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Best Soothing and Moistening Herbs

How demulcent herbs save us from hot, dry inflammation

 As Spring emerges with her bouquets of pollen, there seem to be two main kinds of seasonal allergy sufferers:

  1. the runny, drippy, puffy folks, and

  2. the dry, scratchy, hot folks

The runny, drippy, puffy folks we will have to save for another time- since the herbal action we are about to discuss is more likely to intensify these symptoms than ease them.

Today we're looking at the dry, scratchy, hot folks. This may still come with stuffiness and congestion too, since inflammation of the airways alone is enough to stop up our sinuses- even if there is no watery runny nose or eyes.

These folks desperately need moistening and cooling herbs...

Enter: demulcents to save the day!

Plantain- Plantago lanceolata

Demulcent plants are the first ones we reach for to calm and protect irritated or inflamed tissues. They are amazingly soothing- both internally on mucous membranes (the tissues that line the respiratory tract and GI tract), and externally on skin.

Demulcents are rich in a carbohydrate called mucilage, which becomes thick and slippery when it comes in contact with water. This slimy coating can then provide a protective barrier over inflamed tissues.

Other terms you might see used to describe demulcent plants are: emollient or mucilaginous.

Mucilage is found in all plants, but when a plant is particularly rich in it- you'll know it! Think of textures in plants like okra, oatmeal, and aloe vera, just to name the most recognizable ones.

This is why folks who are already runny, drippy, and puffy are more likely to benefit from a different category of herbs (that are drying and astringent). Adding more thick moisture to an already overly moist and damp situation is certainly not going to help.

Demulcent herbs aren't just limited to allergies, though!

In fact, they're most often worked with for:

  • Reducing irritation down the entire bowel (caused heartburn, acid reflux, IBS, etc)

  • Calming oral and gastric ulcers

  • Soothing irritated respiratory mucous membranes (throats, sinuses, lungs)

  • Easing coughing

  • Healing skin wounds. 

  • Relaxing spasms in the bladder and urinary tract

As a water-soluble fiber, mucilage also helps lower cholesterol, assists the body in eliminating waste, and creates a feeling of fullness in the stomach. 

Because mucilage absorbs so much water, it is beneficial as both a laxative (the bulking effect stimulates intestinal movement) and, in small doses, combating diarrhea (by absorbing excess water in the colon). 

As a matter of fact, the most widely-accepted and popular over-the-counter fiber supplements are made of psyllium husks: the seed husks from close relatives of our extremely common Plantain plants- Plantago psyllium and Plantago ovata.

Why is oatmeal so soothing to skin and added to baths for dry itchy skin? Mucilage! So we're not talking about a woo-woo secret cure that Big Pharma doesn't want you to know about. Demulcent plants are widely accepted in both holistic and mainstream medicine.

Their mainsteam applications, however, have been much more limited than they could be. For example, they are wildly underutilized when it comes to GI tract irritations like heartburn, stomach ulcers, IBS, and the like. Some of our most over-used pharmaceuticals could potentially be reduced by implementing plants like marshmallow Althaea officinalis instead.

Additionally, it's unclear how- but several plants are thought to have a demulcent effect on organs that they don’t even come into direct contact with...

Physically coating a sore throat with a demulcent herb by drinking it is an obvious choice, but some plants we work with can even have a demulcent effect on the bladder and urinary tract- soothing UTIs even though the mucilage has already been broken down by the time it is absorbed and reaches the kidneys. 

We're not entirely sure how these herbs do this- perhaps it is a different chemical constituent other than mucilage that provides the soothing effect to these organs. But we do know that these herbs can have effects system-wide, not just at the point of contact.

How to work with demulcent herbs

Mucilage is extracted in cold water only. Boiling destroys it, and it is not soluble in alcohol. Because of this, we will mainly see demulcent plants used topically as poultices and compresses for topical use, or as cold infusions for internal use. 

To make a cold infusion of a demulcent herb: steep 1-3 tablespoons per cup of room temperature water for 30 minutes up to 4 hours. Strain, then use the liquid. (More herb and more time will lead to a thicker infusion)

So, which plants have demulcent actions? 

The following list includes some of our more common demulcent herbs. Please keep in mind: they do have other actions in the body aside from being demulcent! So always thoroughly study a plant's entire profile, including safety, contraindications, and environmental impact, before deciding which will be the best fit for your specific situation.

Herbs marked with a * are ones we profile in detail in Rootcraft online herbal programs.

*Marshmallow root & leaf Althaea officinalis

*Comfrey root & leaf (externally only) Symphytum officinale

*Plantain leaf Plantago spp.

*Mullein leaf Verbascum thapsis

*Licorice root Glycyrrhiza glabra

*Corn Silk Zea mays

*Violet Viola odorata

*Oats Avena sativa

Slippery elm Ulmus rubra

Flax Linum usitatissimum

Linden Tilia platyphyllos 

Parsley Petroselinum crispum

Aloe Aloe vera

If you're interested in incorporating soothing demulcent herbs into your life, allow me to offer two ways I can help:

  1. If you don't quite have the time, desire, or confidence to make your own preparations: I'm sending out demulcents in my After Sun Mist and Soothing Bug Spray this June along with lots of other seasonal herbal goodies in my Seasonal Herbal Coven Subscription (the deadline to join for Summer's box is June 1st)

  2. If you are a DIYer and love blending science with traditional knowledge, you can learn about a dozen other categories of herbs like alteratives in my Herbal Actions program or many of my other herbal programs! We focus on demulcents throughout our April lessons in the 10-month Seasonal Herbal Intensive. You can reserve your spot for next year here

Sending you all warm, soothing wishes as Spring gets into full swing!



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