Gentian (Genitana lueta) is a european plant, usually harvested from higher elevations for it’s roots and rhizome with a long history of use as a digestive aid. Why? Because gentian is one super bitter herbal ally. It’s a unique one, because at first taste it’s initially sweet, but then POW it’s bitter – making it what’s known as a “pure bitter” which is pretty much it’s soul flavor. This is due mainly to Gentiopicrin and Amarogentin which are both seco-iridoids (bitter compounds). Both of these compounds are broken down somewhat by fermentation. Classically, these large roots are slowly dried to allow time for some fermentation to occur for the breakdown of those compounds, resulting in a darker colored root or rhizome.
In our SAD (Standard American Diet), we unfortunately don’t get a lot of bitter things on our plate at all. It’s become a somewhat avoided flavor for most, with the exception of coffee, beer and chocolate. We abandoned the traditional bitter greens salad long ago, alas. A little bit of bitter goes a long way. When we utilize pure bitter herbs, we use a teeny tiny bit at a time. Gentian in particular delivers a pretty big bitter punch, and physiologically we don’t need a lot of bitter to have a maximum effect on our digestion. Gentian enhances digestion before meals. This is done by a neural reflex, enhancing the cephalic stage of digestion (the brain state, where digestion should start!). Bitters do a great job of enhancing this anticipation for the stomach and pancreas to prepare for food.
Even the smallest, drop dose amount of bitter taste on the tongue sends a direct message to the stomach and pancreas to start producing digestive enzymes to prepare for the food we’re about to break down. This is an adaptive response, because bitter is a “warning” flavor for the body for toxicity, the body will kick in a response to secrete extra enzymes to break down whatever we might have just consumed. There will be increased motility throughout the digestive tract now. This is ideal for atonic conditions – where there’s not much movement going on in the digestive tract. Food just sits there, or has a long transit time (for sluggish, kapha digestion, or lack of appetite altogether).
Dosing – I always start low with bitters, like 5 drops and work your way up. If you’re using a pure gentian tincture, mix it in a bit of water, and sip before each meal to enhance digestion. Capsules of gentian are a little weird to me. Bitters are ideal as a digestive aid due to the flavor and bitter taste which we don’t (consciously) get in a capsule. However, gentian is such a pure bitter that even though we do not consciously taste it once ingested in a capsule, the body will still respond to the bitter compounds throughout the digestive process helping with digestive motility. Awesome, I know. Typically with a gentian bitter (tincture), shoot for taking your tiny dose 15-30 minutes before a meal for best results.
Contraindications: If you have a nervous nature, gentian can make you feel a little spacey and headaches are common with these folks. If you take too much bitter (gentian), loss of appetite is possible.
I’ve got a delicious Gentian recipe coming next week, perfect for the Thanksgiving gathering crowd. Stay tuned!