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5 Best Chinese Herbs for Intestinal Inflammation & IBD

A collection of Chinese herbs

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have participated in the grand universal trial of medicinal plants. In a process spanning the eons, we’ve cultivated herbal remedies, refined our methodology, and built the foundations of what would become modern medicine. 

That’s not to say that we’ve surpassed the need for traditional medicine. In some cases, herbal compounds can do what pharmaceutical drugs cannot, as they exert a wider range of beneficial mechanisms. These compounds don’t just target symptoms, they naturally boost the body’s own ability to heal itself, stabilize hormones, boost immune strength and restore homeostasis to the entire system. 

Much of the world relies on herbal practices to this day, largely Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine. Chinese medical texts first emerged around the 3rd millennium CBE and were further formalized during the Han dynasty, some 2000 years ago. But its oral tradition stretches back beyond the grasp of recorded history.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TMC) emphasizes the flow and balance of Qi (force or energy) through the channels of the body. Disease is a result of blocked channels, stagnant Qi, and imbalance. TCM combines acupuncture, moxibustion, massage, movement, and natural medicine. 

Acupuncture and moxibustion were recently validated through clinical studies for their therapeutic benefits to patients with Crohn’s disease. And with the current demand for natural treatments for chronic illness, researchers have embarked on a thorough investigation of herbal remedies for IBD.  As it turns out, herbal remedies can offer substantial benefits to those with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

Here are the top 5 herbs for intestinal inflammation: 

1. Boswellia serrata 

Boswellia serrata illustration from Medical Botany (1836) by John Stephenson and James Morss Churchill.

Boswellia serrata is an aromatic herb with a fascinating history. You may be familiar with its other name, frankincense. For over 5000 years, this woodsy, sweet-smelling herb was valued as highly as gold and ivory. The ancients used Boswellia resin to produce incense, balm, medicine, and, according to records, psychoactive substances. 

The medicinal properties of Boswellia first appear in 1500 BC, in the Ebers papyrus. Celsus, of the 2nd century CE, describes frankincense as a treatment for wounds and a potential antidote to hemlock. A few centuries later, the Babylonian Talmud tells of its administration to prisoners sentenced to death to numb their senses ‘so they should not feel sorry’.  

By the 11th century CE, Boswellia was widely known for its anti-inflammatory properties. It is still used today in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to treat inflammatory conditions, including Crohn’s disease. According to TMC, Boswellia treats blood stagnation and can benefit Crohn’s patients who suffer from fixed, localized abdominal pain, inflammation in a restricted area, and extra-intestinal manifestations like arthritis. 

Boswellia exerts potent anti-inflammatory and pro-apoptotic activity. It contains two active compounds, incensole acetate and its non-acetylated form, incesole. The two compounds inhibit NF-κB activity and IκBα degradation, which play a large role in immune and inflammatory response. 

One study found Boswellia to be a useful supportive treatment for IBD. This was confirmed in a further study in which 20 patients with chronic colitis were treated with Boswellia gum resin. 18 of the participants showed improvements, and 14 went into complete remission. A later survey of trials on herbal remedies for CD and UC found Boswellia to be as effective as mesalazine. 

2. Andrographis Paniculata  

Andrographis

Andrographis paniculata (chuan xin lian) is a staple of Chinese and ayurvedic medicine. Known as the “Indian echinacea”, the bitter herb is a natural immune-booster packed with compounds that have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-viral properties. And in leaf juice form, it’s considered an alterative, meaning a plant that gradually restores healthy body functions. 

This versatile herbal remedy has been traditionally used for a wide range of ailments, from colds and flues to gastrointestinal conditions and dysentery. Today, both Ayurvedic and TMC practitioners use the herb to treat colitis, relieve stomach distress, and to reduce stomach spasms. This has prompted no small amount of interest from the scientific community. 

One study tested Andrographis extract for mild-to-moderate ulcerative colitis. Out of the 120 patients included, 76% experienced either remission, partial remission or improvement in symptoms. Researchers concluded that Andrographis may be considered an alternative treatment for UC, with similar efficacy to mesalazine

Another multi-center study in 2013 treated UC patients who were not responding to mesalazine therapy with Adrophraphis extract. The trial showed that Andrographis is more effective than placebo in mucosal healing in mild-to-moderate active UC. And, in a systematic review of 21 trials on herbal remedies for IBD, Andrographis was found to be superior to placebo in inducing remission or response. 

