Herbalism, Anatomy, Physiology Series

Healing starts with the gut. That’s what our herbalists will tell you. A healthy digestive system supports our mental and emotional well-being, while also processing nutrients and delivering them through the entire body. And it’s not just about what you eat, but rather, what you assimilate. Through the release of the liver’s bile and digestive enzymes and an orchestra of other processes, our bodies are capable of creating fuel from the foods we eat and absorbing essential vitamins and minerals. That’s why a healthy digestive function is so important to herbal practitioners and why many tea and tincture formulas contain herbs to support the gut and the liver.

Herbalists aren’t the only practitioners to recognize the immense powers of the gut. Recent studies show that “gut feelings” aren’t just an old wives’ tale; they’re actually an old wise tale, which highlights what we now know: the gut-brain connection is incredibly intricate, and even the microbiota in our gut can influence our serotonin levels and, in turn, our mood.

Recent studies show that “gut feelings” aren’t just an old wives’ tale; they’re actually an old wise tale…

So How Does it All Work?

Digestion begins when you first see and smell your food. The sight and aroma of a delicious meal trigger the salivary glands, which release saliva to help the body break down sugar and starches. This is why digestive bitters are so good to take medicinally; they stimulate a similar reaction by igniting the taste buds to set off the production of digestive juices, from saliva to bile. We then chew our food, which is one of the first voluntary opportunities we have to promote healthy digestion. By chewing slowly, we can more mindfully process our food and promote healthy digestion.

Once you swallow your food, it then passes through the esophagus through peristalsis, a series of wave-like motions that helps to move food through the digestive tract to the stomach, where it can be stored for up to five hours. With the help of gastric juices, your food breaks down into a liquid substance called chyme and is slowly released into the small intestine. While most of the absorption happens in the small intestine, water and medications are capable of being absorbed quickly through the stomach and then directly into the bloodstream. This is why medicinal teas are so powerful.

To call this intestine small is a bit misleading. This vital organ stretches about 22 feet in length and absorbs critical nutrients through the walls of its lengthy and windy canal. From there, these digested nutrients are absorbed and delivered to the rest of the body via the bloodstream. Next stop on the digestion ride? The large intestine, where the final undigested particles are either absorbed or turned into waste to be released through the rectum. By examining or asking questions about your stool, traditional medicine practitioners can tell if your digestive system and processes of elimination are functioning properly. (Incidentally, this is why consultations involve a lot of talk about number two!) During this whole process, accessory organs like the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas also work in tandem with the stomach and intestines to facilitate digestion.

So what happens if those gut feelings aren’t all that pleasant? Here at Traditional Medicinals, we turn to our herbal allies. There are many different ways to approach digestive dysfunction, depending on the root of the symptom. If nerves are throwing your gut out of whack, we suggest calming nervines like lemon balm and chamomile.* If a heavy celebratory meal has got you feeling like a spaz, ginger is the perfect carminative to warm and soothe digestive spasms and bloating.* Or, if you’re having trouble digesting fats it might be time to use some herbal bitters, like dandelion leaf and root tea, to support liver function.* While the world of herbal remedies can feel overwhelming, digestive support is where plants easily shine. Adding these herbal teas to your eating rituals can do wonders for digestive support.*

Herbs for the Digestive System

Peppermint (Mentha x Piperita): cool and uplifting, a herbal carminative that alleviates digestive discomfort.*

Dandelion Leaf and Root (Taraxacum officinale): while the whole plant can be enjoyed as a medicinal tea for its bitter liver supporting properties,* its leaves can be enjoyed in salad, pesto, and more.*

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): this sweet, soothing tea might not taste like herbal medicine, but each seed contains essential oils rich with anethole and fenchone, known for their capacity to ease bloating and gas.*

Ginger (Zingiber officinale): a warming carminative traditionally used for motion sickness, stomach upset, and cramping.*

