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Sweet flag has been used as a medicine for thousands of years — but does that make it an effective and safe treatment for gastrointestinal ailments such as ulcers, indigestion, and flatulence?

Suffering from indigestion? Got trouble with excessive flatulence? Struggling with a stomach ulcer? You may just worry that allopathic medicine is going to give you additional issues that you don't currently have, or just prefer using natural remedies wherever possible. In your search for natural remedies, you may wonder whether Acorus calamus (sweet flag) could help you out. This plant has been used as a medicine since ancient times and is still popular in certain circles [1], after all — and depending on where you live, you may be able to buy its essential oil or rhizome extract over the counter, or the plant may even grow somewhere near you. 

What do you need to know before you decide to try to cure your gastrointestinal ailments with sweet flag?

Has Acorus Calamus Actually Been Proven To Work For Gastrointestinal Ailments?

Acorus calamus has traditionally been used for numerous different ailments, ranging from colic in babies to depression and even tumors. In modern times, scientific studies have confirmed at least 10 uses for Acorus calamus (sweet flag). Certain gastrointestinal problems are among the medical issues sweet flag can help soothe or cure, as loosely backed up by scientific research:

  • Diarrhea. [2]
  • Stomach ulcers — one study found that sweet flag is associated with a "reduction in the volume and acidity of basal gastric secretions and ulcer index and helped to protect against chemically induced lesions". [3]
  • Flatulence. [4]
  • Indigestion can have numerous causes, ranging from ulcers to gastroparesis caused by diabetes and from GERD to stomach cancer. We do know that sweet flag offers some natural antibiotic activity and protects against ulcers [3], so the remedy may reduce your symptoms depending in the cause of your indigestion. 
  • While practitioners of traditional medicine do use Acorus calamus to attempt to manage Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) [5], it is not clear how effective this is. 

Those who would like to use sweet flag as a remedy for gastrointestinal issues would use either its essential oil or rhizome extract, or alternatively chew on its rootstock. They would ideally do so under the watchful eye of a qualified practitioner of an alternative medicine discipline such as Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese Medicine. 

Acorus Calamus: Is It Safe?

That's the big question. Every medicine comes with potential side effects, dangers, and contraindications (conditions under which you're not safely able to use it), and natural medications are no different. In the case of Acorus calamus, there are, in fact, serious safety concerns. The Food and Drug Administration has banned the use of sweet flag in the United States due to concerns that the plant's active component, beta-asarone, is carcinogenic in large quantities. [6] This conclusion, alongside studies that confirm sweet flag's carcinogenic potential [7], should lead anyone with safe alternatives to seriously question their intention to use Acorus calamus as a medicine. Did we mention that sweet flag may even be a hallucinogenic drug? Well, we did now, and there's that to consider, too. 

Alternative Natural Remedies For Gastrointestinal Issues

So, let's say you live in a developed country and wanted to use Acorus calamus for your gastrointestinal issues simply because you prefer natural or alternative medicine — rather than, say, living in rural Bangladesh wanting to take sweet flag simply because your doctor prescribed it. You have safer alternatives, in this case:

  • Diarrhea has many possible causes, but increasing your intake of water is always one of the most important things to do. Probiotics can also come to your rescue. [8]
  • People with stomach ulcers should eat diets rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. They should eat smaller meals more frequently while staying away from the same foods to avoid if you suffer acid reflux
  • Flatulence-sufferers may try to stay away from gas-inducing foods like beans and cabbage, while also looking into possible food allergies or other causes of their excessive farting. 

Sometimes, looking at positive lifestyle changes and things to avoid works better than taking any medicine — natural or otherwise. On other occasions, however, it is simply best to seek medical attention. Anyone who believes they may be suffering from ulcers, GERD, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or other gastrointestinal ailments should see a doctor for a proper diagnosis before all else, if they are at all able to do so. Treatments do, after all, differ depending on the cause of your problem. Anyone with semi-chronic gastrointestinal problems who sees a natural cure in sweet flag isn't just exposing themselves to the potential carcinogenic effects of beta-asarone, but may also be missing out on the kind of treatment they could only get after going through an adequate diagnostic process. 

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