By Betsy Miller
Many health practitioners believe that the secret to optimal health is through the gut; one of the primary ways that herbalists improve digestive health is through the use of bitter herbs to stimulate digestive secretions, enhance nutrient absorption, improve liver function and increase elimination of wastes. Digestive bitters are various herbs and/or herbal formulas that blend bitter, aromatic and tonifying plants to enhance digestive function.
Bitters are best taken just before a meal, to prepare the body for the food it is about to consume. Depending upon the person, different types of bitter plants might be indicated. Individuals with a colder, slower digestive system may benefit more from a blend of aromatic bitters, including calamus or turmeric. Those challenged by heavier foods, such as fats or proteins, might benefit more from the stronger pure bitters, such as gentian. Most often, bitters formulas blend the properties of both these types of herbs in order to accommodate many types of digestive patterns.
Dandelion root is one of the most popular digestive bitter herbs. It tastes both bitter and nutty, with a slight sweetness; energetically it is cooling and drying, as well as stimulating to the digestive tract. Dandelion root contains prebiotic inulin to support gut flora, and is considered a choleretic and a cholagogue, meaning it stimulates both the production and flow of bile. This is particularly helpful in the digestion of dietary fats. Individuals struggling with food allergies/intolerances, high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome and constipation could all benefit from a bitters blend that features dandelion root.
As a digestive bitter, we use the basal leaf of the artichoke plant, not the fruit that is so delicious to eat. The leaf is very bitter, cooling and drying. Artichoke leaf is also a choleretic and cholagogue, and a very strong hypocholesteremic, meaning it helps to lower high cholesterol. More importantly, artichoke leaf helps to bring HDL and LDL cholesterol into better balance. Artichoke leaf is also considered a hepatotrophorestorative, meaning it helps to regenerate healthy liver tissue and function. Using artichoke leaf, or a bitters blend with artichoke leaf in it, will also help those who struggle with digesting heavy foods, suffer from constipation, are having a difficult time managing high cholesterol, or are dealing with food intolerance.
Turmeric is a widely known, widely used plant revered for numerous healing properties, including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and pain relieving actions. Like dandelion root and artichoke leaf, turmeric is a choleretic, cholagogue and hepatotrophorestorative. Turmeric, however, is warming where the other two are cooling, making it indicated for what in Ayurvedic medicine is known as a kapha-gut, or in Western herbalism a phlegmatic digestive system. This pattern tends to be cold and stagnant, and improves with the introduction of warming herbs and spices. Turmeric is also a carminative, making it extremely beneficial for relieving discomfort due to gas and bloating. Incorporating turmeric as a digestive bitter has shown efficacy in the management of inflammatory gut conditions, dyspepsia, food allergies and high cholesterol.