Digestion Perfection: Herbs Make Great Allies When it Comes to Keeping Your Body Running Smoothly

Digestion is one of those things you’d rather not think about if you don’t have to. When our digestive system is working properly, we take it for granted, but when it runs into problems, it can’t be ignored. Gas, constipation, heartburn-these symptoms can make one miserable. Happily, there are several steps we can take to ensure that things run efficiently. By using some simple culinary herbs and following a few basic lifestyle rules, you can prevent many of these symptoms from occurring. And if trouble does come your way, some effective, natural remedies can put you right in no time.

Digestion 101

Your digestive tract is a tube {upwards of 24 feet} that have been assigned a pretty simple job: get food from one end to the other. When food traverses the imposing territory between the mouth and the rectum, it meets with several biological processes. Food enters the mouth, where both your teeth and enzymes in your saliva start to break it down. Food disintegrates even further thanks to acid in the stomach, and then it’s on to the small intestine, bacteria finish the job, while the bloodstream absorbs nutrients. Anything left over…well, you know the rest.
Special muscles called sphincters separate each section of the gastrointestinal tract. When not in use, these muscles are tightly closed. They open to allow food residue to pass from one section to the next. Contractions move food slowly through the small intestine, inexorably marching towards the large intestine. Normally, the first part of a meal requires about 90 to 120 minutes to reach the large intestine. {The last portion of the meal may not make it there for five hours.} Thankfully, each special section has corresponding herbal remedies to help things move along at an efficient clip.

The Stomach

This first stop in the digestive journey involves powerful chemicals, including hydrochloric acid and enzymes. If these digestive juices fall short, though, the whole process gets off to a bad start, giving you that overly full, Thanksgiving dinner feeling.
Herbs with bitter flavor promote digestive secretions and speed up the processes in the upper GI tract.
Gentian root is the most popular digestive bitter in the U.S. and in Europe, often an ingredient in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic aperitifs. An ounce or so of any bitter herbal beverage taken before the first bite of a meal spurs digestive secretions and keeps food passing through on schedule. In general, bitter herbs reduce gas, bloating, allergic responses, and indigestion. Barberry root, dandelion, and artichoke are other effective bitter herbs.
In traditional Chinese Medicine {TCM}, the use of “hot” herbs can also help. Essential oils {often derived from a plant’s seeds} of carminative herbs like cardamom, dill, cumin, caraway, and lemon balm warm up the digestive tract, helping to expel gas, while speeding up and improving the efficiency of the digestive process. Use these herbs in teas. Lemon balm, and  Dill
Popular in Europe, herbal “gripe water” {griping is another word for intestinal cramping} relies on dill seed, chamomile, lemon balm, or ginger. Fennel is a stand-out in this regard, and probably the world’s most popular gas remedy, even for kids. In one study, published in Phytotherapy Research, 121 colicky infants randomly received 5 to 20 ml of a 0.1 percent fennel seed oil emulsion or placebo, up to four times daily for one week. Parents kept symptom diaries for the week, as well as the week before and the week after. The kids taking the fennel formula had a 45 percent decrease in colic symptoms, compared to a 5 percent drop in the placebo group.
In 2005, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial looked at 93 healthy breastfed infants with colic. For one week, they consumed a dose of fennel mixture twice daily before breastfeeding. Crying time dropped {by an average of two hours per day} in 85 percent of infants in the fennel group, compared to 48 percent in the placebo group.

The Intestines

Comfortable, regular, bulky, and soft bowel movements are critical for good health. And, as the Ayurvedic aphorism explains, “If your stool is sinking, you’re sinking.” Of course, if nothing is passing through, you have a bigger problem: constipation. The medical community defines constipation as eliminating waste less than three times a week, or in low quantity.
Transit time and regularity are the key concepts behind proper bowel timing. Transit time is the time it takes a meal to be eliminated from the body after it has entered the mouth. For a person who eats a healthy, unprocessed, whole foods diet, 30 hours is average transit time, although Ayurveda maintains that the ideal time falls between 18 and 24 hours. In our constipation-prone society, 48 hours, or considerably more, is common. {Clock your transit time by swallowing something to tint the stool, such as charcoal powder, beets, or chlorophyll. Mark the time from when you’ve ingested this matter to when you see this color show up upon elimination.}
The longer waste stays in the colon, the more chance it has of decomposing into unhealthy compounds. This waste matter tends to absorb more water, too, as it sits in the body, making it harder and smaller. The body has a tougher time moving it onward. The potential long-term complications include the development of gallstones and even colon cancer.
Regularity, on the other hand, is defined as the interval between bowel movements. The gamut of recommendations runs from two or three bowel movements a week to one a day, depending on whom you ask. However, like all mammals, humans automatically start the digestive process every time they chew. Each meal stimulates this process and initiates elimination. So as a rule, natural healing practitioners insist on at least one bowel movement per day, or up to one per meal.
Success in the intestinal process depends mainly on three pillars: Peristalsis, fiber, and moisture. When everything goes right with peristalsis, the wave-like motion of muscles that impels waste out of the large intestine, muscles squeeze briefly every few seconds and then relax, propelling it toward the rectum. Stimulant laxatives can promote this wave. Among the best are senna leaf, cascara bark, and aloe leaf in capsule form. Use these only for short-term episodes of acute constipation. Start with a very small dose {500 mg} and adjust the dose as necessary. Since these herbs can sometimes produce intestinal cramps, especially in excess doses, they’re often combined with warming herbs, such as ginger and fennel. Expect these herbs to facilitate elimination in about six hours.
Fiber helps out by absorbing excess moisture, making the stool softer and increasing its size, essentially giving the muscles in the intestinal walls something to push along. Natural bulk fiber laxatives provide soluble fiber, which includes pectin from fruit, flaxseed, chia seed, and oat bran. Use these each day as necessary. Make a point of increasing your fiber intake from whole foods {fruit, vegetables, dried legumes}, as well. Aim for as much as 35 grams of fiber per day.
Psyllium seed, a well known bulk fiber laxative, balances bowel function and relieves the pain of irritable bowels. As psyllium travels through the gut, its slimy mucilage offers soothing benefit, which may relieve cramping. An English study revealed that constipation significantly improved in patients taking psyllium. Eighty-two percent of the subjects had irritable bowel symptom relief. The optimum dose appears to be 20 grams per day.
The third factor, moisture, is a common issue for constipation sufferers. Proper moisture content is critical for efficient elimination. The large intestine pumps about five gallons of fluid every day, from what we drink, plus our digestive secretions. Most of this must be reabsorbed, or else we would quickly become dehydrated.
Demulcents are herbs that contain mucilage, which coats and soothes the gut wall and helps waste exit smoothly. These herbs include marshmallow root {Althea officinalis} and slippery elm bark {Ulmusspp.}. To use either herb, stir 1 tablespoon of powdered bulk herb into a bite of food, such as applesauce, with each meal. Magnesium, a natural mineral, is an osmotic laxative that draws moisture into the bowels and softens waste. Most people can tolerate up to about 1,200 mg of magnesium per day.

