Digestive Tonics

We have evolved as humans eating a variety of wild bitter greens and most probably once had an even broader variety of taste experiences each day. Our digestion has became quite accustomed to these many flavors over the millennia, and now with less of them on our plate – and considering other modern lifestyle factors – digestive issues are growing rapidly.

The Bitter Flavour

For thousands of years, bitter herbs have been used in alternative healing. Known as “bitters,” these herbs can affect physiological reactions within the body, working as an astringent, a tonic, a relaxer, a stomachic, and an internal cleanser. In particular, bitter herbs have been used to improve digestion and counter inflammation.

Indeed, a “bitter herb” is essentially any herb that possesses a bitter taste. Historically, people have used this group of plants for ceremony, healing, and cooking. Ranging from mild to strong, these herbs can be as light as chamomile or as biting as rue.

T2R’s

Until very recently the thinking was that a bitter herb needed to be tasted on the tongue so that the bitter taste receptors (T2 receptors or T2R’s) were stimulated, and consequently releasing digestives enzymes from the pancreas in preparation of the food coming. We now know that T2R’s are not restricted to the tongue but are distributed throughout the stomach, intestine and pancreas. So this means that that humble bitter herb or food keeps working all the way down the gut. The esophagus starts its wave, the pancreas produces digestive enzymes and your own personal combination of probiotics, the gall bladder produces bile, and the many kilometers of intestines get ready to receive the partially broken down food eaten many hours earlier.

T2R’s not only keep the organs of digestion in constant communication – from the top to the bottom and all stops along the way – but research is now suggesting they trigger a hormone that stimulates the digestion of fat and protein and limits the absorption of dietary toxins. The new experiments suggest that the hormone stimulates intestinal cells that absorb nutrients, which in turn transport a variety of chemicals, and toxins, out of our cells. Considering how toxic our environment is today, sounds like bitter foods should be back on the menu for good.

A diet high in processed food, stress, ill health and the natural aging process can all cause the number of natural digestive enzymes in the body to decline, making digestion more difficult and uncomfortable.  These digestive enzymes are essential to help break down the food we eat and support the digestion and nutrient absorption process.

HomemadeBefore or After a Meal?

It is perhaps most common for people to take bitters before meals as a means of ‘priming’ the digestive system. However according to master herbalists – taking bitters after a meal can also be a helpful way to stimulate bile production in reaction to the foods consumed and reduce any bloating/gas.

Bitters can also be used independently to reduce sugar cravings and reset appetite at any time of the day.

 Commonly Used Bitter Herbs

 Angelica

For centuries, people have used Angelica (Angelica archangelica), for its properties make it a stimulant, stomachic, and tonic. For liquors, it’s been used to flavor gin.

Chamomile

Chamomile’s (Matricaria chamomilla) curative properties seem almost endless. This mild bitter herb is used as a sedative and antispasmodic.

Dandelion Leaf

Dandelion (Taraxacum) is a mild bitter herb used as a blood cleanser and diuretic. It is still used in traditional cooking in the Mediterranean and parts of Asia.

Gentian Root

Gentian (Gentiana lutea) has been used in European and Eastern herbal medicine throughout the 3,000 years since its discovery to treat gallbladder problems and as a bitter tonic to improve digestion.

Goldenseal

Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis) is a strong bitter herb used to stimulate the appetite and eliminate infections

Horehound

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) dates back to Ancient Egypt and is believed to be one of the bitter herbs mentioned in the Bible.

Milk Thistle

Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum), which is also known as “sow-thistle,” is known as a powerful liver detoxifier.

Peppermint

Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is a flavor, a fragrance, and medicine. Peppermint oil may allay nausea and stomach aches, and peppermint has been called “the world’s oldest medicine.”

Rue

Rue (Ruta) is a strong bitter herb used as an antispasmodic, a sedative, and a mild stomachic.

Wormwood

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is a perennial plant used as an antiseptic, tonic, diuretic and stomachic. The herb’s strong bitter taste is still used in wines and spirits such as vermouth.

Yarrow

Yarrow (Achilles millefolium) is a flowering plant that produces a mild bitter herb used as an astringent and cold remedy.

You can take these herbs as an herbal tincture, powder or tablet available from your Naturopath or Herbalist, or else you’ll find them in health food stores. Alternatively, buy the dried herbs and make into a tea, cool or hot. If you’re lucky enough to have some of these herbs growing, gently cut a small handful of leaves per cup and steep for 5-10 mins in boiling water. (Be sure to always leave at least a third of the plant to preserve its own good health.)

