Using Bitter Herbs for Better Gut Health
Gut health is super important - today and every day. As we all know by now, your gut health is directly connected to the health of your brain, immune system, and overall health. The great news is that there are herbs that can help you keep your digestive system in tip top shape. Of course, there are varying lifestyle factors that are going to make these herbs work better for you and your body:
- Diet – avoid inflammatory foods for your unique body
- Exercise – you’ve got to move it or lose it
- Sleep health – getting enough zzz’s is critical
These all play a vital role in your overall health. And, truth be told, herbs don’t work well, when you’re not able to treat your body well. All of that being said, there’s still a lot of magic and power in these precious plants. Let’s chat about bitter herbs and how they can affect your digestion, especially after so many sweets were ingested over the holidays.
Bitters can help in treating your body as an integrated whole, and as a preventative medicine. Bitter has much to do with taste, and your taste buds, and they trigger a response from the taste buds on the back of your tongue. The interesting thing is that there has been some research showing that the bitter taste receptors known as TAS2R, are not only expressed in the mouth, but there’s also evidence of these receptors in the actual gastrointestinal tissue, including your stomach, and also they’ve been found in the respiratory tract as well. Super fascinating research there, and much deeper than I can go into here.
The bitter flavor stimulates a response from the taste buds on the back of your tongue, and they send a message to your Central Nervous System, which then sends a message to your gut to release the digestive hormone Gastrin. Gastrin helps the pancreas produce enzymes for digestion and helps the liver produce bile. It also stimulates the intestines to help move food through the digestive tract.
Bitters also help to:
- Stimulate your appetite
- Stimulate the release of digestive juices from your liver, pancreas, and duodenum, helping with digestive issues due to allergens
- Increase the flow of bile from the liver, and improve the liver’s ability to detoxify your body
- Help to regulate the pancreatic hormones that regulate your blood sugar, insulin, and glucagon
- Stimulates the self-repair mechanisms for your gut wall
Having healthy upper digestive function is very important in maintaining overall health and preventing disease. It’s been shown that low acidity in the digestive system leads to poor nutrient absorption and abnormal bowel flora. Low gastric acidity has also been linked to several chronic diseases such as rosacea, eczema, gallbladder disease, and asthma, as well as being more susceptible to bacterial and parasitic infections in the intestines.
Bitter herbs can also have a tonic effect on the body as they help with poor upper digestive function, low appetite, they can also be used to help those with anemia. They can be helpful when dealing with food allergies and intolerances, as well as boosting immune function.
The good news is there’s quite an array of herbs you can use to help get bitters into your body and work for you to achieve optimal health. Of course, without proper diet, sleep and exercise, these herbs are going to have a much harder time working with you and your body.
Some of my favorite bitter herbs are:
I love chamomile because it’s super yummy. Its apple-y fresh scent every time I’m near just brings me the happies! I know most people think of chamomile, and they think of something to help them relax or go to sleep. But chamomile is quite wonderful for your gut. It's rich in essential oils that act specifically on our digestive system, and ease gassiness, bloating and tummy upset. It helps to soothe the walls of the intestines, and calms inflammation in the gut. And, of course it is also rich in bitters. One thing I notice about chamomile when I brew it in tea, is that if you let it steep for too long, like over 10-15 minutes, the sweet apple-y taste is replaced by a strong bitter flavor. The same bitter flavor that’s going to stimulate salivation and the rest of the digestive juices to flow.
Dandelion, yup that pesky “weed” that pops up all over your yard, and darn near everywhere you look, has incredible benefits as a bitter herb, and a very nutritious herb as well. You can use the dandelion root and the spring leaves as food.
The spring greens are a welcome sight after a few months of the cozier, rich winter foods we tend to eat. They can be used as fresh greens on a salad, turned into pesto, and so many other things. They’re not only rich in bitters and able to stimulate digestion and your digestive secretions, they’re also particularly nutritious. They’re rich in potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and inulin too.
The roots of dandelion are also rich in inulin. Inulin is what’s known as a PRE-biotic for the gut. It’s a starchy carbohydrate that can improve your gut flora and overall health. The roots spend their time diggin’ deep into the earth, and extracting various minerals and vitamins into the plant such as manganese, iron, calcium, and potassium. Dandelion roots are also amazing for liver stagnation in the body, as they help to get the bile flowing which improves sluggish digestion, especially when you have trouble breaking down fats.
A few other popular herbs to use for their bitter properties are:
Gentian is a very popular herb to use for its bitter properties. It helps stimulate the appetite and of course, like bitters do, it promotes the flow of the digestive juices such as bile, saliva, and gastric juices. This lovely yellow plant grows as a native in the pastures and meadows around the Southern and Central European Mountains and is commonly used as an aperitif, to take before meals and aid in digestion. Where I live, we have a Mountain Bog Gentian that grows in the high meadows. It’s such a beautiful little purple flower that I just love. And, fortunately, it also has some great bitter properties to it as well.
Wormwood is another popular very effective bitter herb. And it’s also used in the popular drink absinth, as the Latin name for wormwood is Artemisia Absinthium. Traditionally wormwood used to support healthy appetite levels and gastrointestinal function. It’s great as a carminative; it promotes healthy flora balance in the gut, and of course its super rich in bitters! It can also be used to cleanse the digestive tract of parasites and toxins.
So whether you’re using herbs before a meal to fire up your digestion, stimulate the flow of those digestive juices and ease gassiness and bloating, or if you’re taking them after a meal to try to ease heartburn or indigestion, clearly you can see that the use of bitters are critical to your gut health, and to your overall health.
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*Always remember to contact your healthcare provider when considering the use of botanical medicine as a possible treatment option and medical considerations. While the information in this article is absolutely relevant, herbs work differently for each person and each condition.
**I am a trained herbalist and not a licensed or registered healthcare practitioner. I cannot diagnose health conditions, nor prescribe medicines legally; I am not a medical doctor. However, I will recommend or suggest medicinal herbs for various health complaints, as I do believe in the safety and efficacy of botanical medicine.
***The information I’ve provided is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment. Please consult your medical care provider before using herbal medicine, particularly if you have a known medical condition or if you are pregnant or nursing.
About the Author: Melissa Mutterspaugh
Melissa lives in Oregon, in the foothills of Mount Hood. She's a clinical herbalist, environmental educator, mother, wilderness therapist, lover, nemophilist, music-loving maniac, and the founder of Mountain Mel's Essential Goods. She is passionate about inspiring others to take better care of our planet, through taking better care of themselves, naturally!