Native plants help support our local ecosystem and restore the natural landscape. But did you know that they can also be used to support the health of our gut ecosystem? In an upcoming herbal remedies series, herbalist Sue Bara will share her experiences with restoring gut balance and the herbal bitter recipes she uses.
In the first of three classes, students will learn about the appropriate uses of native and naturalized plants and herbs that support digestion. Keep reading to hear what Sue has to say about the most common symptoms of an unhealthy gut and misconceptions about natural remedies. Then join us on November 15 to learn all about gut related herbal remedies.
Mt. Cuba Center: This class is the first in a series about herbal remedies. Can you tell us what “gut health” refers to and common ailments affiliated with a healthy or unhealthy gut?
Sue Bara: I think of gut health as starting with everything I put in my mouth, which will either fuel me or challenge me. The ability to digest, absorb nutrients, and get rid of waste products (food waste and normal waste products of body metabolism) impacts our overall health. A healthy gut lining, beneficial bacteria, adequate digestive juices, organs that work together, and a properly functioning enteric nervous system are all key components. An imbalance in any of those areas can affect our health in a myriad of ways, and in some ways that might not even seem related to our gut.
Evidence of a healthy gut can include feeling energized after eating, having regular bowel movements, healthy skin, good sleep, clear thinking, and a general sense of well-being with the energy to function every day. Signs of gut dysfunction can include fatigue, abdominal bloating, acid reflux, constipation, diarrhea, intestinal pain and cramping, headaches, food sensitivities, and skin problems like chronic acne, eczema, or psoriasis. Depression and anxiety have also been linked to gut imbalance, along with chronic joint pain not associated with injury.
Fortunately, gut dysfunction can often be addressed with the help of qualified practitioners who can identify nutritional deficiencies, food sensitivities, and lifestyle changes needed to support our health.
Mt. Cuba Center: What is an herbalist?
Sue Bara: The American Herbalist Guild sums it up quite nicely: “Herbalists are people who dedicate their lives to working with medicinal plants…While herbalists are quite varied, the common love and respect for life, especially the relationship between plants and humans, unites them.”
Many herbalists began as children with a deep interest in plants and nature or had a relative who taught them to garden and use folk medicine. Some people turned to herbs to heal themselves of ailments that couldn’t be helped by orthodox medicine and continued their studies to help others. There are many options available for learning — formal and informal, in-person and online, ranging from hobbyist to clinician to farmer.
Mt. Cuba Center: How does this class relate to Mt. Cuba’s focus on native plants?
Sue Bara: What grows around us is often the best wellness support we can find, especially when it comes to plants. They’re subject to the same environmental pressures we are, breathing the same air, drinking the same water, and bound to the same soil. Plants respond physically and chemically to their environment to survive, and those adaptations also serve the animals and other organisms that use the plants.
In class, we’ll discuss some local native and naturalized plants that can help support our gut health. We’ll also review how the health of the local ecosystem affects our personal health, including our gut microbiome.
Mt. Cuba Center: What’s a common misconception about natural remedies?
Sue Bara: Two misconceptions come to mind that I think are important. First, the concept that something “natural” is harmless. This isn’t true. Natural remedies can be extremely supportive of our well-being. They can also interact with medications, or dosage needs to be directed by a qualified practitioner, or allergies can be a serious concern. Labels can be deceiving, as products marked as “natural” may not be totally composed of natural materials.
The second misconception is that natural remedies can be directly substituted for allopathic treatments. First, it’s vitally important that we don’t cease medications or treatments without supervision by our doctors. If we do choose natural remedies, it helps to understand that remedies from complex organisms like plants will not behave like synthesized drugs do — one size does not fit all, and they do not have the compulsory effect that drugs do. Drugs can act an ultimatum to the body; herbs offer an invitation to change.
Plant-based remedies are what I refer to as living medicine and are best used with a holistic mindset of supporting the body’s natural processes. When the right plant remedies are matched to the right person, wellness has a place to take root.
Mt. Cuba Center: This class offers recipes and a list of helpful herbal bitters for students. What is a recipe or herb that you use most often in your own life and why?
Sue Bara: I’m most passionate about supporting the body in two main ways – the nervous system and gut, so I use daily formulas that include adaptogens (help our body adapt to stress), nervines (nervous system support), and promote gut health.
American Ginseng is a wonderful native adaptogen, but it’s endangered due to overharvesting, so I’m careful with its use, and typically choose Schisandra, Tulsi, or Eleuthero. My favorite nervines are hawthorn, skullcap, rose, linden, and lavender. For gut support, I use herbal bitters before meals, like dandelion, angelica, or gentian. I often include liver and lymph support, favoring red root (Ceanothus), violet leaf, red clover, calendula, or Oregon grape. Calendula is probably my most-used herb, inside and out.
Register today for this informational health and wellness class on November 15!