miscarriage by taking slippery elm, so pregnant women should avoid taking this herbal medication.