Plants can be food and they can also have powerful medicinal properties. You want to know where to find them in nature and certain plants you want to have within easy reach for life’s emergencies. Slippery elm bark is one such plant to keep in the medicine cabinet. It comes from the inner bark of the slippery elm tree, a rather large, deciduous tree that grows throughout north America. Mucilaginous, or gummy, in nature, the bark soothes inflamed tissue and heals the internal body, especially the intestinal tract, and also works wonders as a poultice for external wounds.
I discovered this around 1987 when I awoke one morning with a flaming toothache and facing the possibility of yet another root canal. Not this time! says I, and off in search for a cure I went. My local health food store yielded up a book or two on herbs and my intuition pulled me towards the Slippery Elm. I emptied a few capsules of ground powder into a cup, stirred in four ounces of hot water and let it grow thick and gelatinous. Yeawww, I was having second thoughts; but then it didn’t smell so bad and a quick taste on the tongue found it rather pleasant, so I cut up a few squares of cotton, soaked them in the mixture and, when cool, tucked a piece between cheek and gum, changing the poultice every two hours.
Right away the pain was soothed and within a few days, the gum inflammation had subsided. By the end of the week, it had cleared up entirely. Eureka! I cried, and moved on with my life. A short time later I was contacted by a young man who was dying of AIDS. He had just come down to Florida from New York City and was looking for someone to provide him with meals based on the macrobiotic principles of cooking. I was informed that he could not chew food as his mouth was filled with cancerous lesions from Karposi Sarcoma. When we met I could see he was wasting away and any attempt to eat caused tremendous pain from the mouth sores. Remembering how the slippery elm bark had soothed my inflamed gum tissue, I made up a batch, instructing him to soak the cotton and keep as many in his mouth as possible. Right away the pain was soothed and within the week the lesions had begun to heal so that he could begin to eat solid food again. I was as amazed as everyone else and was pleased to have brought him some relief in his final weeks of life. It also taught me a valuable lesson about the power of natural medicine and set me on a course to learn more.
Over the years I have recommended slippery elm bark to clients with digestive issues. When taken internally it soothes, coats and heals inflamed tissue including the mucous membranes of the mouth, throat, stomach, bowels and kidneys. Individuals suffering from colitis, constipation, cystitis, diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome can benefit from taking it as a tea or in capsule form. The only caution herbalists include is for pregnant women not to use slippery elm bark as it may cause miscarriage. Other health conditions aided by slippery elm bark include sore throat, tonsillitis, and some swear it is the quickest remedy for controlling diarrhea. External skin conditions benefit from a poultice used to soothe diaper rash, inflamed gum, and mouth sores; although it is not recommended to use on open skin wounds.
When working with medicinal plants and herbs, be sure to check with your doctor so they do not interfere with any medications you are taking. The mucilage of slippery elm can coat the stomach and intestines, slowing down the absorption of other medications. In this case you will need to take slippery elm either two hours before or two hours after you take your meds.