Herbs for Health: Bitter Herbs for Appetite and Indigestion

An appetite for herbs

| October/November 1997

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.

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