Other Helpful Herbs

Herbal medicine is quite beneficial for keeping digestion perking along, as shown in the results of a study from Europe. Twenty-four patients took an herbal mixture containing dandelion, St. John’s wort, lemon balm, calendula, and fennel. Of the group, 95 percent had total relief of colitis symptoms within 15 days.
Triphala, an Ayurvedic combination of the fruits amla, haritaki and bibitaki  is the classic herbal remedy for long-term digestive help. It tones the intestinal walls, detoxifies the system, and promotes elimination. It has a high tannin content, so it treats diarrhea in low doses {1 gram per day}. In higher doses, it treats constipation in a very slow, gentle way, tightening the walls of the gut while it works. Triphala is suitable for children and ideal for older folks who need a little daily help with regularity. For maintenance, take 2 grams per day. As a short-term laxative, use 6 grams. An easy bowel movement should occur in about 8 hours.
Turmeric root {Curcuma longa} is widely used to improve digestion. A common curry spice, it keeps GI tract inflammation under control. One of its active ingredients, curcumin, the pigment that gives turmeric its distinctive yellow color, has anti-inflammatory effects comparable to cortisone and phenylbutazone, widely used anti-inflammatory drugs. And curcumin is non-steroidal, so it has none of the devastating side effects of steroids.
Like another medicinal spice, cayenne, it relieves pain by depleting nerve endings of substance P, the pain receptor neurotransmitter. Historically, this herb has been used to reduce gas, a benefit that is now getting increasing scientific support. Curcumin stimulates gallbladder contractions, promoting better digestion. Ptolymethlcarbinol, another compound in turmeric, boosts the production of several important secretions in the digestive tract.
Turmeric also increases mucin secretion, which protects mucous membranes against damage by stomach acid and other digestive juices. With its ability to suppress inflammation, increase mucin content of the stomach, and stop bleeding, turmeric prevents ulcerations of all types, including gastritis, peptic ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome, and colitis. Take 1 to 2 grams powdered herb in capsules, or as a spice, with each meal. Higher doses are quite safe and may produce better and faster results.

Licorice Root {Glycyrrhiza uralensis},

also, guards digestive mucous membranes by escalating the production of mucin. Deglycyrrhizinated licorice root {DGL} has the glycyrrhizic acid removed-glycyrrhizic acid is the ingredient in licorice root associated with increased blood pressure and water retention but retains its soothing properties. One to two chewable wafers of DGL with a meal will usually do the job.
Use 1 teaspoon of the chopped root, brewed as a tea, three times a day, or one to two chewable wafers of DGL {250-500 mg} 15 minutes before meals and one to two hours before bedtime.

Peppermint Leaf {Mentha piperita},

is a well-known digestion herb. Peppermint oil works well to prevent dyspepsia because the oil relaxes the muscles of the intestinal wall. Enteric coated capsules postpone the release of this oil until the remedy is further down in the digestive tract so that the medicine works in the right spot. They also reduce those minty burps. In one double-blind trial from Taiwan, four out of every five patients experienced reduced symptoms when given enteric-coated peppermint oil. In 1999, a study from Germany used peppermint and caraway oils to treat 223 people, and the combination brought about a significant reduction in discomfort. Another German study, published in Phytotherapy Research, from February 2000, again confirmed that a combination of peppermint and caraway oils effectively reduced unwanted intestinal symptoms. Take 1 teaspoon of chopped herb brewed as tea, three times a day, or 0.2 to 0.4 ml, three times a day, of an enteric-coated capsule.

Ginger Root {Zingiber officinale},

a warming herb works better for some folks than the cold herbs. Tasty and aromatic, this root is an eternal remedy for stomach upset. Ginger’s benefits for motion sickness and nausea has been consistently proven, and European practitioners routinely use ginger in tea for indigestion. A 2008 study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, had chemotherapy patients consume ginger for nausea. In 28 patients, ginger reduced the nausea of chemotherapy and the need for antiemetic medications {pharmaceutical drugs that treat nausea and vomiting}. The herb also reduces gut spasms, absorbs and neutralizes toxins in the GI tract, and boosts digestive juice secretions, including bile and saliva. Use 1 teaspoon chopped herb brewed as a tea, three times a day.
 Cinnamon Bark {Cinnamomum cassia},
another warming digestive star is a mild but useful remedy for lethargic digestion. Commission E in Germany, the European standard for herbal medicines, recommends cinnamon for loss of appetite, dyspeptic complaints, mild gastrointestinal spasms, bloating, and flatulence. Use 1 teaspoon chopped herb brewed as a tea, three times a day.
Making sure your digestion perks right along is as easy as cooking with delicious, intriguing spices, sipping some tasty teas, and turning to a few notable herbal medicines. Keep the digestive fires burning: Turn to herbal aids for a smooth, comfortable digestive experience and you’ll have the stomach for just about anything life throws your way.
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Dandy Tummy Bitters Recipe

These homemade bitters with fennel seeds and dandelion root should be taken before or after a meal to help stimulate digestion.

Take a drop or two of these dandelion bitters before or after a meal to help with digestion.

Is your digestive system ready for a big feast? Just a drop or two of any bitter herb on the tongue will help stimulate healthy digestion before or after a meal. In addition to dandelion’s bitterness, the aromatics from the fennel, ginger, and orange will help with uncomfortable post-dessert bloat.

