Unlike other animals, which eat instinctively when they’re hungry, we humans, while responding to hunger pangs, usually make our eating choices consciously. Food is more than sustenance to us; it plays a major role in our pleasure, entertainment, aesthetics, and how we feel about ourselves.
Centuries ago, people discovered that bitter herbs not only stimulate the appetite but also can help prevent or alleviate indigestion.
Visual, auditory and emotional stimuli all affect our appetite. Seeing an ad for a snack food or beverage on television often triggers a trip to the kitchen in search of something good to eat or drink. Emotional upheaval may ruin our appetite or, conversely, send us diving into a gallon of ice cream. With so many outside forces affecting our appetite, it’s easy to fall into less-than-perfect eating habits: eating too much or too fast, loading up on fatty foods. All these can cause indigestion. Centuries ago, people discovered that bitter herbs not only stimulate the appetite but also can help prevent or alleviate indigestion.
Think of the digestive system as a factory that processes food into energy. As soon as food enters the mouth, the teeth chew it into smaller pieces, and a salivary enzyme begins to break starches down into sugars. After a mouthful of food is swallowed, wavelike contractions of the walls of the esophagus move it down into the stomach, where the pieces are churned smaller still and acid and enzymes begin to break down proteins. In the small intestine, other enzymes break down the food further until the particles are small enough to be absorbed into the bloodstream. The large intestine reabsorbs most of the water from the leftover, indigestible matter and eliminates the rest. The entire process of digestion is directed by the brain, but it all starts with the appetite.
The bitter boost
The before-dinner drink, or aperitif, had its origin in the Roman practice of drinking wine infused with bitter herbs to counteract the effects of overeating. Bitters increase the appetite by stimulating the taste buds, which “advise” the brain to send signals increasing the secretion of saliva, gastric juices, and digestive enzymes, all of which are necessary for the digestive tract to process food with maximum efficiency.
You may already have bitters on hand in your liquor cabinet. A few drops of Angostura in a glass of tonic water with a splash of lime juice can serve as a simple and effective aperitif. Commercial bitters and aperitifs all contain a variety of bitter and aromatic herbs. These may include blessed thistle tops, rhubarb root, juniper berries, wormwood leaves, cinchona bark, and the king of bitter digestive herbs, gentian root.
The before-dinner drink, or aperitif, had its origin in the Roman practice of drinking wine infused with bitter herbs to counteract the effects of overeating.
About 400 species of gentians (Gentiana) occur in all temperate regions of the world except Africa and Antarctica, especially in mountainous areas. The root of several species is used to stimulate digestion. Most commercial gentian root comes from yellow gentian (G. lutea—lutea means “yellow” and refers to the flower color). This 3-foot-tall perennial herb hails from the mountains of central and southern Europe. Increasingly rare in the wild due to overharvesting, it is commercially cultivated in several European countries. Other sources of gentian root include stemless gentian (G. acaulis), a small perennial herb native to the Alps and Pyrenees, and Japanese gentian (G. scabra), found in northern and eastern Asia.
The bitter substances in gentian include amarogentinin, which constitutes only 0.05 to 0.08 percent of the dried root by weight but is one of the most bitter substances known to science and the standard against which other bitter subsances are compared. Gentian also contains the bitter glycoside gentiopicroside, or gentiopicrin, which may constitute as much as 3 percent of the weight of the root.
Amarogentinin and gentiopicroside content is highest in spring-harvested roots of wild plants from the lower altitudes of mountains in northern Italy; it remains stable on drying. Minute quantities (about 200 parts per million) of gentian root are used to flavor some foods.
Traditionally, gentian root has been used to improve appetite and digestion as well as allay stomachache, heartburn, gastritis, and nausea. It increases the appetite by stimulating the flow of saliva and promotes digestion by stimulating the secretion of bile into the small intestine. Animal experiments have shown that components of gentian promote bronchial secretions as well and reduce inflammation.
In Europe, gentian root is an ingredient of many stomach remedies. These are in liquid form (as opposed to capsules) as contact with the taste buds is necessary to activate the gastric reflexes. In Germany, gentian root is approved for treating loss of appetite, bloating, and flatulence but not in cases of peptic or duodenal ulcer. The recommended dose is up to 2 g of the dried root taken daily as a tea.
Blessed thistle (Cnicus benedictus) is a 2-foot-tall, spiny annual herb of the aster family (Compositae) that is native to the Mediterranean region but occasionally naturalized in waste places and fields in eastern North America. A bitter compound called cnicin occurs in concentrations of 0.2 to 0.7 percent of the freshly dried tops. It has incidentally been found to reduce inflammation in animals. Used as an appetite stimulant and treatment for indigestion traditionally as well as in Germany today, blessed thistle is also used to flavor alcoholic beverages. It is considered weaker than gentian in stimulating the secretion of gastric juice. The usual dose is 1 g (about a teaspoon) of the dried herb in a cup of tea.
Common wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is a 4-foot-tall, coarse perennial herb native to most of Europe and naturalized in the northeastern and central United States. It has finely divided, intensely bitter gray leaves with rounded oblong segments. The bitter principles include absinthin, anabsinthin, artabsin and matricin.
During the nineteenth century, the wormwood-flavored aperitif absinthe was a popular alcoholic beverage in France, but drinking large quantities could cause hallucinations, central nervous system damage, even death. The toxic principle was found to be thujone, a constituent of wormwood, and absinthe was outlawed shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. Today, both wormwood and the related Roman wormwood (A. pontica) are used in minute amounts—and minus the thujone—to flavor vermouth and other alcoholic beverages.
Like gentian and blessed thistle, wormwood is used as a bitter tonic to stimulate appetite and aid digestion. European phytopractitioners recommend a dose of 10 to 30 drops (about a teaspoon) of extract in a glass of hot water. Treatment should extend no longer than three weeks.
The primary herbs used today as appetite stimulants and digestive aids are the same ones that were used hundreds, even thousands, of years ago.
Steven Foster is an author, photographer and consultant specializing in medicinal plants.
Bisset, N. G., and M. Wichtl. Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals. Stuttgart: Medpharm Scientific, 1994.
Blumenthal, M., et al., eds. S. Klein, trans. German Commission E Therapeutic Monographs on Medicinal Herbs for Human Use. Austin, Texas: American Botanical Council, in press.
Bradly, P. R., ed. British Herbal Compendium. Vol. 1. Dorset, England: British Herbal Medicine Association, 1992.
Chandler, R. F., “Wormwood”. Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal 1987:602–604.
Hoffmann, D. The New Holistic Herbal. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1995.
Leung, A., and S. Foster. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Foods, Drugs and Cosmetics. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley, 1996.
Tyler, V. E. The Honest Herbal. 3rd ed. Binghamton, New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1993.
——. Herbs of Choice: The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals. Binghamton, New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1994.