Native to North America, the slippery elm tree or red elm has an inner bark that can be used as a natural remedy. This is due to a substance in the bark called “mucilage,” which, when mixed with water, becomes gel-like (hence the “slippery” nomenclature). It can soothe inflammation, coat against acidity in the stomach, and promote intestinal mucus production, a boon to digestive comfort. This article details the scientific findings behind slippery elm bark, and what it can do in practical application for your health.
What Is Slippery Elm Bark?
The slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) is native to the Ontario and Quebec provinces of Canada (where it’s known as moose elm), and the central and eastern United States (as far west as Texas and as far south as northern Florida). Reddish-brown in color, the inner bark of the tree produces a slimy compound that is not only beneficial internally but also in practice to preserve meat from spoiling and to help heal and protect gunshot wounds during the American Revolutionary War. It was known as a “salve bark” as far back as 1787, though the tree is also known as Indian elm because it was used as a natural medicine for hundreds of years by Native Americans to treat sickness, fevers, and wounds.
To this day, the gel produced by slippery elm bark can help soothe those with acid reflux disease and protect certain people against developing stomach ulcers. In addition to having a positive impact on gastrointestinal inflammation, slippery elm bark can be used to treat skin ailments, bed sores, swollen glands, sore eyes, sore throats, and digestive issues like diarrhea and constipation. While research is still limited on slippery elm bark’s uses in human health, there are some promising early findings you can consider.
The Health Benefits of Slippery Elm Bark
Here is what modern science has to say about this traditional herbal remedy.
1. Soothes Inflammatory Bowel Diseases
Inflammatory bowel diseases include Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis, and more. Slippery elm bark is what’s known as a demulcent or mucoprotective compound, a substance with an anti-inflammatory ability to soothe the lining of your stomach and intestines.
This 2010 pilot study found that slippery elm included in an herbal supplement improved constipation-dominant IBS, enhancing the bowel movements of the participants. While there were other ingredients at play in that study, another from 2002 confirmed that slippery elm specifically produced an antioxidant effect in patients with Crohn’s disease, suggesting that slippery elm should be studied further in this area to reach a scientific consensus.
2. Relieves Urinary Tract Inflammation
For those who experience bouts of inflammation and irritation in their urinary tract unconnected with any infection, or for those with painful bladder syndrome (interstitial cystitis), slippery elm powder is believed to help relieve pain and other adverse symptoms. Again, this conclusion is not scientifically agreed upon as of yet due to the lack of funding available for natural remedies as opposed to pharmacological ones, but since slippery elm derivatives are natural diuretics, increasing the flow of urine through your system may also help detoxify the body and ease inflammation.
3. Calms Sore Throat and Cough
The mucilage component in slippery elm bark is a compound mixture of sugars that cannot be broken down in our digestive tracts. It can temporarily coat our throats, stomachs, and intestines, which is why it’s a common ingredient in many brands of sore throat lozenges.
Because slippery elm is understood to function as an antitussive (meaning it’s used to prevent or relieve a cough), some choose to use it in cases of asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses. This 2012 paper on slippery elm bark’s use for those with laryngitis found potential evidence of its effect on improving inflammation of the throat, though again the lack of other studies confirming these findings is an unfortunate state of affairs that’s common when it comes to holistic methods of healing.
4. Treats Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) and Heartburn
Slippery elm bark may also help treat acid reflux (aka heartburn) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD results when stomach acid chronically flows back into the esophagus, irritating and damaging the cells that line it. As an herbal medicine, slippery elm bark is thought to help coat the esophagus and guard our mucous membranes against the damage of stomach acid.
Consult with your health care provider if you wish to treat GERD with slippery elm bark as a post-meal supplementation, and read on to find out how to take slippery elm bark.
How to Use Slippery Elm Bark Powder
Now that you know what slippery elm bark is used for, here is how you can use it.
- For skin irritations: Slippery elm bark powder can be made into a poultice and applied topically.
- For digestive support: Slippery elm bark can be found in lozenge, capsule, or powder form. For relieving the throat, esophagus, and stomach lining, many people choose to consume the powdered form in a slippery elm bark tea.
How to Make Slippery Elm Bark Tea
The powered form of slippery elm bark can be mixed with hot or warm water, and many people will add honey or sugar for taste. You can add the powder to a previously prepared tea of your choice to disguise its taste, or even include it in a healthy smoothie.
The usual dosage in capsule form is 400-500 milligrams as often as 3 times per day for as many as 8 consecutive weeks, but for whatever product you choose to purchase, you’re encouraged to follow the instructions provided when it comes to dosage or to seek specific advice from a trusted medical professional.
To make a tea:
- Combine 2 tablespoons of slippery elm bark powder with 2 cups of boiling water.
- Let steep for 5 minutes.
- Add natural sweeteners for taste.
Side Effects of Slippery Elm Bark
While slippery elm bark is available for over-the-counter purchase and is considered safe and nontoxic by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), slippery elm lozenges, powders, teas, and other products are not recommended for use by pregnant or breastfeeding women due to the lack of in-depth clinical study done on humans.
Because it establishes a barrier over your stomach and intestinal lining, there is some concern that slippery elm bark might prevent the full absorption of other medications you are on, which is why those taking any prescribed medications should consult with their doctor or trusted health care professional before taking it.
Outside of those cautions, however, there have been no adverse side effects reported from the use or consumption of slippery elm bark supplements, meaning that while the science is somewhat skimpy, you could safely try this herbal remedy to evaluate its effects on your health.
Slippery as an Eel
The scientific data complied on the health effects of slippery elm bark is promising, though unfortunately sparse. Luckily what we do know about slippery elm bark is that it’s been safely used for hundreds of years for topical and internal medicinal benefits, and it is readily available to try if you’re looking for a natural way to alleviate digestive inflammation or salve irritated skin. Be your own scientist by evaluating whether the health benefits of slippery elm bark work for you!