Ingredients:

• 2 parts dandelion root
• 1 part fennel seed
• 1/2 part ginger root
• 1/2 part orange peel
• 1 glass jar with lid
• Enough 100-proof vodka to fill your glass jar
• Cheesecloth

Instructions:

1. If using fresh plants, harvest and clean your herbs before chopping and grinding them.
2. Fill a clean glass jar halfway with the fresh, ground herbs. If tincturing dried herbs, only fill the glass jar one-third of the way because dried roots will expand.
3. Pour the vodka over the herbs until the jar is full, and be sure your herb mixture is completely covered.
4. Label your jar with the name of the herbs, date, alcohol strength, and plant parts used.
5. Allow the tincture to sit for 6 to 8 weeks, shaking the jar often to keep all the plant material submerged.
6. Strain the finished tincture through cheesecloth to separate the herbs from the liquid, bottle the liquid in amber dropper bottles, and label.

A Gentle Daily Dose

Bitters:

If you wanted to get your body into good physical fitness, would you choose to exercise vigorously for 1-2 weeks of the year and otherwise remain inactive? If you wanted to live in a clean home, would you obsessively scour every nook and cranny for five straight days and every other 360 days let the mess pile up around you?  Unless you’re a wise-cracker, I’m going to go ahead and guess you answered “no” to those questions. It’s only common sense and, in fact, the model described above can be detrimental. 

Why, then, has our culture become so fond of the high-intensity detox cleanse? While there is certainly a place for narrowing in on specific dietary and lifestyle habits for a short period of time as, say, a gentle Spring cleaning or for particular health-related reasons, our focus on extreme cleanses is in general both misguided and ineffectual. 

If you’re looking to improve your health and feel better in your body, the real key is in making more subtle long-term shifts. Mohamed Ali is quoted as saying, “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you down, it’s the pebble in your shoe”. So, let’s take a look at that pebble in your shoe; for addressing that is where you will find a sustained change in your life and in your health. And you’ll feel a marked difference once you do.

An extreme cleanse could get you to the top of the mountain, but you may very well be hurting once you arrive and it’s unlikely you’ll be making it back up there again anytime soon. Instead, take a reasonable look at that pebble. Focus on moving your body every day and eating good protein, healthy fats and lots of greens. Make time for gratitude, deep breaths, and connection. With these gentle, sustained shifts, the stamina to climb any mountain will always be at your fingertips. 

It is in these simple daily rituals that we call on bitters to do their best work and to keep us in our best shape. While it would be helpful to have a bottle of bitters with you for your yearly sprint up the mountain, they offer the most as a tonic. Taken daily before meals, your body will thank you for all of the health benefits they provide.

Enjoy the liver support bitters offer and expect a clean burning metabolism, clear, healthy skin, and fewer cravings. Appreciate how they support your digestion, and soothe gas and bloating. Note that bitters actually encourage digestive secretions, which in turns helps you absorb the most nourishment available in all that healthy food you are eating. Most of all, take small daily strides for your health and appreciate the energy and clarity that accompanies you each step of the way on your hike through life.

Bitter Principles

In modern herbal medicine, bitter principles occupy a central place in herbal therapeutics beating the acrid constituents. Most people consuming herbal medicines complain about the bitterness of the medicines prescribed. This is the only defining attribute of herbal medicine and the only feature to set it apart from other therapies.

The bitter principles work by stimulating the bitter receptors of the tongue and increasing saliva secretion. Thus, it is always advisable to taste and chew the herbs for making them most effective. The bitter principles also bring about an increase in the secretion of digestive juices, thereby increasing appetite. They protect the tissues found in the digestive tract, boosts up the bile flow and strengthens the pancreas.

Their chemical composition includes a complex pattern of molecular structures. Since they act on the bitter receptors of the mouth, thereby producing the bitter taste in the mouth, their stimulation does not produce any electrical changes on the surface of the cell. Instead, the bitter molecules bring about intracellular biochemical changes by acting on the cell membrane receptors. This facilitates an increase in calcium concentrates within the cell and signals the gustatory nerve.

The bitter substances are mostly of terpenoid structure, especially the sesquiterpene lactones, monoterpene iridoids, and the secoiridoids. Iridoids are responsible for the chief bitter constituents of the plant family Gentianaceae, Cichorium intybus (chicory), dandelion, Valeriana officinalis (Valerian), wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa), and quassia bark.

Sesquiterpenes account for the bitter taste of the Artemisia plants, or wormwood genus, Cnicus benedictus (blessed thistle), and ginkgo biloba (ginkgo). Other components which add to the bitterness are diterpene bitters, found in columbo root (jateorrhiza palmata) or white horehound (Mar.rubium vulgare). Triterpenoids are the cause of bitterness for the Cucurbitaceae family of plants, which includes pumpkin, cucumber, colocynth, marrows, and the bryonies.

Many alkaloids also contribute to the bitter taste as in the protoberberine isoquinoline alkaloids of goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis), and Berberis, the morphine alkaloids, the quinoline alkaloids of quinine and Angostura and the purine alkaloids ( in coffee). In addition to this, many miscellaneous compounds like ketones and amino-acids are responsible for the bitterness, as found in hops.

Bitters are indispensable when it comes to counter a heavy meal. Sometimes, chicory and dandelion roots are mixed with coffee beans to produce a bitter drink usually taken after meals. The drink vermouth is a good example of an appetizer which gets its name from bitter herb wormwood. The traditional beer that is brewed with hops can also be used as a digestive remedy due to its bitter principle. Even nowadays, bartenders are faced with the inquiry of a lot of Angostura Bitters (Cusparia angostura) which is commonly used to shoo away a hangover. What’s common to all these practices is the belief that a bitter medicine can balance a heavy or rich meal and can be the basis of excellent tonics. Our grandpas used to believe that medicines that didn’t please our tongue were the best of all. When we go through the records of traditional plant medicine we find a reflection of this notion. All the bitter medicines are cited as ‘genuine stimulants’ and the real panacea for all.

