Slippery Elm: A Helpful Herbal Supplement for IBS?
After I graduated college, I began to get really serious about trying to tame my IBS for good. That first summer, my IBS became an ever-present part of my daily life. I had had enough and decided to splurge on seeing an acupuncturist in my town who had a very good reputation. Whether it was partially inspired by a placebo effect or not, all I knew is my symptoms immediately improved drastically after our first visit. In addition to needling, he prescribed an herbal tincture that I had to have in a hot tea every evening. When we were discussing other things I could try to help me keep my flares under control, I mentioned past things I had tried, including slippery elm.
He asked me if the slippery elm had worked and I told him I couldn't quite tell. Sometimes it seemed to, sometimes it didn't. He told me to try it again, this time giving me more specific instructions of when to have it (about 20 minutes before eating lunch and dinner).
I started to do just that, and whether it was just a small complement to the benefits I was already receiving from acupuncture and the herbal tincture -- I definitely continued to improve over the next several months. However, when I moved after the new year to a new town across state lines, where I no longer had access to that acupuncturist and soon after ran out of my tincture, the slippery elm was not enough to keep me in the best shape. It seemed to help somewhat, but not enough on its own.
How slippery elm works
As you can probably tell by its name, slippery elm is an herb that comes from a slippery elm tree and is slippery. It works by coating the gut and soothing irritations in it, and protecting against other irritants in the foods we eat (slippery elm also is used in tea form to soothe a sore throat as well).
Interestingly, several years after I started using it, my cat developed his own IBS issues (mostly in the form of constipation), and my holistic vet told me to make a kind of liquid gruel by boiling slippery elm powder in some water and putting it in his wet food or giving him a syringe of it shortly before feeding time. It worked very well when his flares were the worst. And it came in handy yet again when my partner's cat developed a serious gut issue.
But what does the science say? Not much, mostly because it hasn't been studied much it seems.
Studies on slippery elm and IBS
One study I found that was published in 2010 analyzed the effectiveness of two types of herbal formulas -- both of which contained slippery elm, among other ingredients -- on both those with IBS-D, A, and IBS-C. It concluded that the formula didn't work well for those with diarrhea-prominent or alternating IBS, but did work quite well for those with constipation-prominent IBS.1 This aligns with my personal experience, as I tend to veer more towards IBS-D or IBS-A, and slippery elm on its own didn't work super-well for me (but combined with some other things, it helped a bit). Whereas my cat, who trended almost entirely toward constipation, did really well on slippery elm.
However, after a long hiatus, I did decide to purchase slippery elm and try to use it occasionally as I have heard it also works well for upper-GI issues as well, such as GERD -- which I also have. I have only tried it a couple of times for that issue, but it did seem to help some. I will keep trying and let you all know how it goes!
Have you tried slippery elm for your IBS? Did it help? Why or why not? Please let us know in the comments section below!
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