3. Berberine  

Berberine

Berberine truly is the golden child of herbal remedies at the moment, garnering attention as a potential natural antibiotic to protect against diseases that have developed a resistance to pharmaceutical antibiotics. The natural alkaloid is extracted from the roots and stems of goldenseal, goldenthread, and yellow root, all related to the buttercup family. 

The medicinal properties of berberine were first reported in China some 5000 years ago, entering the Traditional Chinese medical canon as an antibacterial agent. It has since been a staple of TMC, Ayurveda, and Native American healing, utilized for fighting infections, inflammation, and fevers. In Chinese Medicine, berberine benefits damp-heat syndrome, marked by mucus and dysentery. 

Berberine can be especially beneficial for patients with Crohn’s and Colitis, as it helps heal and support intestinal barrier function. Studies have also confirmed that berberine has potent anti-inflammatory properties, with the ability to both inhibit proinflammatory cytokines and boost the concentration of anti-inflammatory cytokines. 

Berberine could also support IBD patients through its effect on the gut microbiome, as the plant exerts antibacterial action that appears to clear harmful bacteria from the gut, simultaneously supporting the growth of healthy bacteria. By balancing the microbiome and fortifying the intestinal gut barrier, berberine appears to be a helpful herbal remedy for intestinal inflammation.

4. Ashwagandha  

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an annual evergreen shrub of the nightshade family. The name comes from the Sanskrit phrase for ‘horse smell’, indicating not only the distinct scent of the plant, but the medicinal effects believed to give one the strength and vitality of a horse. 

Ashwagandha has been a favorite Ayurvedic treatment for thousands of years, used to relieve pain, inflammation, and insomnia, and to enhance nutrition. Today, it is commonly used to treat IBS symptoms and gastrointestinal hemorrhage. Traditional Chinese Medicine also uses Ashwagandha to treat stress, heart agitation, liver stagnation, and to tonify ‘blood and essence’. 

The herb is an adaptogen, meaning it boosts the body’s own natural resilience to stress. Commonly used for stress relief, it can benefit IBD patients greatly as stress is often a trigger for flare-ups. Ashwagandha is also known to ease fatigue and depression, which may offer great comfort to patients. 

Researchers believe that Ashwagandha activates GABA receptors in the brain to help calm the nervous system, and many studies show the herb causes a reduction of cortisol levels in human participants with anxiety or GAD. 

But aside from Ashwagandha’s potent anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) and anti-depressant effects, the herb has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-bacterial properties that may be especially beneficial to patients with IBD. In fact, researchers believe ashwagandha’s powerful anti-inflammatory activities may prevent chronic illness, as long-term inflammation is linked to heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and bowel disease.

5. Curcumin 

curcumin

Curcumin is perhaps one of the most exciting herbal compounds in terms of its potential to induce and maintain long-term remission for IBD. The compound is an extract of turmeric (Jiang Huang), commonly known for its lovely yellow pigment in dyes. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, curcumin has long been used to ‘invigorate the blood and stimulate the flow of qi (or blood flow). The herb enhances circulation and has been used to treat acute pain caused by blood stagnation. 

But it’s the potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities of curcumin that’s prompted a slew of research on its potential benefits to those with Crohn’s or colitis. Curcumin is especially beneficial for intestinal inflammation due to its wide range of anti-inflammatory mechanisms, whereas pharmaceutical treatment for IBD only exerts a narrow, single-target anti-inflammatory action. 

Curcumin is an inhibitor of NF-kB signaling pathways, which researchers believe may be one of the main drivers of immune dysregulation that causes extreme and chronic inflammation in IBD. Curcumin has produced excellent results in clinical trials. One study on UC patients showed that the add-on use of curcumin with standard drug therapies helps maintain remission longer than pharmaceutical treatment alone. 

These results were repeated across several trials, proving that curcumin can significantly raise the chance of sustaining remission long-term. A trial in Israel focused on the initial induction of remission in patients with UC, with exceptional results. Curcumin was found to induce remission within 4 weeks in patients who had not previously responded to standard drug therapies. 

There’s also substantial evidence that curcumin can benefit those with Crohn’s disease. A meta-analysis reviewed the literature and trials on curcumin for CD, and found a significant increase in clinical and endoscopic remission in patients who added curcumin to their treatment. 

All in all, herbal treatments can offer a wide range of benefits to those with intestinal inflammation, but it’s important to confer with your doctor, physician, or nutritionist in terms of dosage and herbal combinations. 

author

Tessa Eskin

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