What Is It?
Well before the first European settlers arrived in North America, Native American tribes had discovered that by scraping away the rough outer bark of the majestic slippery elm tree (Ulmus rubra), they could uncover a remarkable healing substance in the inner bark. They beat the bark into a powder and added water to create a “slippery” concoction ideal for soothing toothaches, healing scrapes, and dispelling constipation.
Later, surgeons in the American Revolution turned to this wilderness remedy to treat gunshot wounds. During the same period, a wholesome and nutritious broth made from the bark was fed to infants and older people.
Long recognized by health authorities in the United States as an effective medicine, slippery elm bark presently has the approval of the Food and Drug Administration as a nonprescription demulcent (soothing agent) that can be taken internally.
Various sources refer to this classic North American herb as American elm, Indian elm, moose elm, red elm, and sweet elm. Don’t get confused by the names: Just make sure any product that you purchase actually contains the pale inner bark of Ulmus rubra Muhl (once also known as Ulmus fulva Michx).
The popularity of slippery elm bark has endured, no doubt, because it works so well for coating and soothing irritated or inflamed mucous membranes. This is the work of an ingredient in the inner bark called mucilage, a gummy, gel-like substance that when ingested forms a protective layer along the throat, digestive tract, and other areas. Astringent compounds in the herb called tannins help tighten and constrict the tissue.
For the same reasons, salves and ointments containing slippery elm have long been popular for coating well-cleaned minor wounds and burns to protect them from further injury.
Specifically, slippery elm may help to:
Soothe a cough, sore throat, and bronchitis. Slippery elm throat lozenges are particularly effective for easing a cough and soothing a sore throat, coating the area and reducing irritation. Warm slippery elm bark tea works for cough and sore throat too, as does a liquid extract. And for the pain of acute bronchitis, there may be no more soothing balm than several cups of slippery elm tea to lubricate and protect raw and irritated airways.
Ease gastrointestinal symptoms of conditions such as Crohn’s disease. Slippery elm’s soothing mucilage effect is also used for disorders of the gastrointestinal tract. It is part of the herbal combination called “Robert’s Formula,” which is widely prized by naturopathic physicians for such intestinal inflammations as gastritis, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. Even the discomforts of heartburn or an ulcer may respond to this old-time home remedy.
Acute: Drink two or three cups of slippery elm tea a day. To prepare the tea, add 1 tablespoon of dried herb or 1 tablespoon of liquid extract to a cup (8 ounces) of hot (not boiling) water.
Chronic: Use the doses above during flare-ups; otherwise drink the tea as desired.
Drink three cups of slippery elm tea a day. Alternatively, drink one cup of a slippery elm-containing herbal cough tea up to three times a day, as needed. Or suck on a slippery elm lozenge every two or three hours, as needed.
For sore throat:
As a tea, use 1 tablespoon of dried herb for each 8-ounce cup of hot (not boiling) water. Alternatively, mix 1 tablespoon of liquid extract in 8 ounces of hot water. Drink up to three cups daily. Or suck on a slippery elm lozenge every two or three hours, as desired.
For Crohn’s disease and other gastrointestinal upset: Use 1 tablespoon of liquid extract diluted in 8 ounces of hot (not boiling) water OR take 2 capsules of Robert’s Formula (which contains slippery elm) four times a day.
Guidelines for Use
Slippery elm throat lozenges are easy to find at health-food stores and very effective for soothing a sore throat or cough.
Always clean a minor wound or abrasion thoroughly before applying slippery elm ointment, salve, or any other substance to the area.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with slippery elm.
Possible Side Effects
Some people develop an allergic rash when slippery elm is applied to the skin; stop using (externally and internally) if this happens.
Aside from the risk of an allergic skin reaction, there are no side effects associated with the use of slippery elm at commonly recommended dosages.
Slippery elm is considered a safe herb when taken at commonly recommended dosages. However, because of unknown health risks associated with using the whole bark, make sure to buy products that only contain the inner bark.
The risks of using slippery elm preparations during pregnancy or while breast-feeding are unknown.
Acute: Drink 2 or 3 cups tea a day. Or add 1/2-1 tsp. liquid extract to a 1 cup (8 ounces) of hot water.
Chronic: Use doses above during flare-ups; otherwise as desired.
Cough Add 1 tsp. liquid extract to 1 cup (8 oz.) hot water 3 times a day. Alternatively, drink 1 cup slippery elm tea (or a slippery elm-containing herbal cough tea) up to 3 times a day as needed.
Crohn’s Disease As a tea: Pour 8 ounces hot water over 1 tbsp. of dried herb; drink up to 3 times a day.
Sore Throat As a tea, 1 tbsp. dried herb per 8 oz. cup of hot water. Alternatively, mix 1 tbsp. liquid extract in 8 oz. of hot water. Drink up to 3 cups daily.