Although people shy away from bitter foods, bitters perform a valuable function. Bitter greens, for instance, typically stimulate digestion. This means they prompt the body into making more digestive juices such as hydrochloric acid in the stomach and digestive enzymes in the intestine. Bitter foods also stimulate the gallbladder to contract and release bile, which helps break fatty foods into small enough particles that enzymes can easily finish breaking them apart for absorption. This is important because fats carry essential fatty acids, such as heart-healthy omega-3s, along with fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K and carotenoids such as beta-carotene. Bitter herbs can also stimulate the appetite.
Bitter digestive stimulants include angelica, black cohosh, dandelion, skullcap, and yarrow. One cup of herbal tea per day of one or several of these herbs should enhance digestion sufficiently; use much smaller quantities of wormwood. Dandelion is perhaps the most popular digestive aid in this lineup. Its bitter substance has been identified as taraxacin. Juniper is not considered a bitter herb, but it increases hydrochloric acid secretion in the stomach.
Carminatives dispel gas in the intestines. Herbs that lend a hand in this category include fennel, lavender, mint, rosemary, and juniper. Rosemary does double duty -- it also increases digestive juices and bile like its bitter cousins. Include rosemary and fennel in your cooking to add flavor to meals. These two herbs may be especially helpful for digesting fat -- include them in high-fat dishes. Make infusions of any of these herbs, and drink when you have trouble with excessive gas and need to soothe an upset stomach. Fennel is even mild enough for children and is especially helpful to them when combined with chamomile.
Antispasmodic herbs are those that relax muscle spasms. Herbs with this property put an end to stomach and intestinal cramps. A cup of tea of one or more of these will do the trick: black cohosh, chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, mint, skullcap, valerian, wild yam, wormwood, and yarrow. See individual profiles for recommended dosages.
Other helpful herbs include those with demulcent properties. This means they soothe, coat, and lubricate. Marshmallow, mullein, and oats are good demulcents. Several cups of marshmallow or mullein tea can be enjoyed per day. Oats can be used in their traditional form as oatmeal.
Ginger, a tropical herb not easily grown in the average garden, is also a good digestive aid and is number one when it comes to thwarting nausea. Numerous clinical trials support this use of ginger. European angelica is also a digestive stimulant similar to ginger.
If you have excessive stomach acid, do not use digestive stimulants, including bitters and ginger. Wormwood should be used internally only in small amounts and generally only when you are under the care of a health care professional trained in its use.