Yellow Gentian growing in the alpine regions of southern and central Europe

Gentian: a bitter taste that's good for you

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Gentian has earned its reputation as a digestive medicine over centuries of use. How can something that tastes so bitter be so good for our digestion? The Blackmores Advisory team explains.

Gentian is known as a 'pure' bitter, meaning that it is used specifically for its bitter effects. Usually herbal medicines have a variety of different actions and applications, and gentian is traditionally used to stimulate the bitter receptors on the tongue. It may sound strange, but this is a very healthy thing for the digestive system!

What is gentian?

Gentian is a medicinal plant that has many species, but the yellow flowered variety, Gentiana lutea, is the one traditionally used in Western herbal medicine. It is native to the alpine and sub alpine regions of southern and central Europe.

The root is the part used, and it contains some of the most bitter substances known. The bitter taste persists even in a dilution of 1: 20 000.

Why does Gentian taste so bitter?

When we taste something bitter, there is a priming effect on the upper digestive tract. This is thought to occur by a nerve reflex that causes ‘vagal stimulation’. Vagal stimulation causes an increase in secretion of stomach juices (which are released to start digesting our food), an increase in bile flow (to help break down fats) and a signal to the pancreas to be ready to release enzymes for digesting.

Often the importance of upper digestive tract health is overlooked. It is essential in maintaining overall health and the prevention of disease. Stomach secretions decline with age, and many people over 65 have below normal stomach acidity.

Adequate acidity in the stomach is essential in assisting the break down of food, and it provides protection from parasites and bacterial infections. Famous herbalist Dr Rudolf Weiss recommends that bitters be taken regularly for more pronounced results.

What are the benefits of good gut health?

Why use bitters?

Western herbalists apply the digestive-stimulating effects of bitters to a whole range of conditions. Gentian may be prescribed for food allergies to help break down the proteins that may be causing problems.

They may also be applied for their general 'tonic' effect. For example, a patient that is pale, lethargic and prone to infection may benefit from taking bitters. Many different cultures recognise the digestive power of bitters.

In Holland, older people celebrate the 'bitter hour' in the early evening, where they consume bitter foods and drinks to aid fading digestive strength. In India, those with liver problems seek bitter tasting substances. In Africa, traditional medical systems recognise the value of bitter herbs.

What other uses can Gentian have ?

Gentian has many different uses, but is commonly used to help with digestion problems such as:
  • Fullness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Intestinal gas
  • Diarrhoea
  • Gastritis
  • Heartburn
  • Vomiting

Gentian at a glance

Name: Gentiana lutea (Yellow Gentian)

Part used: root Actions: digestive bitter

Conditions used for: low stomach secretions, poor digestive function of the stomach, liver and pancreas

How to take it:
It is best taken in tincture (liquid) form to ensure contact with the taste buds

Where do I find it:
A naturopath or herbalist is likely to have it in their dispensary.

Read more about the importance of gut health for general wellbeing on the Blackmores Probiotics health hub.
The Blackmores Advisory team have been providing health and lifestyle advice for over 25 years. The team are highly qualified health professionals who collectively have a wealth of knowledge and practical experience supporting health & wellbeing. Ask them today for personalised advice.