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 Herbal Medicine: Tonics, Bitters and Digestion 
"What does bitter have to do with good digestion?" an American might ask, promptly making an awful face to indicate that a bitter flavor is the last thing in the world he or she would voluntarily let past their lips.

In fact, bitter gets a pretty bad rap in this country, as evidenced by common American sayings, such as "that was a bitter experience," "he was very bitter about it," or "she cried bitterly." Doesn't bring to mind soothing, relaxing or enjoyable images, do they?

Reluctant though we may be about bitters, they really are good for us--in moderation, of course. Our tastes have become jaded as we have more and more sought refined and bland foods over the last 60 or 70 years. Virtually no bitter, coarse or fibrous foods are included in our diets. The shelves of any market (including natural foods stores) are lined with products that have had much of their bitter flavor replaced with sweet and salty ones. However, more than 100 years ago, we couldn't go to the corner grocery and buy a variety of refined, bland food. We had to grow our own or go into the fields and woods and pick our own. When I was in Greece recently, I saw many people picking wild greens and eating them with gusto. They also ate unripe plums at the table as a digestive tonic. The little green plums have a decidedly bitter, sour and astringent flavor. As children, we instinctively go for bitter greens and unripe fruit. Many times well-meaning parents will warn us that all these things are bad for us, when in fact, very few are poisonous, and the flavorful wild foods are superb for stimulating the digestion. Of course, because there are a few poisonous plants, it is important to learn which are good and which are not and to show the children, who are always enthusiastic and eager to learn, as I've experienced on many herb walks.

We evolved as humans eating a variety of bitter greens (many wild greens have a bitter taste)and probably had a variety of taste experiences each day. Our digestion became quite accustomed to these many flavors over the millenia, and now, without them, digestive ills abound.

I have the opportunity to counsel people as I travel around the country lecturing on health and herbs. In Southern California recently, on one day I had consultations with nearly 20 people, 16 of whom had moderate to severe digestive problems. This tells me that our digestive tract is not getting the care and love it needs.

Of course bitters are not the only factor in poor digestion. Notice the sidebar: Building Strong Digestion.


Building Strong Digestion
Exercise in the morning before eating
Chew food well
Never eat while tired or upset
Happy, positive thoughts while eating
Never eat too late at night-- give the digestion a good rest each night
Eat slowly
Never overeat--always undereat slightly
Take a walk after dinner
Never combine sweet fruits and cooked protein
Get a variety of flavors at each meal
Eat whole food, reduce refined foods
Take your bitters!
Good Elimination
Don't eat too early in the morning or too late at night
Take time for a mid-day "movement"
Keep your feet up on a small stool during elimination
Drink enough water (at least 4 glasses a day)
Eat a raw salad every day with a variety of vegetables
Walk every day and breathe deeply
Use bowel tonic herbs where needed
Try an intestinal cleansing program once a year, with liver flushes
Take your bitters!

Many herbalists and naturally-oriented health practioners feel that good digestion and elimination are the foundations of good physical health.

I try to go to Euorope every year. When I'm traveling there, I can't help but notice how healthy, vital and slender many people seem. Overweight is not the problem it is here in America. In Germany, there are 20 million doses of bitters taken every day. The Italians and Swiss are also famous bitter-takers. Of course, every race or country has their own common health imbalances, but in Germany, there is not nearly the digestive problems that we have here.

Let's look at a few ways the digestion can become underactive or not function properly. First of all, what symptoms are usually experienced when the digestion is not working properly? Usual symptoms are constipation, gas, bloating, aches and pains in the digestive area and diarrhea. But it can go beyond these "first-line" symptoms. When our digestion is not at optimum potential, our energy suffers, and we feel really tired; also, we may have aches or pains because of metabolic by-products that are not being properly eliminated. We might experience symptoms of allergy, such as diarrhea or fatigue because of undigested proteins that can become allergens to us. Also, when our assimilation of nutrients is not good, especially if this goes on for more than a few months or even years, our immune system can suffer drastically. We may be more open to a variety of viral and other diseases, such as chronic fatigue syndrome or candidiasis. Thus, it becomes apparent that our digestion really is the foundation of health.