Herbal Liqueur

I personally love the tradition of enjoying an aperitif – a slightly bitter, herbal beverage to stimulate digestive juices before a meal just makes sense to me. It slows us down, let’s us know we’re about to eat, so we can let go of the day and relax.

Campari is one of those drinks. It’s slightly bitter, being flavoured by 68 different fruits, herbs and spices including quinine, ginseng, rhubarb, the peel of bitter oranges and aromatic herbs; the bitterness explaining it’s positive effect on our digestion. Aperol, which is made from an infusion of rhubarb root, quinine, gentian and bitter orange peel, also originating in Italy, is another low-alcohol aperitif made from rhubarb, gentian, quinine and bitter orange peel. Jagermeister is a well-known German digestif (after dinner drink) is based on various herbs that are known to aid the digestive process.

In Germany, there are 20 million doses of bitters taken every day. The Italians and Swiss are also famous bitter-takers, and it just so happens they don’t have anywhere near our level of digestive problems.

Herbal Liqueurs – many of which were first created for ‘medicinal use’ are still very popular in Europe. There are many famous examples originally made by Monks, and often made to age- old recipes with tens, if not hundreds, of ingredients. Chartreuse and Benedictine are both good examples of Monastic liqueurs.

A blend of 130 plants including sweet flag, peppermint, hyssop, lemon balm, angelica, wormwood and cardamom — flavours Green Chartreuse, which has been produced by monks of the Carthusian order in the French Alps since 1764. Only three of the brothers are said to know the secret recipe. The French Bénédictine, based on a Renaissance monk’s recipe, includes aloe, angelica, coriander, hyssop, juniper, myrrh and saffron among its 27 botanical ingredients.

 In the 15th to 19th centuries it was common for liqueurs to be made using just one type of herb or spice and had their origin in medicines. Honey or sugar, and spices were added to alleviate some of the bitterness. Modern cough mixtures have a similar background.

 Today however, the solely medicinal use of liqueurs is somewhat limited as an alcoholic beverage. Most of them now fall into two categories – aperitifs or digestives. An aperitif tends to be dry and sweet and works to get the palate ready, while a digestif is there to settle the stomach after a meal, and is often herbal and bitter. With regard to alcohol content they’ll typically run the gamut from a relatively low 16% to 40%.

DIY Herbal Tonics and Liqueurs

The principal herbs and spices used for making liqueurs and herbal tonics at home.

  • Allspice berries (Pimenta Dioica Merr.)
  • Angelica root and seeds (Angelica Archangelica L.)
  • Anise seeds (Pimpinela Anisum L.)
  • Cardamon seeds (Elettaria Cardamomum Maton)
  • Cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum Zeylanicum Bl.)
  • Cloves flower buds (Eugenia Carophylata Thunb.)
  • Coriander seeds (Coriandrum Sativum L.)
  • Fennel seeds and tops (Foeniculum Vulgare Mill.)
  • Gentian root (Gentiana Lutea L.)
  • Hyssop leaves (Hyssopus Officinalis L.)
  • Juniper berries (Juniperus Communis L.)
  • Lemon Balm leaves (Melissa Officinalis L.)
  • Marjoram leaves (Origanum Majorana L.)
  • Oregano leaves (Origanum Vulgare L.)
  • Peppermint leaves (MenthaxPiperata L.)
  • Star anise seeds (Illicium Verum Hook)
  • Thyme leaves (Thymus Vulgaris L.)
  • Tumeric root (Curcuma Longa L.)
  • Vanilla seeds (Vanilla Planifolia Andr.)

 Blitzing the herbs in a blender eliminates the need for a lengthy infusion time, while the simmered cinnamon syrup provides just the right amount of sweet heat. Sip it on the rocks or with a splash of soda.

