HERBAL REMEDIES FOR DIGESTIVE HEALTH PART 1: HERBAL BITTERS
Herbs have a tremendously important role to play in promoting the health of your digestive system. When the digestive system is weak or sluggish, herbal bitters stimulate digestion and increase digestive fire. Herbs like Peppermint and Spearmint ease gas, bloating and occasional indigestion. Other herbs relieve irritation and inflammation and promote tissue health. In this three part series we’ll explore three types of herbal remedies for digestive health and the unique actions each herb helps to address:
Understanding herbal actions helps you approach your health holistically and enables you to make a more informed choice when it comes to using digestive herbs. Keep in mind that herbalism is a holistic practice. This approach includes examining how diet and lifestyle may be impacting your digestion. In addition to addressing the root cause of imbalance, we also want to look at the unique needs of the individual. Herbal remedies aren’t as effective when we take a “one size fits all” approach. For example, a commonly used herb for digestion like peppermint may help someone with gas and bloating because it is a carminative. On the other hand, it may make matters worse for a person experiencing a burning sensation in the gut because it is also an antispasmodic that may relax a weak esophageal sphincter, allowing acid to move upward from the stomach in to the esophagus.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of healthy digestion when it comes to optimal wellness and vitality. At its most basic level, your digestive system is responsible for your ability to assimilate nutrients and eliminate waste. Your digestive system also plays a key role in immunity, brain health, and emotional health.
When your digestive system is weak and lacking in the compounds responsible for the breakdown of food (like bile, digestive enzymes, and hydrochloric acid) you may experience gas, bloating, indigestion, cramps, diarrhea, or constipation. These symptoms can also be caused by overeating, poor food choices, food allergies and sensitivities, and other conditions. Other complaints may involve irritation and inflammation of the tissue that lines the walls of your digestive tract, including heartburn (GERD or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease), leaky gut syndrome, ulcerations, and auto immune-related conditions like Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis.
The good news is herbal bitters, carminatives, and demulcents help restore healthy structure and function to your digestive system.
Herbal bitters stimulate the digestive system when it is weak or sluggish. They help to ensure that your digestive tract is able to break down the food you eat so the nutrients can be absorbed. More specifically, bitters stimulate the secretion of digestive juices, including hydrochloric acid in the stomach, bile from the liver, and digestive enzymes from the pancreas. As you might’ve guessed, herbal bitters do have a bitter taste, which is often lacking in the standard American diet.
How do you know if your digestive system is weak or sluggish? The first step is listening to your body. Do you often feel full for hours after a meal? Do you experience frequent gas or bloating no matter what you eat? Do you experience discomfort or pain when you ingest fats, oils, or proteins? Do you have multiple food sensitivities? Do you suffer from constipation or diarrhea? If you answered yes to any of these questions there’s a good chance your digestive fire is weak and bitters may be a good choice for you.
Typically bitters are ingested 15-20 minutes before a meal. The bitter taste receptors on the tongue and throughout the digestive tract receive the signal that food is on its way and it’s time for the digestive organs to get to work. Because of their bitter taste, I prefer to use herbal bitters as a liquid extract rather than a tea. You might be inclined to avoid the bitter taste altogether by encapsulating your bitters, but in order to stimulate the bitter receptors on the tongue you’ve got to taste it! Or, you might be like me and actually enjoy the taste of bitters (especially when combined with some of the tasty carminative herbs!) A word of caution: because of their stimulating action, bitters are not appropriate in pregnancy. Here’s a short list of some of my favorite herbal bitters for digestive health:
Burdock Root | Arctium lappa
This dark, fleshly root is also called Gobo in Japanse cooking and it’s botanical name is Arctium lappa. Burdock root stimulates digestion and promotes liver, gall bladder, kidney, and lymphatic system function. It acts on the liver to produce more bile, which helps your body digest fats, and promotes the flow of bile from the gall bladder where bile is stored until needed. Burdock can have a mild laxative effect due to its stimulating action. Burdock is also rich in a compound called inulin, which is considered a “prebiotic,” that feeds and helps your healthy gut flora thrive. This nourishing, well-rounded bitter root is an excellent choice for chronic gas and bloating caused by weakened digestive fire. I also like it as part of a whole body cleanse and to help the gut recover from food poisoning or stomach flu. Energetically, Burdock Root is cooling, slightly sweet, and of course, bitter. Hot tempered, irritable people tend to benefit from this cooling root. Burdock can be prepared as a decoction, another name for a tea prepared by simmering the root, or taken as an herbal extract.
Dandelion Root | Taraxacum officinalis
Despite a lawn and gardening industry aimed at eradicating the lowly Dandelion, it is a nourishing plant ally with a wide range of actions that benefit the entire body. Formally known as Taraxacum officinalis, both the leaves and roots of Dandelion are used medicinally, though the root has a more pronounced effect on digestion. Like Burdock Root, Dandelion Root stimulates digestion and promotes liver, gall bladder, kidney, and lymphatic system function and it has a high inulin content. It also promotes the pancreas’ production of digestive enzymes. It combines well with Milk Thistle Seed and Turmeric Root to prevent gall stone formation. Like Burdock Root, Dandelion Root is also cooling and a good choice for anger and irritability associated with a sluggish liver. I prefer Dandelion prepared as a decoction. It has a somewhat milder, sweeter taste than Burdock Root. It can also be taken as an herbal extract, called a tincture.
Gentian | Gentiana lutea
The botanical name for this VERY bitter root is Gentiana lutea. Like all bitters, Gentian stimulates the liver and other digestive organs. In small doses before a meal it helps with sluggish digestion, promoting the secretion of gastric juices and improving nutrient absorption. I recommend using Gentian as a liquid extract. I like to combine this potent bitter with other milder bitters like Dandelion as well as carminatives with a pleasing taste. This is the herbal Mary Poppins’ version of “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
Yarrow | Achillea millefolium
This lovely, delicate flower known as Achillea millefolium is an effective bitter that acts on relaxed, atonic tissue in the digestive tract and throughout the body. Its astringent and anti-inflammatory actions also make it a good choice for inflamed, irritated tissue in the digestive tract. At the first sign of a cold or flu, Yarrow will help the body cast out the offending organism with its diaphoretic action and relieve discomfort. Energetically, it is considered cooling and drying. Yarrow makes a lovely tea prepared as an infusion and it can also be taken as a liquid extract.
There are many useful herbs for the digestive tract, including herbal bitters. Understanding their actions will help you know which ones are likely to be most helpful for you. A healthy digestive system is critical to optimal health. If you’re experiencing imbalance or discomfort in your digestive system, do not delay in seeking a solution. You’ll be glad you did. Do you have questions about using herbal bitters for digestive health? Feel free to leave me a comment below.
To your health,