In this article:
- Health Benefits of Slippery Elm
- How to Consume
- Precautions and Risks
- Most-Asked Questions About Slippery Elm
- Final Word
Slippery elm, also known as red elm or Indian elm, is a herbal remedy used by Native Americans in the regions of North America since ancient times.
A tree that grows up to 50 ft. tall, slippery elm derives its medicinal benefits from the inner layer of its bark. When mixed with water, it creates a slimy gel-like substance due to its mucilage content, which is known to soothe many conditions.
There is limited research into the efficacy and benefits of this natural medicine, but it has been used for soothing sore throats, relieving some digestive disorders, and helping with certain infections.
Slippery elm contains dietary fibers (including mucilage) such as cellulose, lignin, and other gums. It also contains some antioxidants. (1)
Health Benefits of Slippery Elm
Slippery elm offers the following health benefits.
1. Soothes sore throat
The mucilage in slippery elm is a type of carbohydrate that absorbs water and then turns thick and sticky. This property allows it to stick to the lining of the throat and other membranes, as a result reducing the symptoms of coughing during a bout of sore throat. It also provides hydration and lubrication. (2)
In a study, speech-language pathology students received 6 ounces of a warm beverage made from 3 g of slippery elm powder. The participants reported a feeling of soothing within 10 minutes of drinking. (2) More research is needed, however, to establish conclusive results.
2. Eases digestive issues
Irritable bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are similar conditions of the digestive tract.
In IBD, the muscular walls of the intestines swell up, causing the intestines to narrow and become sore. IBS, on the other hand, affects the small intestines, large intestines, and colon. Both conditions can cause diarrhea, constipation, or bloating.
Slippery elm, due to its antioxidant content and its ability to form a gel-like substance, can soothe the inflammation and soreness of the intestines. (1)
In one pilot study, patients showing some degree of IBS were fed with a mixture of slippery elm along with other ingredients. While the mix did not improve diarrhea, it improved constipation and other symptoms of IBS. This promising result warrants more research into slippery elm as a therapeutic agent for IBS and its resulting constipation. (3)
Test tube studies to assess the antioxidant capacity of slippery elm along with other herbal remedies in human cells also showed its potential in the treatment of IBD. (4)
3. Improves heartburn and acid reflux
Heartburn typically occurs when stomach acids flow back to the esophagus. This happens when the muscular flap between the stomach and food pipe relaxes at the wrong time due to weakening of the muscle.
Though slippery elm has been traditionally used for the treatment of acid reflux and heartburn, a lot of research is ongoing into its potential effect on these conditions. (5)
4. Facilitates wound healing
Native Americans have used slippery elm for wounds and as salves. Later, American soldiers used it for gunshot wounds in the absence of immediate medication.
The tannins in slippery elm possess bind to the collagen of the skin, (2) allowing for hastened wound healing along with the prevention of fluid leaking out of the wound.
Quick wound closure is crucial to prevent infections and disease.
5. Supports a healthy pregnancy
Slippery elm is also used by some women during pregnancy as a herbal remedy. In ancient times, it was given to ease childbirth. However, no current scientific reasoning stands on the exact benefit of slippery elm during pregnancy.
One study gathered data from 588 pregnant Australian women who were presented with a questionnaire about herbal supplements they took. About 88% of them reported they took slippery elm tablets, powder, or tea to ease digestive distress. (6)
6. Other benefits
Some proponents say slippery elm can treat other more serious illnesses, such as the following:
a. Upper respiratory tract infections
Pharyngitis is one of the most common types of upper respiratory tract infection. It occurs when the pharynx gets inflamed, causing difficulty swallowing, sore throat, and other symptoms. (7)
Studies have reported that supplementing with slippery elm can effectively reduce inflammatory substances within the body to ease the symptoms. (7)
Herpes (HSV) is caused by a virus and is treated with antiviral drugs. The virus causes many diseases in humans and is usually transmitted upon sexual contact.
Therapeutic compositions including slippery elm along with other ingredients have been found to provide relief from some of the symptoms including canker sores, shingles, and other skin ailments. (8)
Psoriasis is a common skin condition but is nontreatable. Medication and topical application of creams are done to manage flare-ups.
