The term "demulcent" refers to a group of soothing herbs used for medicinal purposes. The word is derived from the Latin word demulcere meaning "to caress." These herbs are commonly used to expedite healing and recovery time and are especially beneficial when employed to treat open wounds. By stimulating immune system response and enhancing the moisture of the entire body, demulcents have potent and recognizable effects.
Demulcents are herbs that contain distinctive mucilage that provides a cooling and hydrating coating that works to reduce inflammation. Demulcent herbs typically are recognized by their gooey and slippery innards. When the herbs are used externally on the skin, they are referred to as emollients. Certain symptoms might call for treatment with either demulcent or emollient herbs, because they mostly benefit areas of the body with soft tissue construction, such as the lungs and skin. Demulcents also are useful for treating conditions that affect the kidneys and the urinary tract and for treating cases of interstitial cystitis.
Further benefits of demulcent herbs include reduction of general irritation in the bowel and sensitivity to gastric juices in the digestive system. This property helps prevent and alleviate colic and diarrhea. These herbs also can be used to regulate painful muscle spasms in the uterus and the bronchial tubes and to soothe any inflammation present in the sinuses, chest and throat.
Three of the most popular demulcents are slippery elm, comfrey and marshmallow. Slippery elm bark is a demulcent that has a very high nutritional content. It has been used as a food paste to help encourage convalescence from any digestive disorders. Comfrey is valued for its use as a demulcent to treat gastric ulcers, colitis and hernias. Marshmallow has a mucilage content of 25 to 35 percent, which contributes to its effectiveness when used as a demulcent to alleviate inflammation of mucus membranes.
Water-based preparations such as teas and body sprays generally are the preferred methods used to employ demulcent herbs because of their inherent moisture and slippery consistency. Poultices and compresses also can be used but generally make a larger mess. Demulcents should be avoided when attempting to treat cases involving excessive mucus or when there is any unwanted fluid or pus, because the hydration delivered by the demulcents will only worsen these conditions.