With the passage of time, we have come to discover and understand some more features of the bitter medicines. It is accepted that bitters stimulate only a certain type of taste receptors. Thus, they will have no effect if they are taken in capsules or by intra-gastric tube. The bitter taste buds are thus the mediators in the way of making the responses happen. This is one of the best examples of a reflex response which takes place when a small stimulus initiates a complex reaction. As soon as the bitter taste bud is stimulated, it releases the gastrointestinal hormone gastrin. If we study the common physiological actions of the gastrin, we find a close similarity with the traditional remedies of the bitters. We can, therefore, tally the actions of bitters with that of gastrins.

Basically speaking, gastrins are beneficial in numerous ways. Researchers over the years have established that it increases gastric acid and pepsin secretion, hepatic bile surge, hepatic bicarbonate production, intestinal juice production, pancreatic digestive secretions, and intrinsic factor secretion. At the same time, gastrins help in enhancing the flow of Brunner’s glands secretions, insulin, glucagon and calcitonin release, helps muscle tone of lower oesophageal sphincter and muscle tone of stomach and small intestine, augments cell division and growth of gastric and duodenal mucosa as well as helps in cell division and growth of the pancreas.

This information will now help us to explain the role of bitters in herbal medicine. Let us examine them one by one.

Bitters Act as Appetizers

Gastrin is known to be very effective in increasing the appetite. It acts directly on appetite centers in the hypothalamus and indirectly through increased stomach motility. As we have seen earlier, bitters have also been used as key elements in aperitifs or for increasing appetite during convalescence. They can be very useful indeed in treating anyone for whom anorexia is posing an obstacle to recovery. Sometimes, lack of appetite is the body’s own signal to prevent over-stuffing. But this type of anorexia should be distinguished from other harmful types that reduce the strength of an individual. Administering bitters then comes in quite handy and especially in case of anorexia nervosa where bitters are a very helpful tool to counter the problem.

Bitters Increase Secretion of Digestive Juices

Bitters are known to expedite the process of digestion by boosting the stomach and pancreatic enzyme secretions. In those cases where these secretions are irregular or malfunctioning, bitters can help a lot towards speedier digestion by breaking down the food material. Digestive secretions sterilize the food material inside the stomach and break down protein and other large molecules that threaten the body’s immune system.

There is a paradox with food. It is certainly the most important source of nourishment for the body, but it also poses the greatest immunological threat to it. This is reflected in the presence of lymphoid tissues in the digestive tract. The digestive juices denature the antigenic material that prevents the situation from going out of control.

Sometimes, a low rate of secretion arises due to enteric infections, or if any suggestion is found of antigen penetration through the gut wall. This may occur in case of a food allergy or an autoimmune problem that contains the symptoms of reduced digestive abilities.

Herbal therapeutics point out that a fall in digestive secretion can damage the body to a great extent. It should always be corrected immediately as and when encountered. Besides enteric infections and food allergies, such reduced ability to digest can be understood by the symptoms of a nauseous feeling or feel bloated even after taking a little food. Passing small malodorous stools is another sign.

As modern food items contain an increased percentage of adulteration, the risk of depressed digestion has increased greatly, and the only measure is to administer bitter remedies.

Since the bitters increase the destructive components of digestive secretions, their use is generally not advised in cases of hyperacidity or those with peptic ulceration. But it also raises the secretions of protective fluids, such as bicarbonate from pancreas and liver and from the Brunner’s glands. This is not the case for the acrid constituents. The bitters expedite the whole digestive process. For other reasons, they are not prescribed in hyper-acidic conditions.

Bitters Offer Protection to the Gut Tissues

In cases of heartburn, hiatus hernia or oesophageal inflammation, the reflux of corrosive stomach contents into the esophagus is prevented by bitter remedies. This task is achieved by increasing the tone of the gastro-oesophageal sphincter. The bitters also decrease the harmful effects of the digestive juices and dietary toxins by enhancing the already rapid rate of mucosal regeneration in the stomach and duodenum. This acts as a healer in the case of ulceration or infection. Similar action, if performed on the matrix of the pancreas might as well help in pulling through a pancreatic disease.

Bitters Enhance Bile Flow

Bile juice is secreted by the liver. It is also considered as the excretion of the liver. The liver contains an extremely dynamic flow of juices. If pictured, each cell can be seen as being in a stream of a mixed nutrient-rich portal blood from the gut and oxygen-rich arterial blood from the general circulation. These fluids disseminate through the cell and are subjected to heavy dispensation that is a part of the liver function. The metabolic products that are born out of this activity move from the liver cell into the outgoing blood flow. Some of the most important, however, is channeled into a separate exit that drains into the biliary system. The liver thus self-cleanses by its own mechanism.

This is the organ which suffers from all the harmful effects of binge eating, defective digestion or ill health by being overloaded with toxins or the deposition of waste material. The fluids which pass through the liver cells may not be enough to wash out the toxins. This poses a threat to the liver making it prone to liver pathology or a more common range of functional disorders. Improved flow of bile juice will definitely not allow such waste material to accumulate. Bitters play this role very effectively. With the consumption of toxic materials increasing, this is certainly one of the advantages.

The bitters have been proven to be effective in curing all allergic, metabolic and immunological conditions where the diagnosis points to the digestion. The liver exerts an influence over the immunological system as well. Even in case of herbal therapies for migraines, hepatic remedies are suggested, most of which use the bitter.

The use of bitters leads to greater production of biliary elements and dilutes the bile as well by increasing the bicarbonate content. In case of gallstone formation or gall-bladder disease, that is formed by the over deposition of bile, bitters are known to work wonders. Along with lemon juice which dilutes the bile as well, bitters are also an effective and accepted treatment of these diseases.

Bitters Improve Pancreatic Functions

Gastrin helps pancreatic secretion and also increases the secretion of insulin and glucagon, the two main hormones the pancreas produces. However, these are conflicting in nature. There is a possibility of a ‘state dependent’ effect. This is a response to gastrin that varies according to the condition of mutual and simultaneous secretion of the two hormones.
Bitters have also been used in controlling late-onset diabetes. Chinese physiology states that bitters can effectively reactive hypoglycemia and produce immediate and excellent results.
Thus we conclude that bitters neutralize pancreatic hormone secretions by increasing the amount of glucagon when insulin is high and vice versa. They are more likely to raise a hormone level when it is deficient. Bitters control fluctuations in blood sugar levels permanently and temporarily as well.