In one study, a small group of people was given slippery elm water, along with consumption of a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables and olive oil and avoidance of processed foods and red meat. All their symptoms of psoriasis improved at the end of the 6-month trial. (9)
How to Consume
Slippery elm is marketed in various forms. It is consumed as tea, powder, capsule, and lozenge. While its ideal dosage is indicated on the packaging, it is still highly advised to consult a physician before taking slippery elm or any herbal supplement.
It is important to note the lack of data, studies, and trials establishing the efficacy of slippery elm against any particular illness or disease.
Precautions and Risks
As most of the data surrounding the use of slippery elm are historical, there is a lot of apprehension around its use or potential side effects. Some reports state symptoms of nausea and vomiting upon excessive consumption.
However, the current information on the health effects of slippery elm is a promising ground for further research. It is highly recommended to consult a doctor before taking slippery elm, especially for pregnant women and people suffering from chronic illnesses.
Most-Asked Questions About Slippery Elm
What if I take in too much slippery elm?
There is no known side effect of slippery elm. However, as the thick mucilage tends to stick to the inner linings of the stomach, it may slow down the absorption of other nutrients or medications.
It is better to keep a significant gap (1–2 hours) between consumption of slippery elm and intake of other medications or food.
Who should not take slippery elm?
Slippery elm can cause allergic reactions and dermatitis when applied to the skin. If being used topically, remember to patch test first.
Pregnant women should avoid using slippery elm at the risk of miscarriages.
Can you take slippery elm every day?
There is no recommended guideline on consuming slippery elm. However, dosage instructions on the pills or capsules are usually given on the product packaging.
Slippery elm has significant historical use. The inner bark of the tree contains a long-chain carbohydrate called mucilage that becomes a thick gel-like substance upon mixing with water (or saliva).
Along with tannins and other antioxidants, this mucilage lends slippery elm its beneficial properties that are useful in conditions ranging from sore throat, acid reflux, IBS, and IBD to wounds and skin infections.
Though not a lot of studies have been done to understand the mechanism by which slippery elm exerts these benefits, research has been ongoing to understand the role and potential that herbal supplements may have in the treatment and management of these conditions.
- Edwards SE, Willaimson EM, Heinrich M. Slippery Elm. Phtyopharmacy: An Evidence-Based Guide to Herbal Medical Products (pp.360-362) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319590405/. Published February 2015.
- Slippery elm, its biochemistry, and use as a complementary and … https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265058434/. Published January 2012.
- Hawrelak JA, Myers SP. Effects of two natural medicine formulations on irritable bowel syndrome symptoms: a pilot study. J Altern Complement Med. 2010;16(10):1065-1071. doi:10.1089/acm.2009.0090.
- Langmead L, Dawson C, Hawkins C, Banna N, Loo S, Rampton DS. Antioxidant effects of herbal therapies used by patients with inflammatory bowel disease: an in vitro study. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2002;16(2):197-205. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2036.2002.01157.x.
- Ahuja A, Ahuja NK. Popular Remedies for Esophageal Symptoms: a Critical Appraisal. Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 2019;21(8):39. Published 2019 Jul 10. doi:10.1007/s11894-019-0707-4.
- Forster DA, Denning A, Wills G, Bolger M, McCarthy E. Herbal medicine use during pregnancy in a group of Australian women. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2006;6:21. Published 2006 Jun 19. doi:10.1186/1471-2393-6-21.
- Wijesundara NM, Sekhon-Loodu S, Rupasinghe HV. Phytochemical-rich medicinal plant extracts suppress bacterial antigens-induced inflammation in human tonsil epithelial cells. PeerJ. 2017;5:e3469. Published 2017 Jun 22. doi:10.7717/peerj.3469.
- Vadlapudi AD, Vadlapatla RK, Mitra AK. Update on emerging antivirals for the management of herpes simplex virus infections: a patenting perspective. Recent Pat Antiinfect Drug Discov. 2013;8(1):55-67. doi:10.2174/1574891×11308010011.
- Brown AC, Hairfield M, Richards DG, McMillin DL, Mein EA, Nelson CD. Medical nutrition therapy as a potential complementary treatment for psoriasis–five case reports. Altern Med Rev. 2004;9(3):297-307.