Every Wise Woman

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Slippery Elm: Slick and Soothing


The inner bark of the slippery elm tree (Ulmus rubra) is a mucilaginous (i.e. slimy) agent that soothes irritated mucus membranes.  Slippery elm's demulcent, coating effect is particularly suited to complaints of the respiratory and digestive systems.  Because of its soothing, softening properties, slippery elm also has a history of use in treating skin ailments.  The bark's tannins make slippery elm an effective expectorant, by combining with and helping to expel mucus from the respiratory system.

For successful treatment of irritated membranes, slippery elm must be consumed to act as a coating, rather than swallowed in capsules.  If you do ever take slippery elm capsules, be sure to consume extra water, as slippery elm bark's fibers are quite absorbent.

Highly nutritious and easy to digest, slippery elm bark is rich in calcium, niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, selenium, vitamins A and C, and fiber.

Medicinal properties:

  • mildly astringent (constricting or binding effect)
  • anti-inflammatory
  • antitussive (inhibits cough reflex)
  • demulcent (soothes damaged or inflamed surfaces)
  • digestive (aids digestion, primarily by providing enzymes)
  • emollient (softens inflamed tissue, protects skin)
  • expectorant (encourages loosening and removal of phlegm from respiratory tract)
  • mucilant (soft, slippery complex carbohydrate molecules that protect mucus membranes and inflamed tissues)
  • nutritive
  • vulnerary (assists in healing wounds by protecting against infection and stimulating cell growth)

Ailments helped by Slippery Elm:

  • ulcers
  • sore throat
  • coughs
  • any mild or severe GI distress (including bowel irregularities): colitis, IBS, indigestion, etc.
  • skin ailments/injuries
  • wounds

Brigitte Mars, in her Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine, writes:

"Slippery elm bark is very nutritive. ... Slippery elm is very easy to digest, and so it is especially beneficial for people who can't keep any other food down... It can help nourish those who are wasting away, failing to thrive, and losing weight.  It can be added to baby food as a nutritive... It also is popular in lozenges designed to treat sore throat and coughs. 

"This herb moistens, clears heat, neutralizes overly acidic conditions, and provides nourishment.  It soothes and heals any part of the body it comes in contact with and is used to treat inflammation of the bladder, bowel, kidneys, lungs, and stomach."

In Nutritional Herbology, Mark Pedersen tells us:

"The demulcent, emollient and wound healing properties of slippery elm are due to its mucilage content.  The mucilage is viscous fiber that lowers the bowel transit time, absorbs toxins from the bowel, regulates intestinal flora and soothes the lining of the digestive tract.  The demulcent effects are also active when the herb is used externally as a poultice or in an ointment."


Inner bark fibersSlippery elm can be made into a paste or ointment for external use, and can be taken internally as gruel, drink, lozenge or encapsulated.  Capsules are least effective because they hinder slippery elm's necessary coating abilities; I do not recommend them.  I commonly use slippery elm as either a drink or lozenges.  I won't lie to you...there can be an "ick" factor with drinking slippery elm, but it isn't so terrible.  And the healing benefits make the "slimy drink" worthwhile.  

Because of slippery elm's mucilaginous properties, the herb will not dissolve well in liquid, but rather swells.  The herb is difficult to make into a hot tea.  It is possible to make a cold decoction of slippery elm, but drinking it straight is easier.  I simply stir the powder into cold water and swallow (tiny chunks and all).  I find this to be a less slimy option for consumption.  You can make a thick drink with slippery elm by first creating a thin paste (add the powder to cold water and stir well), and then stirring in a hot tonic (or water).  The drink can be flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon, etc.  Experiment and see what works best for you.

You can also make an edible paste by mixing equal amounts slippery elm bark powder and cool water.  A friend of mine mixes 1 Tb. powder with 1 Tb. water, forms the paste and eats it in a few bites.  The effect is less slimy than the drink.

My children's favorite way to take slippery elm is as lozenges.  These are more like mini dried biscuits than suckers, but they get the job done and eliminate the slippery elm slime factor.  The recipe is below; the combination of herbs makes the lozenges a more potent cough remedy.

Purchasing note:  Slippery elm is a species at-risk, so please purchase from a reputable seller who uses sustainable harvesting techniques.  Good quality dried slippery elm bark should be light tan in color, not brownish, which would indicate inclusion of the outer bark.  The outer bark is much higher in tannins and crude fibers, which can be irritating.  I purchase my slippery elm bark powder (and other bulk herbs) from Mountain Rose Herbs.

How to Make Slippery Elm Lozenges

SE lozenges.jpg

In 1/2 cup filtered water, place 1 Tb. licorice root slices, 1 tsp. cut fresh ginger root, and broken pieces from 1/2 cinnamon stick.  Simmer for 10 minutes, strain.  

Put 1 Tb. raw honey in a 1/4 cup.  Fill the remainder of the cup with your licorice tea.

Put 1/2 cup slippery elm bark powder into a mixing bowl.  Drizzle the tea/honey mixture over the powder and stir to mix.  You will need to "knead" the mixture to make a dough.

Sprinkle a bit of slippery elm bark powder onto your counter and flatten/roll your dough until about 1/4" thick.  Using a small bottle cap (I use the cap from my Bragg's apple cider vinegar bottle), cut out small round "biscuits."

Place the lozenges on a plate and allow them to dry for a few hours until at desired consistency.  You can take these while still doughy, as a bite-sized biscuit, or allow them to dry harder.  Either way, they should be sucked, not immediately chewed and swallowed.  Allow your saliva to break down the slippery elm and create the demulcent properties before swallowing.  Chew a bit, suck a bit...the goal is to experience the coating effect.

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