Bitters Act as Tonics

All the above contributions of bitters make it easy to understand that they can boost your health to a great extent. Their primary role is to stimulate all the above-mentioned digestive functions. The digestive processes are the platform where the nourishment requirements of the body are met. This is the place where the body examines the materials it is fed with and most calorific and metabolic processes are regulated. Depending upon the extent to which this platform is in danger under the modern living conditions, it might or might not respond to the bitter remedies.

Bitter remedies were mainly resorted to in old age or in a convalescent state in order to be able to improve the quality of nourishment to the body. However, in the modern age, as illnesses become chronic in nature and more frequent, attacking persons of all ages, it is advisable to resort to bitter remedies. Food has also become less wholesome and more prone to indigestion. Bitter remedies can definitely offset the harmful effects of adulteration to a great extent.

Herbal Bitters

At one point in time, bitters typically only made an appearance in the American diet in the form of black coffee or a dash of Angostura in a cocktail. But times are changing, and bitter-tasting herbs now rock the aisles of natural food stores, hipster bars, and the workshop offerings at herbal conferences. We can thank herbalists for bringing these herbs to the forefront of “mainstream” herbal consciousness, but medicinal bitters actually date back thousands of years and have played a major role in modern herbalism for decades.

What Is A Bitter?

Quite simply, a “bitter” is a herb that tastes bitter. Bitters stimulate bitter receptors on our tongue’s taste buds and elsewhere in the body. Strong classic bitters include gentian and wormwood, though we don’t tend to use either due to sustainable harvesting concerns and potential safety issues, respectively. Our favorite basic bitter is artichoke leaf. Fellow mild lettuce-family bitters include burdock, dandelion, chicory {radicchio, endive}, and certain varieties of lettuce. More complex bitters include coffee, which has high levels of the alkaloid caffeine, and herbs rich in the antimicrobial alkaloid berberine, including goldenseal, coptis, barberry, and Oregon grape root. Aromatic bitters include elecampane root, chamomile, lemon balm, and catnip.

What Do Bitter Herbs Do?

Although individual herbs can have different properties, we generally call on their bitter flavor to encourage a certain set of health benefits.

Turn on Digestion: Bitters are most well known for their ability to stimulate digestion and assimilation, particularly when you taste them on the tongue {versus taking them in capsule form} since this turns on digestive-system function. Peristalsis, the wave-like motion that moves food through the digestive system, kicks in, which promotes better transit time and elimination. Blood circulation to the digestive tract also increases, and the body produces more stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Interestingly, many people with acid reflux actually feel better with bitters because they improve function and signaling so that the lower esophageal sphincter shuts properly while food churns in the stomach. Bitters seem to stimulate vagal tone, improving the bi-directional communication between the digestive system and the brain.

Studies show that bitters such as gentian and artichoke leaf relieve and prevent dyspepsia, a broad group of digestive symptoms that includes belly issues with food {pain, discomfort, feeling too full}, bloating, burping, heartburn, GERD, and the loss of appetite. This effect makes bitters potentially useful in various digestive issues, such as indigestion, hiatal hernia, ulcers, gastritis, irritable bowel disorder, and gastroparesis. Finally, they boost the absorption of nutrients.

Bitters may not agree with everyone, but you can usually tell within a dose or two whether or not they’re helping you.

Boost Detoxification: Most bitters have a cholagogues action, meaning that they encourage the liver to produce and excrete more bile. The liver produces bile as a waste product when it filters the blood. The gallbladder stores this bile. After you eat and food passes from the stomach to the intestines, the gallbladder releases its contents via the common bile duct to join the partially digested food. Through this process, it leaves the body via your waste, but it also helps emulsify fats and aid digestion in the process. If you don’t have a gallbladder, your body excretes bile gradually throughout the day rather than via food-driven spurts, which is why it’s harder to digest fatty meals without a gallbladder. By improving bile production and excretion, bitters support detoxification as well as fat digestion – regardless of the status of your gallbladder.

We often turn to dandelion, yellow dock, burdock, turmeric, artichoke, and other classic bitters for these benefits. Yellow dock has added laxative effects, burdock also boosts lymph detoxification, and dandelion leaf and root both enhance kidney detoxification. Artichoke leaf and turmeric help protect the liver from damage as well. New research suggests that bitters may also improve the cell’s ability to pump out toxins for removal.

Regulate Appetite and Reduce Sugar Cravings: Bitters have additional effects on the digestive system and brain-gut connection, as well as on endocrine function. In addition to supporting vagal tone, the stimulation of bitter receptors also regulates the production of gut hormones {CCK, leptin, and ghrelin}, as well as the sensitivity of your cells to these hormones. Among other things, these hormones affect your appetite and cravings. Taking bitters with meals can help people who tend to overeat feel healthfully full more quickly while also stimulating a better appetite for people who find themselves nauseated by food. {Note that taking strong bitters without any food can overstimulate the digestive system and aggravate nausea and hypoglycemia in sensitive people.} Regular use of bitters reduces your desire for sweets and increases your interest in healthy food, which can make it much easier to opt for good food choices and maintain a healthy weight.

Some herbalists believe that many of our obesity and appetite issues stem from”bitter deficiency.” As humans have selectivity adapted our food crops from their wild to current states, we have bred out bitter flavors in favor of sweet and starchy. Technology that allows us to process and refine foods furthers that divide. What was once a ubiquitous flavor in our diet is now quite rare, particularly in American cuisine. Other cultures still maintain the use of bitters in the meal, including citrus peel, bitter cordials, tamarind, artichoke, and wild bitter greens and lettuces. Even though we love our bitter coffee and chocolate, we sweeten and cream them past the point of recognition.

Lower Blood Sugar: We almost intuitively know that bitters reduce blood sugar when we sip black tea or coffee alongside something sweet. When consumed with sweets, bitters may reduce the glycemic effect of that food and improve the body’s sensitivity to insulin. This goes along well with the aforementioned ability of bitters to improve satiety as we eat, reduce sugar cravings, and improve our desire for healthy foods. Researchers think that insulin resistance may be caused in part by a lack of bitter stimulation of receptors on the pancreas.

