Slippery Elm: Benefits, Uses, and History

Once found on the battlefields of North America, slippery elm can now be purchased over the counter in many pharmacies. However, its healing properties are hardly a new discovery. Native Americans had long known that slippery elm could make an effective medication.

From the outside, the rough and hard bark of the slippery elm may not seem particularly interesting. However, once this is stripped away, the inner bark at the heart of the healing properties of slippery elm is revealed. At times used as an expectorant, demulcent, emollient, food source, and even an aid to baseball players, it’s primary use nowadays is soothing the stomach or the throat.

Found widely available in pharmacies and health stores, the potential healing properties of slippery elm are well known. Less well known: the future of the tree itself. The process of acquiring the inner bark often kills the elm, leading to a risk for the population. This guide will tell you how slippery elm can benefit the body, and how we can use it safely.

What is slippery elm?

A member of the elm family, slippery elm is found across North America, growing along riverbanks, in moist uplands, and across rich forests. Not the tallest of the elms, it can grow from around 40 feet to 80 feet (although it rarely grows higher than 60).

While the name may have you imagining a tree that’s smooth to the touch, slippery elm has a rough bark. The name refers instead to the inner bark. When this pliable bark gets wet, it releases a slippery mucus. This effect was discovered by Native Americans, who introduced the plant, as well as it’s benefits, to settlers. 

The slippery mucus is the reason that slippery bark is so useful for medicinal purposes. The soothing properties of the mucilage can be put to use both inside and outside the human body. Thought to help with sore throats and sore stomachs, slippery elm is a popular herbal treatment.

Slippery elm has played a surprisingly major part in the formation of America as we know it today. Once a valuable food source, it followed Americans onto everything from the battlefield to the baseball pitch. Unfortunately, unsustainable harvesting has meant the future of the slippery elm may be uncertain. 

What are the benefits of slippery elm?

The name slippery elm comes from the slippery feel of the inner bark of the tree when wet. This is the primary reason for the tree’s medicinal usage, as this lubrication has a surprising number of benefits. What it contains is known as a mucilage, and there are several ways this can benefit the human body.

Digestive disorders and inflammatory bowel diseases can potentially be treated by slippery elm. Slippery elm is a demulcent, which means that it forms a soothing layer over membranes. Within the stomach lining and intestines, this reduces the irritation that often leads to these uncomfortable disorders.

Some believe that slippery elm can form almost a barrier to the intestinal lining, alleviating painful symptoms. The mucilage is a polysaccharide which doesn’t break down easily, for a strong and durable treatment.

There are limited studies to support these findings, and research is ongoing. There is some evidence that slippery elm can relieve constipation, but further tests are needed to be sure.

Slippery elm may also have properties that are beneficial when treating issues such as heartburn, and other types of acid reflux. Alongside the mucilage produced, slippery elm has been shown to stimulate nerve endings that lead to an increased mucous secretion. This protects the lining from the harsh acids that cause pain and discomfort.

The usage of this mucilage isn’t just limited to the stomach, and another primary benefit of slippery elm is in relieving the symptoms of sore throats and coughs. The hardworking mucilage barrier not only protects the intestines, it can also soothe the throat. Slippery elm has been found in commercial cough drops since the 1840s. The mucilage content makes slippery elm an antitussive: something used to suppress and relieve coughs.

This mucilage quality may have another benefit: treating urinary tract infections (UTIs). The same soothing effect that slippery elm has on the throat may help to ease the pain of an inflamed urinary tract. Slippery elm is a mild diuretic, which can also ease UTIs as it increases the flow of waste leaving the body.

Slippery elm has long been used to treat wounds and injuries, and some believe it can be beneficial for other skin conditions. The gel-like mucilage can soothe inflamed skin when applied topically. While this isn’t the most common benefit, it does speak to the long history of slippery elm. 

The medicinal benefits of slippery elm comes from the combination of mucilage and antioxidants. Together they work to soothe and protect, both inside and outside the skin.

What are the uses of slippery elm?

Slippery elm is primarily used to treat stomach pains and sore throats. It has a long history of medicinal usage, due to the mucilage it produces.

Slippery elm has been a popular ingredient for use in lozenges. Used to soothe a sore throat, the mucilage of the slippery elm forms a protective layer. This can suppress coughs and relieve pain. Slippery elm is also found pressed into tablets or capsules. 

Slippery elm can also be ground into a powder. A fine powder is perfect for mixing into drinks and can be mixed into tea. Taken this way, it can be especially soothing for both a sore throat and a painful stomach. 

However, slippery elm is also available in a coarser powder. Rather than being consumed, this is used to make a gel poultice, which is applied topically. While this has traditionally been used for war wounds, some choose it as a natural way to relieve cuts and other inflammations.

