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Winter Is Here & It's Time To Steal This Functional Doc's Recipe For Natural Cough Drops

William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C.
December 15, 2018
William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C.
Functional Medicine Practitioner
By William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C.
Functional Medicine Practitioner
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine practitioner with a certification in natural medicine and a doctor of chiropractic degree.
Image by T-REX & Flower / Stocksy
December 15, 2018

Nature has provided us with powerful plant medicines for eons, and there's plenty of information out there about which herbs to take for what. But Dr. Google can be fickle, and it's often difficult to know exactly how a certain natural medicine can work for you. After years of using natural remedies in my functional medicine practice, I have developed an arsenal of a few go-to's that I call on for patients again and again. Slippery elm is one of them.

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Slippery what?

Scientifically known as Ulmus rubra but more commonly referred to as red elm, this native North American tree lives up to 200 years and can be found growing from northern Florida westward to eastern Texas and up to southeast North Dakota. The tree thrives in environments with moist soil and can clock in at up to 50 feet in height. The most distinctive feature of this tree is its "slippery"—hence the name—gummy textured inner bark that has a sweet, almost maple-like smell. This is the part of the tree that is dried and powdered for use in teas and natural supplements. Due to its medicinal abilities, slippery elm bark is the fourth most harvested product in the herbal market.

It's estimated that Native Americans started using the tree as a remedy in the 19th century—likely to help with digestion. What makes slippery elm a standout in this arena is a substance it contains known as mucilage. When mixed with water, the mucilage forms a thick gel-like consistency that coats the throat and digestive system. This makes it a perfect remedy for chronic gastrointestinal health problems such as leaky gut syndrome, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, and irritable bowel syndrome, as well as colds that cause a sore throat. Slippery elm is also abundant in bioflavonoids, starch, tannins, calcium, and vitamin E.

While slippery elm is most commonly used for these health problems, many studies have proved its ability to help a wide variety of seemingly unrelated ailments. More studies need to be done to really prove its long-term effectiveness in these areas, but many people's personal experience—mine included!—using the supplement really speaks volumes.

The health benefits of slippery elm.


It can help soothe respiratory problems.

Thanks to its mucilage content that soothes and coats the throat, slippery elm is a widely used ingredient in cough drops meant to relieve sore throats. Slippery elm is also used as an antitussive to stop coughs and reduce symptoms of laryngitis, asthma, and other upper respiratory problems.

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It eases digestive issues.

As I mentioned earlier, slippery elm is a known demulcent due to its mucilage content and ability to reduce inflammation in the gut. It can also ease symptoms of digestive problems like IBS and stimulate nerve endings in the gastrointestinal tract to increase mucus secretion.

Plus, since it's high in both soluble and insoluble fiber, slippery elm is also considered a prebiotic and producer of beneficial short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). In other words, it can help support a healthy microbiome—and we all know how important that is. Its high-fiber content is also what makes slippery elm a great natural laxative. So, if you're going to add this to your wellness routine and aren't dealing with constipation, keep it in moderation!


It can be used topically to help reduce symptoms of psoriasis.

A preliminary study has shown that supplementing with slippery elm can improve the appearance of psoriasis. In one small-scale investigation, a group of researchers followed five people with psoriasis over a six-month period and asked them to clean up their diets and drink slippery elm bark water on a daily basis. Each patient showed significant improvement in their symptoms afterward.

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It might help you de-stress.

Various plants1, including slippery elm, contain phenolic compounds that help protect against the effects of stress. Research has shown that by adding slippery elm and other herbs containing high levels of these phenolics is a great way to relieve both stress and anxiety.


It can help those who suffer from acid reflux and GERD.

Heartburn and the more serious condition called GERD happen when stomach acid creeps back up into the esophagus irritating the lining and creating an uncomfortable burning sensation. The mucilage of slippery elm is able to coat the esophagus and ease the symptoms of this reaction, especially when taken right after meals.

Dried slippery elm
Image by Hakat / iStock
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It has been used as a natural remedy against breast cancer.

Since the 1920s, slippery elm has been one of the most popular natural remedies for fighting breast cancer and easing symptoms of treatment—such as depression, anxiety, and fatigue—when used in combination with the herbs Indian rhubarb, sheep sorrel, and burdock root. This is likely due to its immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory abilities2.


It can soothe surface wounds.

Due to its high mineral and antioxidant content, slippery elm has long been used in salves and other topical remedies for treating burns and other wounds. In fact, its dried mucilage can act like a bandage, providing an added protection for wounds. Its high antioxidant count can also work to stop free radical damage3 and fight wrinkles and other signs of aging skin.3

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It is a natural detoxifier.

In addition to having a laxative effect, slippery elm acts as a mild diuretic and can help flush out excess toxins from the body. In fact, slippery elm is a common ingredient in many natural liver detox products.


It regulates blood sugar.

Close to 50 percent4 of Americans are either prediabetic or diabetic, making blood sugar a serious problem in our society. High blood sugar can contribute to everything from chronic inflammation, weight loss resistance, hormone imbalances, and more.4 High-fiber diets have been shown to help keep blood sugar levels under control, and slippery elm touts a high fiber content.

Overall, slippery elm is generally safe for most individuals. However, because of how mucilage coats the digestive tract, it can possibly decrease the absorption of medications. If you are on any medications, it's important to discuss whether you should take slippery elm and when you should take it. You may need to make sure to allow time between taking slippery elm and other medications just to be safe. Also, if you have highly sensitive skin, you'll want to use caution when applying slippery elm topically.

My favorite ways to use slippery elm as a functional medicine practitioner.

You can find slippery elm in most natural food stores in the form of tea, lozenges, powder, tablets, and supplements. When looking to purchase slippery elm of any kind, it's important to choose organic whenever possible to avoid toxins and the contributing effect they can have on various health problems, especially autoimmune conditions. You should also avoid purchasing any supplement, tea, or other product with unnecessary additives.

I personally like slippery elm tea as it's easy to sip throughout my day with patients. As we move into cold and flu season, I also use slippery elm cough drops that I make myself to avoid additives. These are my favorite go-to recipes.

Slippery Elm Tea


  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon slippery elm powder
  • Manuka honey to taste


  1. Boil water in a kettle over the stove.
  2. Remove and pour into a mug.
  3. Stir in slippery elm powder and honey. Manuka honey is one of the most nutrient-dense varieties of honey and will really give your immune system a boost, especially if you are trying to overcome a virus.

Slippery Elm Cough Drops


  • 1½ cups of water
  • 1 handful dried slippery elm
  • Manuka honey to taste


  1. Place dried slippery elm in a fine mesh bag.
  2. In a large pot over the stove add in water and bring to a boil over high heat.
  3. Turn off stove, add in mesh bag, cover, and let steep for 20 to 30 minutes.
  4. Remove mesh bag, add in honey, and turn stove on to medium. Heat until it reaches 300°F.
  5. Remove from stove and pour into small cough-drop-size candy molds and let cool. 
  6. Remove from molds and store in a sealed container in pantry for up to one week. Hopefully you won't need them for longer than that!
William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C.
William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C.

Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian,The Inflammation Spectrum, and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.

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