Alternative Approaches: Bitter Herbs For Healthy Digestion - and More!
Bitter Herbs For Healthy Digestion - and More!
by Mary Ann Copson, a Certified Licensed Nutritionist and a Wellness and Life Coach
Herbal Bitters are a diverse group of chemicals compounds that share the common characteristic of a bitter taste. Herbal Bitters can be used to strengthen and improve the whole digestive system in the body as well as the nervous system.
Bitters also act to increase the vital energy centers in the body. Because they have such a broad effect on the entire physiology, tone, and function of the body bitters are a principle that can be used to treat the body as a whole. The beneficial effects of herbal bitters go beyond digestive hormone activity. Bitter stimulation can often shift a condition or illness that does not appear to have anything to do with the digestive process. The bitter principal acts to increase self-healing and resistance in many ways.
But They Taste So Bitter!
To be effective herbal bitters must be tasted on the taste buds of the tongue where they stimulate the bitter taste buds and thus increase salivation. This stimulates the gastric reflex to cause digestive juices to be secreted. There is increased flow of digestive juices from the pancreas, duodenum, and liver that results in better assimilation of nutrients and less undigested food being passed through the digestive tract. This is of benefit to problems that have their basis in inefficient or allergy distorted digestion.
The Various Roles of Bitters
Herbal bitters act to increase or stabilize the appetite. In conditions of convalescence and where there is an unhealthy reduction of appetite bitters appear to stimulate the appetite. Bitters do not seem to increase appetite in a digestively healthy person, rather a more healthful balance in the appetite develops. The body acquires more taste for healthy foods and less taste for unhealthy foods.
When bitters activate the gastric secretion of hydrochloric acid and other digestive enzymes, the nerve tone of the muscles of the entire digestive tract improves. Blood circulation improves and the body can assimilate foods, absorb nutrients, and eliminate wastes more efficiently. In a broader way, this improvement in blood circulation affects the healthy activity of the heart and circulation in general.
Cleansing and Detoxification
Bitters stimulate the liver to do a more effective cleansing and detoxifying job and prompt the gallbladder to make bile. The production of bile helps metabolize fats and keeps elimination moving smoothly. Bitters also produce a diuretic and hepatic effect in the body. This has value when working with any condition that has origins in a sluggish or overworked liver.
Stabilizing Blood Sugar
Bitters produce a regulatory effect on the secretion of the pancreas of the hormones that regulate blood sugar, insulin, and glucagon. This can be of benefit in stabilizing insulin levels and modulating blood sugar swings. Diabetics should be careful when taking bitters because bitters may upset their blood sugar balance.
Bitters can also be supportive in reducing stress and anxiety and regenerating the nervous system. When bitters work to strengthen digestion, this activates the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system and induces a more relaxed state in the body. Bitters can be useful with those who are overextended and stressed out. Bitters produce subtle, beneficial psychological effects. In some cases, they can produce a marked antidepressant effect and a "generally tonic effect upon consciousness."
Increasing Immune Responses
Some bitter herbs such as Gentian can modulate the gut associated immune responses. In some therapeutic circles, bitters are indicated for treatment of those recovering from infectious diseases including viral conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome. Some clinical tests have shown that bitters can balance levels of SIgA antibodies and reduce or eliminate symptoms in those with inflammatory bowel disease. Bitters may help repair gut wall damage through stimulating self-repair mechanisms.
Who Should Use Bitters?
Bitters are indicated when there is digestive weakness. Digestive weakness is often associated with an infectious disease that depletes the vital energy of the body. Digestive weakness and decreased vitality both reduce the assimilation of nutrients and the elimination of wastes resulting in a spiraling effect of depletion in the body. Stress can deplete vital energy which disrupts digestion and this further decreases the body's vital energy.
Bitters can also be useful for those who have an over reliance on mental energy that can result in physical exhaustion.
Bitters are indicated for use in:
* Poor fat digestion
* Poor protein digestion
* Weakness due to chronic illness especially with a bacterial or viral infection
* Loss of energy and vitality
* Painful digestion
* Intestinal cramps
* Excessive gas
* Irritable bowel syndrome
* Poor appetite
* Excessive craving for sweets, fats, and carbohydrates
* Immune disorders where nutritional deficiency is present
* Digestive weakness due to mental overwork and lack of exercise.
Which Herbs Are Bitters?
Important bitter herbs include: Peppermint, Calendula, Dandelion, Artichoke leaf, Blessed Thistle, Angelica, Motherwort, Wormwood, Bitter Orange Peel, Lemon Peel, Gentian root, Centaury root, Mugwort, Goldenseal, Cascara Sagrada, Devil's Claw, Tarragon, Hops, Boneset, Barberry, Chamomile, Yarrow, Horehound, and Tansy.
Bitters range in effect from mild bitters like Chamomile to intense bitters like Wormwood or Gentian. The whole bitters class of herbs has variable therapeutic margins. The more mild the bitter - the greater the therapeutic range and the more intense the bitter the more restrictive the range. Intense bitters like Wormwood, Tansy, and Rue have a low therapeutic margin and need to be used with care in low dosages. A mild bitter like Chamomile has a very wide therapeutic margin and can be used in much greater quantities for a larger population. In general, though bitters are taken in small quantities at meals and are not usually consumed by the cupfuls throughout the day.
How To Take Your Bitters
Bitters extract well into hot water and alcohol. Bitters may be combined with flavorful herbs such as Licorice, Orange peel, Lemon peel, Cardamon to give a better tasting remedy. Some bitters are destroyed by heat and most bitters are taken in alcohol preparations.
To gain their full effectiveness bitters should be taken over time. Some effect may be seen immediately, but their fullest benefit in the body is achieved when they are taken over weeks and months. Bitters are usually taken 15 to 30 minutes before the meal or just after the meal. If too great a dose is taken symptoms may worsen. If that is the case, lower the dose and gradually build up as the body gets stronger.
Would herbal bitters be useful for me?
* Do you crave junk foods?
* Are you never hungry?
* Are you always hungry?
* Do you experience gas or flatulence?
* Do you experience burping or belching?
* Do you experience constipation?
* Do you experience diarrhea?
* Do you experience "heartburn"?
* Do you experience reflux?
* Do you experience rumbling, agitation, or burning in the digestive tract?
If you answered "yes" to any of the above you might benefit from including specific bitters in you diet and you should check with your knowledgeable health care provider.
If you are taking anti-anxiety and/or anti-depressant medications, any other medications, have a diagnosed condition or illness, are pregnant, breastfeeding, elderly or very young it is important to work with a knowledgeable health care practitioner before using herbs.
Consumerlab.com is building a database of natural remedy brands that it tests and rates. Not all are yet available.
Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration has a program called MEDWATCH for people to report adverse reactions to untested substances, such as herbal remedies and vitamins (800-332-1088).
A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any medical conditions.