Slippery elm isn’t always used on its own, and is often combined with other herbs when treating coughs. Marshmallow root or licorice, combined with slippery elm, is considered by some to be an effective method of relieving irritating coughs.

Another use for slippery elm is in cosmetics. Thayers have been using slippery elm in their lip balm for many years now, but it’s proving popular in both skin and hair care. The soothing properties that have been long observed are considered to have a positive effect in beauty products.

Whichever form you choose, always consult the label for dosage. The strength and concentration of slippery elm varies from product to product. To be sure you’re doing what’s best for your body, consult the label before using.

As well as being beneficial for humans, slippery elm may be an effective treatment for different animals. Dogs in particular have been shown to respond positively to slippery elm.

The usage is incredibly similar, with some owners employing slippery elm as a natural method to treat a dog’s stomach problems. It can also be used on minor skin conditions, or small scratches. Slippery elm has been shown to be safe for canine use, but always be careful and speak to a vat.

Slippery elm used to play a role in childbirth, although this is no longer an accepted usage. Native Americans believed the mucilage of the bark may induce childbirth and even ease the process. Unfortunately, the process used sometimes involved inserting the bark, which is dangerous, even life-threatening.

Slippery elm has also been seen as an abortion aid, but this is incredibly unsafe. The use of slippery elm for abortion and childbirth is hazardous, and should be avoided by everyone.

Slippery elm has proven to have many useful qualities outside medicinal usage. The inner bark produces a fiber that can be spun to create a strong and durable rope. The interlocking grain of the wood gives it shock-resisting properties, and was used in creating the hubs for wagon wheels. While the timber was never used in great quantities, it has had varying value throughout the years. 

Potential side effects of slippery elm

While there are no recorded side effects for human consumption of slippery elm, there is one potential area of concern: environmental. In order to access the healing inner wood of slippery elm, the outer bark needs to be stripped back. This can kill the tree completely. 

Slippery elm has also been a victim of Dutch elm disease, although it is less susceptible than other species of elm. Once this disease gets hold, it can decimate entire forests of elm.

If purchasing slippery elm, always look for a sustainable source. Slippery elm can be cultivated, and there are efforts to ensure that for every slippery elm felled, a new one is planted.

One thing to be aware of before using slippery elm is that it produces mucilage, which can reduce how well the body absorbs medicines. You should aim to take slippery elm several hours before using other medications. Speak to a doctor before using slippery elm.

What is the history of slippery elm?

Slippery elm has long been growing across North America, where it was utilized extensively by the Native Americans. The inner bark would be carried in packs, and used when necessary to treat wounds, injuries, ulcers, stomach problems, and coughs (among others). It has long been observed that when wet, slippery elm could be used to make a gel-like substance that treated inflammation.

When European colonizers first came to America, they were introduced to the slippery Elm by the native population. They also incorporated it into their medicine packs.

Perhaps one of the most famous uses for slippery elm was the role it played during the Revolutionary war. Ground down, slippery elm inner bark can be used to create a surprisingly nutritious food source. While it may look and taste similar to gruel, it has the same health benefits as oatmeal. Although no one would wish to live off it, slippery elm had been a valuable food source to Native Americans during times when food was scarce.

European colonizers were told of this benefit, and also turned to slippery elm as a food source when necessary. And that time of necessity often came. For George Washington, stuck at Valley Forge for a bitter winter during the Revolutionary war, slippery elm provided sustenance over twelve days for him and his men. Modern America could be a very different place if it wasn’t for slippery elm.

This isn’t the only role slippery elm had to play in the forming of America. Native Americans had long discovered that slippery elm could be used to treat wounds. Ground up and dried, when the powder of slippery elm is mixed with water it forms a sort of gum.

This can be gently pressed into the wound, where it expands. When the gum is washed away, it removes the infection with it, and leaves a thin mucilage coating to act as protection. During the bloody battles of the Revolutionary war, slippery elm was used to heal the wounded. 

Slippery elm played both a literal and figurative supporting role in the forming of modern day America. It’s said that the yoke of the liberty bell is made from the wood of the slippery elm!

It has a surprising role in another major American tradition: baseball. To create a good curve to the ball, baseball pitchers used to use spit. This would weight the ball in one direction, causing it to move unusually. It also allowed the ball to slip from the hand quickly, reducing spin. Baseball players would chew on slippery elm bark, producing extra saliva, which was then spat on to the ball. Spitball is now illegal, and slippery elm has lost its place in the game.

Slippery elm can still be found across America, even if it’s no longer as necessary for food or healing gunshot wounds. Unfortunately, it is in some danger as little thought has been given towards sustainability. If you intend to purchase slippery elm, always check that it’s from a sustainable source, and isn’t wild-harvested.