Beyond The Bitter Basics

New research is revealing, even more, capabilities of the bitter flavor. We’re finding bitter receptor sites throughout the body, not just on the tongue or in the digestive tract. Here are a few potential benefits bitters may offer based on highly preliminary research:

  • Improving lung function by boosting bronchodilation.
  • Improving longevity by enhancing gene function.
  • Encouraging the parasympathetic “relaxation” response via its vagal nerve stimulation.
  • Promote bladder control.
  • Helping to regulate energy metabolism in the cardiovascular system, as well as heart rhythm and contractile force.
  • Supporting immune function.

Bitter Herbal “Coffee”

This coffee-like drink tastes particularly nice over ice. You may also enjoy adding chaga, cacao powder, and/or a pinch of ginger or nutmeg to the mix. It’s caffeine-free unless you use cacao.

1 part dandelion root

1 part burdock root

1 part roasted chicory root

1 part cinnamon chips or 1 cinnamon stick per cup {optional}

Simmer one heaping teaspoon of the blend per 8 to 16 ounces of water for 20 minutes. Strain and enjoy hot or cold. While it tastes great with cream and sugar, these offset the benefits.

Bitters Spray

Blends of bitters generally include strong bitters, warming spices, and perhaps a few other extras. Lightly sweeten them if desired. You can use dried herbs to make your own bitter tincture blend. Feel free to play around to create your own mix. Citrus peel/fruit, spices, elecampane, catnip, lemon balm, chamomile, holy basil, blue vervain, fennel, and other herbs make welcome additions.

1/2 oz dandelion root

1/2 oz artichoke leaf

1/2 oz burdock root

1/2 Tsp grated fresh ginger

1 cardamom pod

4 oz of 80- or 100-proof vodka

2 oz of maple syrup or vegetable glycerine {or substitute more vodka}

Combine all of the above in an 8-ounce jar with a tight lid. If needed, top it off with more vodka so that it’s filled to the brim. Shake every day or so. Strain after one month, bottle, and store in a cool, dark, dry spot.

To Use: Take 1 ml {30 drops} or 1-4 sprays by mouth or add 1-2 ml to plain seltzer and sip with meals.

Bitters: A Healing Craft

WE ARE IN THE MIDST OF A RENAISSANCE in both the interest in natural health and herbal medicine; and the craft cocktail. The use of bitter herb extracts are a key part of both of these wonderful traditions, and a practice I adhere to regularly.

 bitters-class

What Are Bitters & How Do They Work?

“Bitters” as a term refers to an alcohol extract of bitter tasting herbs such as gentian or yellow dock mixed with spices and natural flavors. Bitters formulas were very popular in the 1800s as herbal formulas and it is to this knowledge that we refer back to as bitters again gain deserved attention. Certain classes of herbs that produce a bitter flavor have a similar effect on the body, and herbalists know these bitter tasting herbs to have a positive effect on the digestion system and the body’s detoxification system. When bitters are tasted by specific receptor sites in the mouth, and at sites found throughout the entire gastrointestinal system, they activate the digestion system to function properly.

In the early 20th century, herbalism was the most common form of healing in North America. Most people had common knowledge of how to use herbs to heal common ailments. Bartenders knew this too. Bitter herbs are particularly helpful when we are consuming excess food and alcohol. Bitters were a key component in traditional cocktails and still are to this day. In cocktails, bitters provide depth and character to cocktails. They are the ingredient you should not be able to pick out clearly but would miss it if it was not there, like salt and pepper in food. Pre-abolition there were hundreds of bitters companies, but by the mid-20th century, it reduced down to a handful including Angostura and Peychaud’s. Happily, in the last decade there have been craft bitters companies popping up all over North America and you can now easily find a wide range of bitters that range from small distillers who brew their own alcohol and infuse the herbs in the process, herbalists preparing medicinal grade formulas, as well as a slew of incredible formulators making bitters for culinary uses and popular cocktails.

It’s exciting to be both a herbalist and cocktail enthusiast these days. We have an opportunity to share wonderful drinks with friends and family while at the same time sharing the wonderful healing properties of bitters. You can bookend your celebration meals with cocktails, aperitifs, or even desserts that feature a dash of bitters and support your guest’s health and feeling of wellness. Bitters taken before and after meal times support our bodies in a number of ways:

  • Stimulating the important vagus nerve in our body that connects key parts of our gastrointestinal system such as the tongue, stomach, intestines, liver, and gallbladder. This nerve is the ‘brain-to-gut connection’
  • Increasing saliva and digestive enzyme secretions
  • Slowing the movement of food out of the stomach and into the intestines. This action makes us feel fuller faster, and prevents gas and bloating through a better breakdown of food in the stomach.
  • Ensures a proper seal of the valve between your esophagus and stomach preventing acid backing up and causing heartburn
  • Supporting the liver and gallbladder by kick-starting important secretions and proper detoxification

Many traditional cocktail recipes such as the Old Fashioned and Manhattan call for bitters but feel free to add a dash to any cocktail you love. I personally recommend serving a dash of bitters in a small glass with sparkling water and/or a splash of juice as a pre-dinner aperitif.

MAKING BITTERS

Making your own bitters is deceptively easy to do—all you need are some bitter herbs, spices, a jar, vodka, a touch of patience, and a willingness to experiment. With bitters, a little goes a long way. When making bitters of your own start by making small amounts. A one-ounce bottle will last you many, many, cocktails. Use recycled jam or even spice jars for making your them—don’t start with large quart-sized mason jars.

When making bitters you can technically use any alcohol you like. Every bitters-maker has their favorite for a reason. When teaching herbal medicine making, I recommend my students start making their alcohol extracts with vodka. It’s clear and neutral in flavor so you can really see and taste the herbs you infuse into it. It’s also 40% alcohol so you get a good extract of a range of constituents and it ensures proper preservation. Once you’ve made a few formulas I encourage you to try other types such as bourbon, whiskey or rum.

