These two herbal actions are often described together. Their action is on the gallbladder and, consequently, the liver. Choleretics promote the gallbladder to produce a higher volume of bile and cholagogues encourage the bile to flow from the gallbladder to the liver.
Bile is a collection of toxins that are manipulated by the gallbladder into bile. It is able to break down fats and other molecules into what we are able to use. Bile is excreted directly into our small intestines to break down of fats so we are more easily able to absorb them. This is also the method of which our body excretes toxins, in the form of bile, into the bowels for them to be removed from our body. In our liver, we further break down our absorbed foods through first pass metabolism so the rest of our body can use the foods and medicines we ingest.
*I will only be describing cholagogues here as their end results are similar
Gentian get’s its cholagogue action from being a bitter herb and generally stimulating the secretion of all digestive fluids, saliva, gastric fluid, as well as bile. The benefits of these three increases can be seen with more effective break down of foods and absorption of nutrition into the body. Gentian is great to consider when you have low energy and do not feel encouraged to eat. As with most cholagogues, consistent use may alter the bowels, making them more frequent.
This plant is most often used for chronic skin conditions. In most traditional medicine systems there is a strong correlation between the skin and the liver. In simple phrasing, this connection is the liver being unable to process all of the toxins in our body. The toxins then begin to alter our skin causing rashes. Oregon grape also helps to flush toxins out through the bowels because of its support with chronic constipation.
Similarly to oregon grape, yellow dock is often used for chronic skin conditions. Yellow dock encourages bile flow while also encouraging the liver to process and remove toxins from the blood more effectively. Its stimulating effects on bile flow are one reason that yellow dock is often used in cases of jaundice when the bile is more stuck and moving appropriately through the system.
Being a more gentle choleretic, I tend to use dandelion first to encourage the body to normalize its bile flow first before hitting the gallbladder harder. While the leaves are most often used as a diuretic, the root of dandelion is helpful for inflammation of the liver through the stimulation of bile flow. It may be used with yellow dock for jaundice symptoms and you should also consider dandelion root when you are trying to detox your liver.
For more information on herbal actions such as choleretic herbs, please consult the book “Medical Herbalism” by David Hoffmann. If you are interested in using these and other herbs on a daily basis, please consult with a professional herbalist.