If Cold and Flu Season Is Wrecking Your Life, Slippery Elm Might Be Just the Herb for You

Photo: Getty Images / Lara Belova
Even though spring is apparently upon us (buh-bye, Daylight Saving Time), we all are still stuck with an especially clingy cold and flu season this year. And if you're dealing with a sore throat or cough that just won't quit, here's one remedy besides tea and honey that you might not have considered: slippery elm.

“Slippery elm, an oldie-but-goodie herbal remedy, is derived from the Ulmus rubra or Ulmus fulva tree, which is grown in many parts of the world, including North America, says Aumatma Shah, ND, a naturopathic doctor.  "The medicinal part of this tree is the inner bark."

That inner bark has a gummy texture and was used by Native Americans to make healing salves for wounds and infections, adds Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., the founder of Ancient Nutrition and author of KETO DIET. “Some tribes also found that when the bark was used [in] tea, it helped to relieve sore throats and acted as a natural laxative,” he says.

Today, the “slippery” inner bark of the tree is dried and powdered, and it’s offered in many forms as a source of natural medicine. While a cursory image search shows you something that basically just looks like a pile of sawdust (not necessarily promising), here are some slippery elm benefits that make it worth trying.

1. It can help soothe a sore throat

Don’t let that nasty cough linger for too long. “Herbal teas, lozenges, and tinctures for soothing coughs are often made with slippery elm because of its demulcent effects. This means that the herb turns into a gel-like substance that coats the throat and eases irritation and coughing,” says Dr. Axe.

Slippery elm can help provide cooling and moisture to the body, adds Shah, so it can be an important remedy for any inflammatory condition. “To support the lungs, you may consider using this remedy when you have a harsh dry unproductive cough, bronchitis, croup, or laryngitis,” she says.

2. It may settle your stomach if you have digestive issues

Slippery elm works as a mucilage, acting as a thick, glue-like substance that coats your throat and digestive tract that can help with digestive issues. “It causes mucous secretions, and helps to reduce inflammation and irritation associated with gastrointestinal issues [like] hyperacidity and ulcerative colitis,” says Dr. Axe. Some small studies have found that slippery elm even can have an antioxidant effect on people with inflammatory bowel conditions, although more research (with larger sample sizes) is needed.

Research also shows that slippery elm has prebiotic effects, which further support gut health by feeding your body's good bacteria, promoting its health and growth.

3. It may help clear your skin

You know how everything is connected to your gut? Dr. Axe says that because of slippery elm's gut boosting benefits, it might also help with inflammatory skin conditions like psoriasis (which is associated with leaky gut syndrome). In fact, a very small study published in the journal Alternative Medicine Review found that when patients with mild to severe psoriasis drank slippery elm bark water and saffron tea daily (along with a healthy diet consisting of seafood, fruits and vegetables, fiber supplements, and olive oil) symptoms improved over a six-month period. A lot more research (ideally a clinical trial with lots more test subjects) needs to be done for anything to be conclusive, but it's a promising start.

Slippery elm also has other potential skin benefits beyond psoriasis management. “Traditionally, slippery elm was used to promote wound healing and soothe burns. When applied topically, its gel-like consistency works as an emollient that soothes the skin,” Dr. Axe says. Slippery elm also has anti-inflammatory properties and contains antioxidants, both of which boost skin health, he adds.

Any side effects?

Slippery elm is generally safe and has very little toxicity, says Dr. Shah. But there are some caveats to this rule—which is why, as with all herbs, it should be taken under the supervision of your doctor, herbalist, or trusted practitioner.

Yes, slippery elm can be great during cold season, but Dr. Shah says it should not be used for wet, productive coughs as it can aggravate the symptoms. She also doesn't recommend it for someone who is suffering from excess dampness (like bloating or yeast infections, per traditional Chinese medicine) because it is a damp herb. Steer clear if you are pregnant or breastfeeding unless otherwise advised by your health care provider, as it may not be safe.

Slippery elm might also interfere with other medications. “Because it coats the digestive tract, it may slow down the absorption of other herbs or medications,” says Dr. Axe. (Again, this is why it's key to consult with your doctor or another qualified specialist before popping slippery elm.)

How to use slippery elm

Slippery elm can be found in many (many) forms, including tea, powders, lozenges, tablets, capsules, poultice, and extracts. And you can also find the extract of it in cosmetics like lotions, shampoos, soaps, and face creams. Which makes that trip to the supplement aisle pretty overwhelming.

In general, Dr. Axe likes to add about one tablespoon of slippery elm powder to hot water or tea (with a little honey, cacao, or cinnamon to help with the flavor). Dr. Shah similarly uses the powder, but has a different recipe: “Put about one to two tablespoons of powder or bark in about 32 oz of room temperature water. Cover overnight and strain in the morning. Then, sip it over the course of your day.” She also says she recommends capsules for people who are having digestive issues.

So if you've run out of cough drops, or your honey-laden herbal tea is just not cutting it, consider slippery elm to be another potentially helpful tool to have in your cold-and-flu-fighting arsenal.

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