The next step is to get your hands on some herbs. Most local health food stores carry a selection of organic dried herbs, and you can use fresh ingredients from the grocery store or a local garden. You can use either fresh or dried herb in your bitters. (Note that herbs shrink by roughly half their weight when dried so you would use half as much of a dried herb as you would fresh.) If buying herbs it is important to buy certified organic or cultivated herbs as some species such as gentian are endangered in the wild. Most organic gardeners in your area would be quite happy to have you dig a few dandelions or yellow dock roots as they are very weedy species!

bitters making

 

To craft your own bitters extract here are some guidelines to follow for ratios of herbs;

  • 10% very bitter herbs: These would include gentian, cinchona, yellow dock or wormwood. They are by far the most intense, and using too much will overpower your formula.
  • 50% medium to mild bitter herbs: We get most of our action from medium to mild bitters herbs. My favorites are dandelion root and leaf, orange or lemon peel (make sure you include the white pith), bitter greens such as parsley or arugula, and angelica root.
  • 30% aromatic herbs: This is where we get to have fun. Aromatic herbs are what we think of as tea and spice herbs. Use ones that smell fragrant and delicious—some examples are rosemary, coriander, fennel, peppermint, ginger, lemongrass, celery seed, or allspice. This part of the formula is where you get to really infuse the flavor you want, allowing you to play and experiment until you stumble upon a blend you really like.
  • 10% sweet: A touch of sweetness acts as a harmonizer in our formulas. It pulls together the flavors and actually helps their uptake in the body. You can use traditional sweeteners such as simple syrup, maple syrup or honey (these you would add after you have infused and strained the extract). You can also use herbs on the sweet spectrum such as burdock root, codonopsis root, or licorice root. If you want to make savory bitters such as rosemary or jalapeno, I’d use burdock root.

To make your extract you need enough herb to loosely fill half of the jar if using dried or three-quarters if using fresh. Top the herbs with vodka, seal with a tight-fitting lid, and label with the date and contents. The important part is that the herbs are covered entirely by the alcohol in the jar; you may need to top up the jar a day or two later as the dried herbs will absorb some of the fluid. Place this jar in a dark place and shake daily for a period of two weeks to one month. Taste your formula every few weeks to see when you like the flavor. When the bitters are ready, strain the mixture through a fine strainer or an unbleached coffee filter. If using honey, maple syrup, or simple syrup as a sweetener this is the time to add it. A good ration is a tablespoon of sweetener to a cup of extract, shaking well to dissolve. Pour the finished extract into a clean bottle; a small dropper bottle works great. Let your extract age for at least one or up to a few weeks and then start using them in your favorite recipes, or as a digestive tonic before meals.

Modern Herbal Medicine ~ ‘Bitter Principles’

In modern herbal medicine, bitter principles occupy a central place in herbal therapeutics beating the acrid constituents. Most people consuming herbal medicines complain about the bitterness of the medicines prescribed. This is the only defining attribute of herbal medicine and the only feature to set it apart from other therapies.

The bitter principles work by stimulating the bitter receptors of the tongue and increasing saliva secretion. Thus, it is always advisable to taste and chew the herbs for making them most effective. The bitter principles also bring about an increase in the secretion of digestive juices, thereby increasing appetite. They protect the tissues found in the digestive tract, boosts up the bile flow and strengthens the pancreas.

Their chemical composition includes a complex pattern of molecular structures. Since they act on the bitter receptors of the mouth, thereby producing the bitter taste in the mouth, their stimulation does not produce any electrical changes on the surface of the cell. Instead, the bitter molecules bring about intracellular biochemical changes by acting on the cell membrane receptors. This facilitates an increase in calcium concentrates within the cell and signals the gustatory nerve.

The bitter substances are mostly of terpenoid structure, especially the sesquiterpene lactones, monoterpene iridoids, and the Seco iridoids. Iridoids are responsible for the chief bitter constituents of the plant family Gentianaceae, Cichorium intybus (chicory), dandelion, Valeriana officinalis (Valerian), wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa), and quassia bark.

Sesquiterpenes account for the bitter taste of the Artemisia plants, or wormwood genus, Cnicus benedictus (blessed thistle), and Ginkgo Biloba (ginkgo). Other components which add to the bitterness are diterpene bitters, found in columbo root (jateorrhiza palmata) or white horehound (Mar.rubium vulgare). Triterpenoids are the cause of bitterness for the Cucurbitaceae family of plants, which includes pumpkin, cucumber, colocynth, marrows, and the bryonies.

Many alkaloids also contribute to the bitter taste as in the protoberberine isoquinoline alkaloids of goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis), and Berberis, the morphine alkaloids, the quinoline alkaloids of quinine and Angostura and the purine alkaloids ( in coffee). In addition to this, many miscellaneous compounds like ketones and amino acids are responsible for the bitterness, as found in hops.

Bitters are indispensable when it comes to counter a heavy meal. Sometimes, chicory and dandelion roots are mixed with coffee beans to produce a bitter drink usually taken after meals. The drink vermouth is a good example of an appetizer which gets its name from bitter herb wormwood. The traditional beer that is brewed with hops can also be used as a digestive remedy due to its bitter principle. Even nowadays, bartenders are faced with the inquiry of a lot of Angostura Bitters (Cusparia angostura) which is commonly used to shoo away a hangover. What’s common to all these practices is the belief that a bitter medicine can balance a heavy or rich meal and can be the basis of excellent tonics. Our grandpas used to believe that medicines that didn’t please our tongue were the best of all. When we go through the records of traditional plant medicine we find a reflection of this notion. All the bitter medicines are cited as ‘genuine stimulants’ and the real panacea for all.

With the passage of time, we have come to discover and understand some more features of the bitter medicines. It is accepted that bitters stimulate only a certain type of taste receptors. Thus, they will have no effect if they are taken in capsules or by intragastric tube. The bitter taste buds are thus the mediators in the way of making the responses happen. This is one of the best examples of a reflex response which takes place when a small stimulus initiates a complex reaction. As soon as the bitter taste bud is stimulated, it releases the gastrointestinal hormone gastrin. If we study the common physiological actions of the gastrin, we find a close similarity with the traditional remedies of the bitters. We can, therefore, tally the actions of bitters with that of gastrins.

Basically speaking, gastrins are beneficial in numerous ways. Researchers over the years have established that it increases gastric acid and pepsin secretion, hepatic bile surge, hepatic bicarbonate production, intestinal juice production, pancreatic digestive secretions, and intrinsic factor secretion. At the same time, gastrins help in enhancing the flow of Brunner’s glands secretions, insulin, glucagon and calcitonin release, helps muscle tone of lower oesophageal sphincter and muscle tone of stomach and small intestine, augments cell division and growth of gastric and duodenal mucosa as well as helps in cell division and growth of the pancreas.

