The use of bitters and aperitifs as digestive tonics has a long history of use, and can be traced across cultures and ages. One finds mention in ancient Egyptian medicinal lore, as well as from Paracelsus, a renaissance era physician and alchemist. While present day use in cocktail culture is more for flavor, the original use was medicinal, to stimulate appetite, reduce gas bloating and enhance overall digestive function.
Bitter herbs in general have cooling, stimulating, and descending actions. They stimulate the release of stomach acid, pancreatic digestive enzymes and bile from the gallbladder. Many of them also enhance detoxification and circulation through the liver, are antimicrobial, and increase downward movement through the digestive tract. The benefits of these herbs, and bitters in general, go beyond the realm of digestion, which is part of why botanical medicine can be so useful in enhancing wellness! The benefits touch every layer, body, mind and spirit.
There are many combinations that one can create, depending on for whom it’s for, flavor preferences, age, and overall constitution. The following recipe is for what I call Winter Spice Bitters, and the formula is designed to stimulate digestion, help heal the mucosa, support liver detox, while also reducing gas and bloating. There are spices added for both flavor and warmth which is appropriate for the cooler months. The overall energetics are to soothe, move and nourish, which is so important during the winter season. There is a certain magic to creating one’s own medicines, there is added potency when created with intention and self/family healing in mind and heart, so I invite you to experiment, read up on the different herbs and choose what calls to you!
The Botanicals: Here is a bit of information about each of the herbs chosen for this formula. To get herbs, I like ordering from Mountain Rose Herbs because I trust their quality and sustainable approach to harvesting. You can often find these herbs at a local herbal apothecary as well.
- Gentian Root (Gentiana lutea): Bitter/Cooling (one of the most bitter). Improves digestion of food thereby addressing anema/nutrient deficiencies. Improves movement through the digestive tract. Great for those who feel exhausted from chronic illness. Also has antiparasitic activity.
- Dandelion Root (Taraxicum officinalis): Bitter/Cooling. Supports bile release from the gallbladder, cleansing and anti-inflammatory for the gallbladder and liver, is a mild laxative. Great for clearing “fire” (inflammation) from the system, including stuck anger/emotions. Supports hormone balance by addressing liver health.
- Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra): Moistening/Neutral. In this formula, this herb was added for its demulcent and synergizing qualities. However it also is tonifying for the adrenals/nervous system and has liver protective qualities. It supports immune function and specifically has antiviral benefits. It is a phytoestrogen, so can help to balance hormones and lessen effects of estrogen dominance. Note: can decrease testosterone so be careful about extended use in males, particularly young males.
- Turmeric Root (Curcuma longa): Warming and Bitter. This is a potent anti-inflammatory herb, it also stimulates release of bile and digestive enzymes. It is protective for the liver, supports overall detoxification, and is protective for DNA.
- Ginger Root (Zingiber officinalis): Warming. Ginger is a carminative, meaning it reduces gas, bloating and cramping pains, it is a circulatory stimulant, increasing blood flow as well as flow of digestive juices. It also has strong anti-inflammatory effects. When fresh it is warming, when dry it is more heating.
- Bitter Orange Peel (Citrus aurantium): Bitter and Cooling. Helps with increasing appetite and metabolism, has the benefits of bitter as described above. Also contains Vitamin C and bioflavonoids which help with mineral absorption in food (especially iron). It also has antifungal and antibacterial properties.
- Fennel Seed (Foeniculum vulgare): Cooling: This herb is a wonderful carminative, reducing spasmotic pain, and counters some of the stimulating effect of bitters.
- Star Anise (Illicium verum): Warming and Pungent. Added for flavor and medicinal use. Increases the flow of energy in the body, including the digestive tract. It is useful for pain for this reason as well. It can help to relieve constipation and has antimicrobial effects (viral, bacterial, parasitic and fungal)
- Clove (Eugenia cayophyllata): Warm and Pungent. It is known best for its antiparasitic activity, particularly for helping the elimination of eggs. This spice is similar to star anise in that it promotes circulation of blood and Qi (energy), throughout the body including the digestive tract.
Other herbs to consider:
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