Ingredients:

375-ml vodka (preferably high-proof)

10 grams fresh spearmint

2 grams fresh tarragon

2 grams fresh thyme

3 grams fresh sage

2 grams fresh oregano

6 grams fresh basil

1/4 cup honey

1/2 cup water

1 small cinnamon stick

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Pint-size glass jar with lid

  1. De-stem all the herbs, reserving the leaves and discarding the stems.
  2. Combine the leaves with the vodka in a blender. Blend on high for 1 minute. Set aside.
  3. In a small saucepan, combine honey and water over medium heat. Break cinnamon stick into large pieces and add cinnamon and nutmeg to the saucepan. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat, cover and let cool to room temperature.
  4. After the syrup has cooled, remove cinnamon pieces and add spiced honey syrup to the vodka-herb mixture in the blender. Pulse several times to combine.
  5. Line a funnel with a single layer of a clean kitchen towel and strain mixture into a clean glass jar. Let rest for several hours and repeat strain, if desired, leaving sediment at bottom of jar.

TIP: If you prefer a clearer liqueur, strain the batch through a coffee filter before bottling.

Bitters

Amaro means bitter in Italian. It is an herbal infusion in alcohol and amari (plural of amaro) are still popular in Italy as digestifs, or after dinner drinks.

A recipe for a simple Amaro or Bitters:

  • 5 leaves melissa (lemon balm)
  • 5 leaves sage
  • 10 leaves (not sprigs) rosemary
  • 10 leaves wormwood
  • Flowering top of a European centaury plant (from herbal shop)
  • 15 juniper berries
  • 5 cloves
  • 12mm piece cinnamon
  • A piece of ores root (Florentine Iris)
  • A piece of calamus root (Sweet Flag)
  • A piece of gentian root
  • 2/3 cups water

The wormwood, centaury and gentian provide the bitterness. Macerate herbs in alcohol for 2 weeks, add sugar syrup to taste. Strain, place in a bottle and allow to age.

Highland Bitters

“In Scotland bitters were traditionally drunk before meals, especially breakfast, ‘for the purpose of strengthening the stomach, and by that means invigorating the general health’. Any kind of spirit could be used and sometimes wine or ale.

  • 5g gentian root
  • 30g coriander seed
  • 15g bitter orange peel
  • 7g chamomile flowers
  • 15g cloves (whole)
  • 15g cinnamon stick
  • 2 bottles whisky

Finely chop the gentian root and orange peel (free of pith). Place in mortar with seeds, cloves, cinnamon and chamomile flowers. Bruise all together, place in an earthen- ware jar, pour in the whisky and make the jar airtight. Leave for ten days, then strain and bottle.” (‘A Country Cup’ W. Paterson, 1980)

 Ratios

Herb/Spice Quantity (grams/litre)
Orange peel 50-100
Lemon peel 60-250
Bitter orange peel 2.5-50
Rosemary 0.5-1
Saffron 0.1-0.5
Star anise 3-20
Cinnamon 3-15
Vanilla 0.5-2
Bay leaves 0.5-2
Cardamom 4-20
Nutmeg 3-6
Allspice 3-6
Ginger 1.5-12
Cloves 0.6-3
Black pepper 2-24

NOTE – For those who don’t want to use sugar to sweeten their liqueurs you can use stevia powder (from health food shops) or fresh stevia leaves. A sugar syrup substitute can be made by infusing 10 leaves of fresh stevia leaves in 200ml of boiled water.

NOTE – For those wishing to avoid the alcohol that is traditionally used as a solvent and preservative in bitter tonics, Swedish Bitters offer a non-alcoholic style of bitter that is equally as potent and beneficial. Simply squirt one or 2 mls on the tongue after meals and notice them practically immediate effect of one of nature’s most powerful digestive aides!

Until very recently the thinking was that a bitter herb needed to be tasted on the tongue so that the bitter taste receptors (T2 receptors or T2R’s) were stimulated, and consequently releasing digestives enzymes from the pancreas in preparation of the food coming. We now know that T2R’s are not restricted to the tongue but are distributed throughout the stomach, intestine and pancreas. So this means that that humble bitter herb or food keeps working all the way down the gut. The esophagus starts its wave, the pancreas produces digestive enzymes and your own personal combination of probiotics, the gall bladder produces bile, and the many kilometers of intestines get ready to receive the partially broken down food eaten many hours earlier.

T2R’s not only keep the organs of digestion in constant communication – from the top to the bottom and all stops along the way – but research is suggesting they trigger a hormone that stimulates the digestion of fat and protein and limits the absorption of dietary toxins.

The new experiments suggest that the hormone stimulates intestinal cells that absorb nutrients, which in turn transport a variety of chemicals, and toxins, out of our cells. Considering how toxic our environment is today, sounds like bitter foods should be back on the menu for good.

Resources

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v486/n7403_supp/full/486S7a.html

Beverages

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