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General characteristics

General characteristics

The oesophagus, or gullet, is the passageway leading from the throat down the centre of the chest, through the diaphragm and into the stomach. It sits directly behind the trachea, or windpipe, as it is more commonly known. Its function is to convey the passage of food and liquids in wave-like muscular contractions from the mouth into the stomach in order for digestion to continue. It is a flexible muscular tube around 8-10 inches long with ring-like muscular sphincters at either end and is lined with mucous secreting cells that help to lubricate and facilitate the movement of its contents. It even has its own diverse population of bacteria as in other parts of the digestive system.

The upper sphincter can be controlled consciously and relaxes when we swallow to allow foods and liquids to pass down it and into the stomach. The lower sphincter is involuntary (not under conscious control) and is predominantly a one way valve that allows food stuffs into the stomach whilst preventing the passage of corrosive stomach acid and contents back into the oesophagus. During actions such as belching or vomiting, both sphincters relax and open to allow gases or vomit out of the stomach.

Problems with the oesophagus can arise from a wide variety of causes, most common perhaps being from the corrosive action of stomach contents on its delicate lining due to a hiatus hernia or impairment of the lower sphincter with its common symptom of 'heartburn'. The presence of stomach acids in the oesophagus can induce structural changes of oesophageal lining cells (such as in Barrett's Disease) that are associated with the development of oesophageal cancer. Other problems include stricture or tightening of the sphincter/s which causes obstruction in the free flow of contents; poor diet and eating habits (too many spicy/greasy foods in those susceptible or eating too fast or when stressed); spasm of the muscles of the oesophagus which can cause pain in the heart region of the chest and interfere with the normal movement of contents; inflammation of the oesophageal lining (due to infection, allergy, ingesting hot fluids, physical injury, acid, medications etc); varices (congested veins) in the lower oesophagus due to poor liver circulation; difficulty in swallowing (as a result of injury, tumour, stricture, anaemia or faulty nerve function); genetic malformation of the oesophagus.

Oesophagitis is inflammation of the lining of the oesophagus which, as mentioned, can have a wide variety of causes which need to be determined in order for proper healing of the condition to occur. Simply eradicating the inflammation without understanding the cause of it may, in the long term, do more harm then good. Many herbs, foods and natural remedies can soothe and protect the delicate oesophageal lining whilst healing takes place however.

Oesphageal spasm can also occur in response to an injury, infection or emotional tension. A spasm is a sudden contraction of the nerves so can be alleviated with antispasmodic herbs though, again, it is best to determine and treat the cause of the spasm alongside any symptomatic treatment.

Diet and lifestyle

Diet and lifestyle

Base your diet around a wide variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds and nuts.

Foods rich in vitamin E and other antioxidants have been shown to lessen the damage caused by stray stomach acids. Vitamin E rich foods include wheatgerm and whole grains, nuts and seeds (rich in plant oils), dark leafy greens and brightly coloured fruit and veg.

Avoid processed and junk foods including refined carbohydrates wherever possible.

Include plenty of oily fish such as mackerel, kippers, salmon, tuna and trout to benefit from their anti-inflammatory oils.

Eat enough plant based fibre, such as from apples and other fruit and veg. A low fibre diet has been suggested as one possible cause of oesophegeal strictures.

Avoid consuming foods and drinks that are hot in temperature, allow them to cool to avoid further damage.

Don't eat meals after about 6pm and chew all food thoroughly.

Useful herbs

Useful herbs

The relaxing and antispasmodic herbs such as crampbark, peppermint, chamomile (also anti-inflammatory), wild yam root

Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown to help with Barrett's syndrome.

Herbs that absorb water and become slimy and mucilaginous can be taken to provide soft bulk and also to ease inflammation in the oesophagus. These include marshmallow root, chamomile, slippery elm and Irish moss. Use in powder form if possible or as a strongly brewed tea. Aloe vera juice will also provide relief.

A glass of any milk to which a drop of peppermint essential oil has been added can be drunk to quickly relieve a painful spasm.

Raspberries (and pomegranates) contain substances called 'ellagitannins' which prevent the growth of abnormal cells such as cancer cells and prevent cell mutation. A cupful daily of fresh raspberries could be eaten to help prevent cancerous changes to damaged oesophageal cells and even to destroy cancerous cells.

Bitter herbs are known to increase the tone (tightness) of the lower oesophageal sphincter, especially if it is too slack. Bitters include gentian root, dandelion root, yellow dock, barberry root, holy thistle, goldenseal and wormwood.

Antispasmodic herbs such as crampbark can help relieve spasms.

Natural healing

Natural healing

Manuka honey (or any good quality wildflower honey) can be taken daily to help heal ulcers, damage or inflammation of the oesophagus.

Try sipping a teaspoon of unpasteurised cider vinegar in water after meals to help balance stomach acid levels and prevent acid reflux caused by low stomach acid levels.

For oesophageal spasms try this tried and tested technique....the very second a spasm starts get a large glass (about a pint) of cold or warm water and drink it all in one go, without pausing to take a breath, swallowing rhythmically until the last drop is finished. This stops the spasms almost instantly.

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