How to Improve Sluggish Digestion with Bitter Herbs
By: Mary Ann Marsala
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “You are what you eat.” While this notion bears truth it would make sense to continue this belief with “we are also what we digest and assimilate.” Our health depends greatly on how well our digestive system functions. What this means is that if we are to gain the nutritional benefits from foods they must be properly digested, absorbed and eliminated. If our digestive system is compromised, foods will not be properly utilized; this cannot only lead to vitamin and mineral deficiency but also encourage disease.
Our digestive system extends from the mouth to the end of the alimentary canal. It consists of the gastrointestinal tract and its attached organs such as salivary glands, liver and gallbladder and the pancreas. When we digest our food there are a series of both mechanical and chemical processes that take place. The digestive juices, which occur during the propulsion of food into the digestive tract, are responsible for the chemical breakdown of food. The active compounds of these juices are primarily hydrochloric acid (HCL) and enzymes. Just as important to digestion is the elimination of metabolic waste our bodies produce. Our colon, aka the large intestine, provides temporary storage for metabolic waste as well as a site for stool formation. For a healthy colon there must be plenty of fiber in ones diet to prevent bowel obstruction and continual build up of metabolic waste.
What is usually the cause of a poorly functioning digestive system?
Much of this has to do with our current consumption of nutrient robbing foods. Since the 1950s, over 3,500 man made chemicals along with pesticides, hormones and antibiotics have made their way into our food supply. While our eating habits influence digestive disturbances, the amount of digestive juices, as well as an impairment of the intestinal walls (so that the food is not properly absorbed through the lining of the gut) is also a contributing factor. There are many ways to heal the digestive system and prevent disorder; herbal medicine being one of them.
What is herbal medicine?
It is a holistic approach to health, which utilizes plants to combat illness, promote healing and instill balance in the body. At this very moment I would like to focus on plant stimulants, such as digestive bitters, to encourage proper digestion. So what is a bitter? These are plants with a sharp pungent taste or smell. These plants are far from the sweetest experience and usually disagreeable to many. Some common bitters include Barberry, Chamomile, Gentian, White Horehound, Wormwood, Goldenseal, Dandelion Root and Yarrow to name a few. While this may sound unusual for most, we did in fact evolve eating bitters: bitter greens, roots and barks. Fast-forward to today and the bitter taste of foods is nowhere to be found, as our diets are generally sweet and salty.
“The more unpleasant the medicine, the better it is for you.”
In the case of bitters, this is definitely true. So why use bitters if they really aren’t the most palatable? This is because the taste of bitter promotes appetite and improves digestion. When a bitter taste hits our tongue, it is stimulated, and secretes digestive juices (such as enzymes and HCL) and stimulates the activities of the liver and pancreas. In this process we can begin to properly digest and assimilate the foods we eat providing a plethora of health benefits to the body. The use of bitter herbs to aid in digestion will also reduce food sensitivities, leaky gut syndrome and autoimmune reactions. Bitter herbs also act as a prebiotic fiber and improve our gut micro-biome. Bitter herbs promote healthy bowel regularity and reduce bowel restrictions such constipation. They also sooth bloating, heart burn, upset stomach and nausea, help maintain healthy glucose levels, ward off sugar cravings, prevent overeating, support liver function and increase the absorption of fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K.
Life with Bitters
The best way to get bitters back into our life is by simply eating them! Some examples of bitter greens you can find in the grocery store are collards, endive, kale, mustard greens and dandelion greens. There are also a variety of bitter supplements on the market. The best way to consume most of these bitter formulations would be as a teaspoon of herbal bitters in a small glass of water before each meal, holding the bitters on your tongue for 60 seconds. Who should avoid bitters? They are suitable for most however pregnant women or people with stomach ulcers should avoid bitter herbs.
Hoffman, David. Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies. Harper Collins Publishers, Ltd. 1983, USA.
Marieb N. Elaine. Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology, 11th edition. Pearson Education Inc., 2015.