The word demulcent originated from the Latin words “de,” which means “of,” and “mulceo,” meaning to touch gently or lightly, to stroke; to make pleasant or sweet; to soften, soothe, alleviate, relieve.
Demulcent herbs contain slimy, slippery compounds that are called mucilage. Mucilage is a complex type of polysaccharides ( long chains of sugar molecules) with moistening, lubricating, cooling, and soothing action on tissue.
Demulcent herbs should be differentiated from Emollient herbs, which are herbs that soften hardness. While demulcent herbs work internally, emollient herbs are used topically.
Another interesting factor with mucilaginous polysaccharides is that they are large compounds that cannot physically cross the gut wall. In the digestive tract, the mucilage comes in direct contact with the tissue of the digestive system, but when it comes to the effect of demulcents on other systems, it is a more complicated story.
When you take a demulcent and feel it moisten your lungs, it’s not like those compounds are crossing the gut wall, traveling through the bloodstream, and binding to some receptor in the respiratory system to increase the mucosal membrane secretions.
Demulcent herbs are a stellar example of a reflex action of an herb, meaning that the body is reacting to the presence of the plant- there is communication between the plant and the vital force of the body that is triggering the demulcent action upon the mucosa.
The areas of the body where moisture is essential are all the areas lined by mucous membranes. You might have The most direct experience with the mucus in the nose and mouth. A dry nose and/or dry mouth are very unpleasant experiences.
The mucus membranes cover all the surfaces of the tissues that are in contact with the outside world:
- Respiratory system
- Urinary tract
- Digestive system
- Vaginal canal in the female reproductive system.
- The eyes and ears
Because the tissue in the above systems is exposed to the world, they need a protective layer.
The mucus fulfills its role as part of the immune system in two ways:
- Mechanically trapping pathogens, dust particles, and other foreign objects in the gooey stuff and expelling them from the body through coughing, sneezing, or swallowing it (it will then leave your body when you poop).
- Chemically mucus contains immune cells that can break down the cell walls of bacteria. The mucus also contains immune cells that are called IgA. Those cells prevent bacteria from docking on your body cells.
When we consider the pattern of dryness, it’s important to consider the importance of fluids within the organism. The body’s fluids are not only responsible for maintaining the lubrication of the tissues but are also the vehicle through which nutrients, metabolic waste products, and substances, in general, are carried throughout the organism. When we see constitutional dryness, it’s important to consider that the cells are less able to receive their nutrients and that metabolic waste products are more difficult for the body to detoxify.
This pattern can ultimately lead to wasting, deterioration, and atrophy of the tissues, as well as a potential for accumulating cellular waste products.
While it’s common to think of the body’s moisture content solely achieved through water, it’s important to remember that the other primary fluid nourishing the organism is oils. It’s common for many people in the modern world to be water dehydrated, but most are also oil dehydrated. This typically occurs through poor nutrition and inadequate intake of appropriate dietary fats and oils. It’s common knowledge now that unnatural and processed oils create havoc on the internal ecology of the system by promoting systemic inflammation. This heat and inflammation further dry out the body, leading to a vicious cycle at the root of many common degenerative diseases afflicting the modern Western world.
The research found that an environment of dryness increases the chances of respiratory infection by 80% in a nursing home for older adults.
Your mucus membranes are your first line of defense, so you want to cultivate healthy mucus membranes by:
- Drinking plenty of water and tea.
- Avoiding drinks and foods that are dehydrating, such as coffee
- Using a humidifier in your room
- Using demulcent herbs
Another area of the body where demulcent herbs are beneficial is the joints. The synovial fluid is designed to keep the joints lubricated. Dried joints are stiff.
Demulcent herbs are moistening, lubricating, and cooling.
The fluids in the body play an important role in balancing the fire element in the body. When the body is dry, the fire is not kept in check, and warm conditions such as inflammation can develop.
Generally, demulcent herbs are associated with the moon and water element.
Most herbs that have a demulcent action will taste sweet to some extent. It’s important to remember that in the modern world, our definition of the sweet taste is on the extreme, as it is based on the flavor of refined sugar, honey, and other really sweet substances. From a traditional perspective, the sweet flavor is the taste of carbohydrates- it is relatively bland and neutral. In Ayurveda, they say that the sweet taste helps nourish and build tissues and strengthen the organism as a whole.
Some demulcent herbs that I use in my products and practice are marshmallow, plantain, violet and solemn seal.