This information will now help us to explain the role of bitters in herbal medicine. Let us examine them one by one.

Bitters Act as Appetizers

Gastrin is known to be very effective in increasing the appetite. It acts directly on appetite centers in the hypothalamus and indirectly through increased stomach motility. As we have seen earlier, bitters have also been used as key elements in aperitifs or for increasing appetite during convalescence. They can be very useful indeed in treating anyone for whom anorexia is posing an obstacle to recovery. Sometimes, lack of appetite is the body’s own signal to prevent over-stuffing. But this type of anorexia should be distinguished from other harmful types that reduce the strength of an individual. Administering bitters then come in quite handy and especially in the case of anorexia nervosa where bitters are a very helpful tool to counter the problem.

Bitters Increase Secretion of Digestive Juices

Bitters are known to expedite the process of digestion by boosting the stomach and pancreatic enzyme secretions. In those cases where these secretions are irregular or malfunctioning, bitters can help a lot towards speedier digestion by breaking down the food material. Digestive secretions sterilize the food material inside the stomach and break down protein and other large molecules that threaten the body’s immune system.

There is a paradox with food. It is certainly the most important source of nourishment for the body, but it also poses the greatest immunological threat to it. This is reflected in the presence of lymphoid tissues in the digestive tract. The digestive juices denature the antigenic material that prevents the situation from going out of control.

Sometimes, a low rate of secretion arises due to enteric infections, or if any suggestion is found of antigen penetration through the gut wall. This may occur in the case of a food allergy or an autoimmune problem that contains the symptoms of reduced digestive abilities.

Herbal therapeutics point out that a fall in digestive secretion can damage the body to a great extent. It should always be corrected immediately as and when encountered. Besides enteric infections and food allergies, such reduced ability to digest can be understood by the symptoms of a nauseous feeling or feel bloated even after taking a little food. Passing small malodorous stools is another sign.

As modern food items contain an increased percentage of adulteration, the risk of depressed digestion has increased greatly, and the only measure is to administer bitter remedies.

Since the bitters increase the destructive components of digestive secretions, their use is generally not advised in cases of hyperacidity or those with peptic ulceration. But it also raises the secretions of protective fluids, such as bicarbonate from pancreas and liver and from the Brunner’s glands. This is not the case for the acrid constituents. The bitters expedite the whole digestive process. For other reasons, they are not prescribed in hyper-acidic conditions.

Bitters Offer Protection to the Gut Tissues

In cases of heartburn, hiatus hernia or esophageal inflammation, the reflux of corrosive stomach contents into the esophagus is prevented by bitter remedies. This task is achieved by increasing the tone of the gastro-oesophageal sphincter. The bitters also decrease the harmful effects of the digestive juices and dietary toxins by enhancing the already rapid rate of mucosal regeneration in the stomach and duodenum. This acts as a healer in the case of ulceration or infection. Similar action, if performed on the matrix of the pancreas might as well help in pulling through a pancreatic disease.

Bitters Enhance Bile Flow

Bile juice is secreted by the liver. It is also considered as the excretion of the liver. The liver contains the extremely dynamic flow of juices. If pictured, each cell can be seen as being in a stream of a mixed nutrient-rich portal blood from the gut and oxygen-rich arterial blood from the general circulation. These fluids disseminate through the cell and are subjected to heavy dispensation that is a part of the liver function. The metabolic products that are born out of this activity move from the liver cell into the outgoing blood flow. Some of the most important, however, is channeled into a separate exit that drains into the biliary system. The liver thus self-cleanses by its own mechanism.

This is the organ which suffers from all the harmful effects of binge eating, defective digestion or ill health by being overloaded with toxins or the deposition of waste material. The fluids which pass through the liver cells may not be enough to wash out the toxins. This poses a threat to the liver making it prone to liver pathology or a more common range of functional disorders. Improved flow of bile juice will definitely not allow such waste material to accumulate. Bitters play this role very effectively. With the consumption of toxic materials increasing, this is certainly one of the advantages.

The bitters have been proven to be effective in curing all allergic, metabolic and immunological conditions where the diagnosis points to the digestion. The liver exerts an influence over the immunological system as well. Even in the case of herbal therapies for migraines, hepatic remedies are suggested, most of which use the bitter.

The use of bitters leads to greater production of biliary elements and dilutes the bile as well by increasing the bicarbonate content. In the case of gallstone formation or gall-bladder disease, that is formed by the over deposition of bile, bitters are known to work wonders. Along with lemon juice which dilutes the bile as well, bitters are also an effective and accepted treatment of these diseases.

Bitters Improve Pancreatic Functions

Gastrin helps pancreatic secretion and also increases the secretion of insulin and glucagon, the two main hormones the pancreas produces. However, these are conflicting in nature. There is a possibility of a ‘state dependent’ effect. This is a response to gastrin that varies according to the condition of mutual and simultaneous secretion of the two hormones.
Bitters have also been used in controlling late-onset diabetes. Chinese physiology states that bitters can effectively reactive hypoglycemia and produce immediate and excellent results.
Thus, we conclude that bitters neutralize pancreatic hormone secretions by increasing the amount of glucagon when insulin is high and vice versa. They are more likely to raise a hormone level when it is deficient. Bitters control fluctuations in blood sugar levels permanently and temporarily as well.

Bitters Act as Tonics

All the above contributions of bitters make it easy to understand that they can boost your health to a great extent. Their primary role is to stimulate all the above-mentioned digestive functions. The digestive processes are the platform where the nourishment requirements of the body are met. This is the place where the body examines the materials it is fed with and most calorific and metabolic processes are regulated. Depending upon the extent to which this platform is in danger under the modern living conditions, it might or might not respond to the bitter remedies.

Bitter remedies were mainly resorted to in old age or in a convalescent state in order to be able to improve the quality of nourishment to the body. However, in the modern age, as illnesses become chronic in nature and more frequent, attacking persons of all ages, it is advisable to resort to bitter remedies. Food has also become less wholesome and more prone to indigestion. Bitter remedies can definitely offset the harmful effects of adulteration to a great extent.