By Termeh Feinberg, PhD, MPH
When envisioning this blog post, it was challenging to decide where to begin because digestion is such a complex function of our bodies; there is no one size fits all approach, and when we are able to pinpoint strategies (natural or otherwise) that work for us, we are often beset with disappointment when our tried-and-true approaches stop being so effective. The gut, composed of ever-changing networks of bacteria, has such an influence on our physiology and resulting digestive health outcomes. Negative changes to these bacteria and their respective relationships, including environmental changes, are factors which influence our gut health. These and other changes result in discomfort among some individuals. There are a number of natural approaches employed (each with varying degrees of evidence) for strengthening one’s digestion, including:
First, a note about bitters: the bitter taste in your mouth stimulates bile production, which helps break down hard-to-digest fats and other foods - simply put, bile is an essential component to digestion. You want this bile.
I tend to use bitters as tinctures and accompany these with ‘warming’ carminatives (these are herbs which may help relieve flatulence) in infusion form – you could use carminative tinctures as well, particularly cinnamon, chamomile, cardamom, and ginger (as one of my favorite herbalists, Maria Noel Groves, suggests (1)). I love putting clove in herb blends because the warming qualities of the herb feel very grounding to me. Goldenseal (tincture pictured) is a truly spectacular bitter herb but is unfortunately at risk of overharvesting in our country. My own (epidemiological) research has shown that our population use may be on the decline. Despite this, it's always important to acquire your herbs from a sustainably harvested source! While I don’t use goldenseal as a frequent bitter (given the sustainability issue and other factors), I'd sooner use barberry (bark from the common landscape plant here in the states, which you can harvest yourself after the berries have come and gone), dandelion, and/or Oregon grape root.
I grew up eating burdock root (in the cooked vegetable dish, Kinpira) as a remedy to calm the inflammation present in childhood eczema. In addition to liver-protecting mechanisms, burdock root is traditionally used to detoxify blood. Although I read somewhere it is not as medicinally potent as wild-crafted counterparts, cultivated burdock root (gobo) is available at Asian supermarkets and some smaller specialty grocery stores. I purchased one very long piece of it and let it sit (wrapped loosely in plastic wrap) for about four months – then placed it in a cloth bag. This slightly-aged burdock root (picture below) can still be cooked, and while it’s tough it maintains a nice chewiness, and is quite sweet (and has a cooling sensation, if you’re paying attention to that). You can make fresh or dried burdock root into tincture – but watch out for the inulin at the bottom of your finished product! Beneficial bacteria love to feed on inulin.
Let’s talk about one more herb in a little more depth!
Orally, artichoke is used for dyspepsia, hyperlipidemia, nausea, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It is also used orally as a diuretic and choleretic. A limited number of studies have examined its use for biliary disorder and IBS; these were largely positive (2-4). Likewise, artichoke leaf extract significantly reduced symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, flatulence, and abdominal pain in patients with some form of dyspepsia in some (5, 6) but not all (7) studies. Improvement seems to occur after 2 to 8 weeks of treatment, which is consistent with traditional western herbalism practice indicating increased potential benefit after a period of use (although many advocate using bitters on an acute basis as well – to me, this makes sense). You can make a tea/decoction/infusion, but that bitter taste is tough after only a short period and not necessary for intended effect, so I stick with the tincture. Here’s a picture of fresh artichoke leaf, courtesy of Lacey Walker’s 2017 Herbal CSA from Fox Haven Farm (who has also mentioned it is useful for closing the sphincter at the opening of the stomach), and a tincture I made ages ago (before being pressed into a dropper bottle), right in front of the University of Maryland School of Medicine:
I used the folk method of tincture-making for the dried artichoke leaves from the Herbiary. As a generally safe herb, standard herb doses (30-60 drops, 1-3 times per day) are recommended by Groves, who also suggests preparing as a vinegar infusion, elixir, oxymel, or cordial, with or just before meals (1). Herbalist Rico Cech says that cardoon and wild artichoke are medicinally interchangeable with artichoke; I haven’t compared constituent profiles myself, but I’ve grown cardoon before (while assisting in the garden of a food historian who used it to replicate recipes from old cooking texts) and could see much similarity between phenotypes.
About the Author: Termeh Feinberg, PhD, MPH
Dr. Feinberg is an epidemiologist with community herbalism training and postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Integrative Medicine, where she contributes to trial protocols and conducts analyses on micronutrients, plants, and nutraceuticals using national datasets. She has also worked in an herbal apothecary, for the U.S. Census Bureau, and as project coordinator for a multi-site study assessing herbal use for pain. Additionally, she has presented on herbal topics at international, national, and regional conferences. When she isn’t conducting analyses, she can be found in the woods.
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