What can be done with herbs to make sure our digestion is operating at maximum efficiency? Foremost among herbal treatments for digestion are the bitters. What do bitters actually do? As soon as the bitter flavor hits our tongue and activates the bitter sensors, a signal is sent out to the entire digestive tract. This may be a mechanism that was created in our natures many thousands of years ago as we picked wild bitter greens and ate them. It was a signal, telling our digestive tract that food was coming, so it better start preparing. This signal, then, increases the tone and strength of peristaltic waves (the regular movements of the digestive tract to mix the food with digestive juices and keep the resulting wastes moving to be eventually eliminated.) In addition, the production of all the digestive juices, such as hydrochloric acid and bile are stepped up. Exciting new studies show that bitters can even activate immune function through sensors in the small intestine! Thus, overall digestion and elimination can be greatly improved. For people wanting to lose weight, it will be interesting to note that regular use of bitters can help increase the metabolism and enhance elimination. They can really play an important role in a weight-loss program.

One way to get our bitters is to eat bitter greens, such as kale, mustard greens, collards or endive. Wild greens such as dandelion greens, plantain, dock, mallow or sow thistle are even better. However, if you live in a place where it is difficult to pick your own wild greens, eat at least one serving of green leafy vegetables a day. This will help but still may not provide for our "daily minimum requirement" of bitters, because many store-bought greens are cultivated for a bland sweet taste.

Fortunately, there are a variety of bitter products on the shelf of the natural food store. People ask me sometimes if they can take their bitters in a pill form, but this is cheating. How can one really get the full benefits of bitters if you can't taste them? Now, they may well have some benefit and be better than nothing if one will absolutely not have anything to do with the flavor of bitter, but bitters in a liquid form are much superior. Consider this axiom: "the more we react to or are disgusted by bitter, the more we need it." Perhaps when our digestive energy is freely flowing and functioning normally, we will not mind our bitters.

The liquid bitter products contain a variety of herbs , but among the most famous are gentian, artichoke leaves, centaury, aloe, barberry, dandelion, wormwood or mugwort (or other Artemesias) and blessed thistle. Most traditional bitter formulas also have 2 other categories of herbs added to help the bitters work better and to help us be more receptive to them. The first is aromatic herbs. These herbs help mask the harshness of the bitter flavor and also function to help warm and activate the digestive juices, counteracting any tendency of bitters to cause contraction, as is its nature if too much straight bitter is taken at one time. Aromatic herbs that are commonly found in bitter tonic formulas are angelica, orange peel, fennel, cardamon, caraway, dill, nutmeg and ginger. Finally, sweet herbs are often added to help counteract the aftertaste of the straight bitter herbs. When we think of a "bittersweet" experience, we are not as disgusted by the thought of it as a bitter experience. It even sounds kind of nice. As a sweetener, licorice is very often used, but interestingly, the herb gentian, one of the most important ingredients of bitters, is by nature bitter and sweet. Ginseng root is also bitter and sweet and is often used in Chinese medicine to help build people up who are recovering from illness and have weak digestion or assimilation; or for old people whose digestion tends to be not quite as strong as when we are younger. Sometimes laxative herbs (such as senna or aloe) are added to a bitter formula--this type of formula can be effective during times of constipation.

Once you become accustomed to the bitters, you may well find that you don't want to do without them. This may be kind of a reverse Pavlov reaction--you will be feeling so good when you think of them, the excellent association will improve your digestion and elimination even without tasting them.
 Comments Add your comment 
rajione wrote
   6/11/2010 10:28:00 AM    (report abuse)
Propoer digestion is very important for all the nutrients to get absorbed in food. I trust Proleva, it helped get rid of bloating stomach and helps me in detoxifying my body.
 About The Author
Christopher Hobbs LAc, AHG Christopher Hobbs is a fourth generation herbalist and botanist with over 30 years experience with herbs. Founder of Native Herb Custom Extracts (now Rainbow Light Custom Extracts) and the Institute for Natural Products......more
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