Treat your gut with respect using bitters, spices, and prebiotic fiber
So close are we to our guts that, most of the time, we don't even know they're working. We get hungry (maybe), we eat, we eliminate - but how are all the organs and processes involved synchronizing so well? Each meal is a serious challenge to the steady-state chemistry of our bloodstream: chemicals (synthetic or non), nutrients, microbes, minerals and fluids flood into us concentrated and unprocessed, and we are able to tame all that and deliver usable nutrition to each and every cell of our bodies within just 8-12 hours. The gut does all this with sophisticated feedback loops, using hormones, nerve fibers, the immune system, and the vast populations of bacteria that have colonized its entire length. As food moves along, the gut tastes it, starting (but not ending) at the tongue. It makes decisions, changes its behavior, and checks in with the brain. Different foods, flavors, and microbes trigger different reactions and are linked with different behaviors. For the gut, food isn't about nutrition - it's about information. Food has meaning. Yet most of us never see our meals as more than a source of pleasure, nutrition, and energy.
Fortunately, once we realize that the entire GI tract is a sensory organ and not just a digestive one, we can begin to alter the information stream we present to our mouth and belly. Bitter taste receptors on the tongue, stomach, and intestines trigger the release of important hormones that make us feel full, manage the movement of food though the various phases of digestion, and jump-start detoxification. Nerve endings can sense when the stomach stretches out with food, and can also detect the presence of different types of molecules in the meal: proteins and fats are treated differently than carbohydrates, bitter compounds stimulate the secretion of digestive juices, and pungent constituents can relax spasms and improve the absorption of nutrients. The immune system sees the world through the gut, too: some grains and roots contain soluble fiber that has little nutritive value for us but speaks volumes to our white blood cells (many of which live along the GI tract), helping to modulate and balance the immune response. Finally, microbes from fermented foods and strong stomach and pancreas secretions conspire to improve the health and resilience of our gut flora, which has very real consequences for immunity and beyond. And for those key areas - hormones, nerve fibers, and immune response - we have key herbs and foods that help restore meaning and context to our digestion so it can operate at its best.
The bitter taste is one of the gut's most notable signals: it works in the mouth, throughout the gut, and beyond. There are two major effects we see: first, digestive juices flow more readily and we break food down more completely. Second, we feel full and satisfied more quickly, because bitterness serves as a cue to slow down consumption so that we can actually digest. Bitterness acts on the gut the way a workout acts on our muscles: a gentle challenge, but one that leaves us stronger. The gentle bitter of wild salad greens can be a good place to start, and as your palate gets to know the flavor and your gut feels the benefits, you can venture into more medicinal bitters like dandelion, artichoke, and gentian. The rewards are clear: a feeling of satisfied fullness without overeating, less gas and bloating, relief from occasional heartburn, and healthy, regular bowel function. This all can happen because the bitter flavor is the key piece of information the gut needs to coordinate its function. All too often, it's missing - because it's not a source of pleasure, nutrition, or energy. But without it, our gut fumbles along, an operator without the instruction manual, an athlete without any training.
Pungent constituents - the aromas and strong spices in the foods we eat - serve to relax the belly and synergize with bitterness to get digestive juices flowing. The combination is fantastic: the bitter flavor gives the gut its operating instructions, and the warming spices help it stay relaxed and responsive. Think about these herbs: aromatics like fennel seed, caraway, clove and allspice; classic digestives like ginger root, revered for the occasional bout of nausea; delicate florals like chamomile with its antispasmodic action - all help ensure a balanced level of tension and tone in the nerves and muscles that line our entire gut. You can brew these herbs into a warm tea and mix in some bitter extracts to create a customized digestive blend. If bitters provide the training and the workout, these spices and flavors are like a good massage afterwards: supportive and relaxing, ensuring good blood flow and helping to move into recovery.
You can't talk about the information-processing power of the gut without considering its denizens: the cells of our microbiome and our own mobile immune cells speak to each other and the rest of the physiology. They tend the rich garden that is our GI tract mucous membrane, keeping it moist and supple, fending off pathogens, and making sure that there are no patches of bare ground at risk for erosion and damage. Soothing soluble fiber, from plants like marshmallow, oats, burdock, chia, or flax, provide resources for the microbiome and balance the activity of our immune cells. They can be eaten whole, cooked in soup, or blended into smoothies or teas. They make valuable companions to the bitters and spices: replenishing and renewing, they help ensure optimal recovery after meals and keep the tissue strong.
It's easy to give the gut the signals it needs for optimal function. There are bitter tasting herbs and foods, pungent and spicy seasonings, and roots that provide soluble fiber. You can blend these together into a single digestive bitter formula, or customize your plan by mixing enlivening liquid bitters with antispasmodic teas, and cooking with immune-active herbal fiber. We may not notice our bellies when all is well, and take them for granted until there's a problem. But to treat weak digestion with enzymes and antacids is like treating weak bodies with complete bedrest: better to try a little challenge. We're comfortable with the idea that a gentle workout can build more strength in our muscles and heart. Now we know there's a simple exercise plan for our guts, too. And it's nice to realize that, instead of "no pain, no gain", it's simply "taste bitter, feel better."
"Barely bitter" digestive elixir - a gentle way to start
- 8 ounces of hot water, just off the boil
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds (or 1/2 teaspoon allspice if you'd prefer)
- 1/4 teaspoon fresh orange or grapefruit zest
- 1 teaspoon Urban Moonshine Original bitters (or your favorite bitters blend)
- 1 Tablespoon whole flax seeds, or chia seeds
Pour hot water over the ingredients, stir quickly, and cover. Steep until cool, then add flax seeds.Combine the fennel, zest and bitters and muddle briefly with a spoon.
Allow the mixture to sit, covered, overnight. Strain in the morning, and drink in 4 divided doses around mealtimes.