Slippery Elm: The Gut-Healing Food That Functional Docs Love—But Most People Have Never Heard Of
Slippery elm, an herbal remedy from the inner bark of the elm tree, has been used in North America for centuries. Formally known as Ulmus rubra (or fulva), its name stems from the fact that the bark consists of mucilage, which, when mixed with water, creates a slick, mucus-y-like substance.
Today, slippery elm is used to treat a variety of ailments from healing digestive distress, to soothing stress and anxiety, to treating symptoms of psoriasis. It is not only a potent source of antioxidants but also contains a host of minerals, such as magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, as well as vitamin C and a family of B vitamins, to name a few. This herb packs a powerful medicinal punch! Here's what you need to know about slippery elm's benefits, side effects, how to buy it, and its safety record.
Benefits of slippery elm.
Slippery elm comes in many forms, and can be found online, or at your local health food store or natural market. It is typically sold as a powder, capsule, tea, or tincture. The way you use depends on your treatment needs, but the most common way to consume slippery elm is either as a supplement or tea.
Helps with constipation and digestion.
Slippery elm has been shown to relieve symptoms of digestive issues across the board, from heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), to irritable bowel diseases, such as Crohn's, ulcerative colitis, IBS, and diverticulitis.
Specifically, slippery elm is a demulcent, meaning it has the capacity to coat mucus membranes in the esophagus1, stomach, and intestines. This not only helps to move things along but also works to calm inflammation and irritation in the digestive tract. In one study, when IBS sufferers were given a mixture containing slippery elm, they experienced a reduction in the severity of symptoms2 like diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, and bloating. Another study attributes the herb's ability to soothe IBS symptoms to its high antioxidant content3.
Helps soothe a sore throat.
Slippery elm can also be used for upper respiratory issues like cough, sore throat, laryngitis, and tonsillitis4. The demulcent effect works the same way it does in the digestive tract: The mucilage coats the throat, which calms irritation while antioxidants fight inflammation. If you are struggling with a sore throat, or needing to soothe other symptoms of the common cold, there are teas and lozenges on the market that can help.
Helps with bladder health.
Slippery elm is sometimes used as an alternative treatment for urinary tract and bladder infections. While more evidence is needed to support this claim, the demulcent effect of the mucilage, when taken orally through tea or tincture, could calm the irritation and inflammation brought on by bladder infection and UTIs.
Helps with stress and anxiety.
Given that our mental health is largely tied to our digestive system, it is no surprise that slippery elm's gut-healing effects can help to reduce anxiety and relieve stress. Additionally, slippery elm contains plant phenolic compounds, which studies have shown support both physical and mental health5, and can even naturally protect against stress6.
Helps with symptoms of psoriasis.
One study found that when participants consumed slippery elm water with a real food, nutrient-dense dietary regimen, the severity of their psoriasis symptoms improved7. There currently is no cure for psoriasis, and therefore it is a skin disorder that must be managed. While the cause of psoriasis is still unknown8, research concludes that a disruption in immune function plays a role9. Since elm bark contains immune-protective properties10, this has positive implications for treatment. It seems as if drinking slippery elm tea or water could be beneficial; however, more research is needed to confirm the correlation.
Could potentially help in breast cancer treatment.
Slippery elm has become a part of a popular herbal remedy for breast cancer patients. Essiac11, which combines slippery elm with a blend of burdock root, Indian rhubarb, and sheep sorrel, is often administered to women with breast cancer to help improve their symptoms. One study reports numerous women felt the beneficial effects of Essiac12, which research shows contains antioxidant and anti-cancer activity11.
Does slippery elm have any side effects?
While there are no reported serious side effects, more research is needed to explore the efficacy and safety of slippery elm, given that there is still unsubstantiated evidence to support its use. Before adding this herb to your diet or natural remedy regimen, there are a couple other points to consider.
Since slippery elm gels coat the lining of the digestive tract when ingested, the mucilage could prevent the absorption of other medications. Furthermore, slippery elm has been said to potentially trigger pregnancy loss and complications, so it is not recommended to consume while pregnant. If you have any health concerns, speak to a health care professional to help determine if slippery elm is right for you.
Slippery elm homemade recipes.
Gut-Healing Pumpkin Pudding
- 1 15-ounce can pure pumpkin puree
- 1 can full-fat coconut milk
- 2 to 3 tablespoons coconut nectar, honey, or maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
- 1 inch grated ginger
- 2 tablespoons slippery elm powder
- 2 tablespoons gelatin, dissolved in ¼ cup boiling water
- In a high-speed blender, add coconut milk, pumpkin, liquid sweetener, vanilla, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, and ginger. Blend for about 10 seconds until creamy. Add slippery elm powder and blend again.
- Prepare the gelatin. In a small bowl, add gelatin and boiling water. Stir vigorously with a fork until completely dissolved (if you end up with some chunks, that's OK). Add to blender. Process again.
- Pour into bowls or Mason jars. Allow to set in the fridge for at least 6 to 8 hours or preferably overnight.
If you want to get creative in the kitchen, you can also make your own lozenge! This recipe contains slippery elm in powder form, as well as Manuka honey, which comes with its own sore-throat-soothing powers.tni
Two-Ingredient Soothing Slippery Elm Lozenges
- 2 tablespoons slippery elm powder
- 2 tablespoons Manuka honey
- Place the Manuka honey in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to chill.
- Roll a teaspoon of the honey in the slippery elm powder to form a little ball.
- Transfer to a plate and continue until all honey is used. Allow the lozenges to harden in the freezer. Store in the freezer as well.
Sara McGlothlin is a certified holistic nutrition and wellness coach based in Richmond, Virginia. She graduated from the University of Virginia with a B.A. in economics, and received her master's in elementary education from Mary Baldwin College. Her practice is inspired by her passion for educating others on how to live healthier lives. McGlothlin primarily focuses on areas such as weight loss, emotional eating, food intolerances, digestive issues, and increasing feelings of energy and overall well-being. She is also an instructor at barReVA, a local barre studio in Richmond.