Betony For Digestion

Otherwise Dalechamps and Bauhin are consistent with each other in citing Musa. Concerning the organs of digestion, 4 drachms (16 g) of the leaves eaten daily for 3 days or taken in 4 cyathi (180 mL) of cooled water soothe pains of the stomach, and of the liver and intestines if taken in hot water, while in wine they heal defects of the spleen and allay inflammation of the colon. If the pain in the intestines is due not to ‘crude juices’ but to constipation, this dose taken in double the quantity of water, this time honeyed, will comfortably move the bowels. A lesser amount of herb, 3 drachms or 12 g, in goat’s milk drunk for 3 days allays the vomiting of blood. Betony taken frequently in wine treats jaundice, and generally prevents drunkenness, removes a loathing for food and corrects dyspepsia. Musa’s recommendations place much weight on the volumes of liquid in which the herb is taken and whether it is hot or cold. Dioscorides insists that the dried, powdered herb, kept in a clay pot, is the correct preparation of the herb, suggesting that the powder is simply stirred into the liquids which Musa proposes. Furthermore, Dalechamps and Bauhin emphasize how different the powers of the leaves and flowers are from those of the root: the root is unpleasant in the mouth and stomach, causing nausea, rumbling and vomiting, whereas the leaves are aromatic with a grateful, strengthening smell, and as food and medicine it is a friend of nature. Dioscorides concurs: the root of betony, drunk with honey water, provokes emesis and is employed only to void phlegm from the stomach. The Old English Herbarium, on the other hand, wants the whole of this ‘very wholesome’ herb, roots and all, to be gathered and powdered. Betony is to be plucked from the ground in August without using a tool of iron and cleaned, then dried and powdered. The Myddfai physicians are not specific, requiring simply a handful and a half of betony in warm water, or betony boiled in honey, for vomiting and sighing.

Dioscorides, perhaps drawing on Musa, also gives indications of stomach, liver and spleen problems, differentiating between water and wine as vehicles for betony in cases of liver disease and jaundice respectively. His dose for the latter is 1 holce (3.4 g), which is roughly a drachm. The same quantity in an oxymel replaces Musa’s 14 g in wine for spleen ailments, but Musa’s measure in honey water as a laxative is repeated, with only the volume of water increased to 10 cyathi (450 mL). Dioscorides includes heartburn under stomach pains. The herb promotes digestion in the dyspeptic if it is mixed into a little cooked honey. A dose the size of a bean is chewed and swallowed after food, then washed down with diluted wine for such stomach problems. Pliny’s only internal use of betony is for the stomach.

Nearly a millennium later in the Old English Herbarium, the dose of betony is expressed as the weight of two or more coins, the plant is gently decocted more often than not and there is no mention of separate internal organs save the stomach. Otherwise, the indications of stomach pains, constipation, vomiting blood, nausea, vomiting and dyspepsia, abdominal pains and as an aid to digestion are repeated. The purgative power of betony is cited also by Macer and by Serapio and the Renaissance authors as far as Culpeper before disappearing. Likewise its effects on the organs of digestion and their deficiencies are to a greater or lesser extent repeated again as far as Culpeper. In the 18th century Miller describes it as a hepatic remedy. Perhaps he has read Galen, who states that betony is somewhat bitter and sharp, conferring the power to purge and cleanse the liver and so help acid eructations. Gerard adds obstructions of the gall to the list of indications. Later Cullen, in an age of energetic remedies, is more interested in the acrid, emetic root than in the aerial parts. Betony has been lavishly praised, he says, but ‘very little virtue is found in it’. The American authors, during the Victorian revival of herbal medicines, do not report on it. Only Hool speaks up for ‘one of the best known herbs in the vegetable kingdom’ by naming it a stomachic for heartburn, stomach cramps, biliousness and colic. Grieve simply cites Gerard extensively, commenting otherwise that betonys carminative, astringent and alterative properties make it useful as a tonic in dyspepsia. It is also classed in Priest & Priest as a general tonic with stomachic action suitable for stomach pains and dyspepsia. Chevallier notes its slight bitterness by which it stimulates digestion and the liver and confers an overall tonic effect on the body. Menzies-Trull is more specific, suggesting a tonic action on stomach and intestines and as a treatment for nausea, dyspepsia, colic and, presumably following the link with tannins that Tyler made, diarrhoea, despite the old use of betony for constipation. Finally, Wood states that betony has a significant influence on the stomach and strengthens and regularizes functioning of the gastrointestinal tract by improving autonomic innervation. It is indicated in weak digestion, especially involving the gall-bladder, where wind, bloating, colic and either diarrhoea or constipation may be present.