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis): used for thousands of years as an aromatic nervine to support digestion and calm frazzled nerves.*

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita): this common flower isn’t just a sleep aid but also a calming flower that eases digestion and relaxes twitchy tummies.*

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra): while we famously infuse this (inner) bark into our Throat Coat Tea, this demulcent herb soothes gastrointestinal tissues, too.*

Calendula (Calendula officinalis): herbalists prize this golden flower for lending its bright notes to herbal butter, and salads. Traditionally, they use it as a gentle demulcent to moisten and soothe digestive tissue.*

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): this common flower isn’t just a lovely scent, but also a treasure trove of essential oils that work to calm nerves and upset tummies.

While the human body is amazingly complex, herbs that support it don’t have to be. By simply infusing one medicinal herb into your day—like herbal tea—you’re adding hundreds of medicinal compounds in your life that you didn’t have before! It’s always a good idea to connect with a herbal practitioner for individual recommendations.

bitters-class

Citrus Spiced Dandelion Bitters

Bitters aren’t just for fancy cocktails. They’re also an incredible digestive aid perfect for any holiday season.* We too enjoy mulled wines, grandma’s cinnamon raisin bread and those amazing miniature hors-d’oeuvres (that we ate a dozen of) at last week’s holiday party. But sometimes, our bodies have trouble processing all these bizarre combinations of foods. It’s at these times we turn to our bitter allies, like our lovely Citrus Spiced Dandelion Bitters.

Traditionally, all cultures enjoyed bitter foods during their mealtime rituals. Many of these bitter plants were collected from the wild or found in the garden, but farming has actually changed the taste of many of our bitter greens. Our cultivated vegetables have been bred to appeal to our preference for sweet foods, and the consequence is we’re now missing out on the incredible wellness benefits of these bitter plant allies. The bitter taste actually activates the liver and digestive juices to prepare the body to effectively process foods, which is especially helpful when digesting all the rich and fatty foods that we tend to enjoy more of during the holiday season.*

In Western Herbalism, we often create bitters as tinctures, which make it easy to incorporate bitters on the go. Tinctures are plant extracts (usually alcohol based) that can easily be taken from a dosage bottle. Taking bitters can be helpful anytime, but we suggest a teaspoon about 30 minutes before eating to give the plants enough time to activate our bodies’ natural digestive processes.

In this tincture, we have chosen to include herbs that are simple to find in the produce section, spice aisle or perhaps growing in your front yard! One of our favorite ingredients here is dandelion, and while some might consider this plant a pesky weed, the dandelion is incredibly supportive of both our digestive system and our bodies’ natural detoxification process by helping the body break down fats and carry away waste.* If you can’t find any fresh dandelion root, we would suggest using an organic Dandelion Leaf and Root Tea for this recipe.

When you taste your homemade bitters, you’ll notice a rich orange flavor, followed by cinnamon spice and a mild touch of bitter at the end.

 

Ingredients:

1 cup white rum

4 tsp of fresh orange peel

2 tbs dried dandelion root and leaf (or 6 tbsp fresh, chopped finely)

2 tsp fresh ginger

½ tsp cinnamon

6 cardamom pods

 

Materials:

12 oz Mason jar

6-8 amber dropper bottles (1 oz)

Instructions:

Place all herbs into a mason jar, and fill to the top of the jar.

Label your jar with the name, plants used, alcohol used and alcohol strength. Include the date on the label.

Shake daily for two weeks, and then strain out the herbs with muslin or cheesecloth. Be sure to squeeze out any remaining liquid from the herbs.

You should have enough extract to fill about six (or more) one-ounce dropper bottles.

You can save all this plant power for yourself, or share the bounty as gifts with friends and families. We would like to add that we would not recommend using bitters if you have kidney stones, gallbladder disease, acid reflux, hiatal hernia, gastritis, peptic ulcers, severe menstrual cramping, or if you are pregnant.