Do us a quick favor: close your eyes and think about all your favorite foods. If you need some help, this time of year I think about brussel sprouts, cranberries, and pecan pie with a big dollop of homemade whipped cream on top. Are you salivating? (You: yes.)
Congratulations! That means you are using your parasympathetic nervous system – the part of our autonomic nervous system that allows your body to rest and digest! This part of your nervous system is responsible for the normal bodily functions.
All too often we’re stressed, really stressed, and thus not living our day to day lives in our parasympathetic nervous system. We get ‘stuck’ in the sympathetic nervous system, which is sort of designed to help you out if you’re running away from a tiger. You don’t need to digest the large meal you just ate if you’re about to be a large meal yourself, right? Right.
Now, these days it isn't all that often that we’re actually running away from a tiger (obviously) but there are a lot of other stressors constantly chasing us around: that work project you need to finish, a big assignment due, paying the bills, appointments to make and keep… Its all about that pervasive list that keeps you up at night and stops you from taking time for yourself.
When you live in that space of constant stress, you’re also living in your sympathetic nervous system. When you’re living in your sympathetic nervous system, you’re not digesting your food properly.
If you’re not digesting your food, your body isn’t being nourished the way it needs and you’re not able to operate at your most optimum levels of you. Not thinking clearly, moving too quickly, or feeling really tired can add to your stress and cause you to live in a cyclic pattern of stress and undernourishment, which basically equates to bodily doom and leads to all sorts of health issues, including skin issues likes acne breakouts and rosacea!
Your Digestive System: What It Is and How it Works
A really basic way to understand your digestive system, is to think of it as a tube from your mouth to your anus. Digestion starts in the mouth as saliva begins to break down enzymes in our food. The food travels down the esophagus to the stomach, but just before the stomach it runs into the first sphincter* of the body.
That sphincter opens and closes depending on the amount of acid and food in the stomach. After the stomach acid does its thing, chyme moves into the small intestine where the pancreas releases a bicarbonate to stop the stomach acid from breaking down the food**. The small and the large intestine pull as much of the nutrients from the food as they can and then the rest of what we can’t use is excreted.
*Fun Fact: People with acid-reflux actually have too little acid in their stomachs and this sphincter never closes so the acid escapes through the sphincter and into the esophagus, thus causing the acid-reflux!
**Fun Fact Round II: When food moves into the small intestine, a chemical called CCK is released by the pancreas. This chemical is what tells our brains that we’re full, so our food has travelled quite the distance before our brain really knows what’s going on.
Bitter Herbs for Gut Health
Bitter herbs stimulate your body’s digestion by helping increase the amount of digestive secretions in your stomach that help break down food more quickly and effectively. Because bitter herbs stimulate digestion, they are also helping your body stay actively in the parasympathetic nervous system. So, if you’re feeling a little gaseous, nauseated, bloated or anything else, tummy-related bitters can help!
(Note: Pregnant or just starting to work on your gut health? Are you finding that you’re taking a lot of antacids? Don’t start drowning yourself in bitters as they can be a little bit intense in the beginning. A cold infusion of chamomile and marshmallow would be perfect to get your digestive juices flowing!)
There are a lot of herbs that you can take for digestion, but these guys are my top four because I have seen them work and they’re pretty easy to find in the forest if you know what you’re looking for!
Dandelion is an excellent cleanser for your body and an amazing tonic for your liver! So in addition to helping your digestive system function, it also gives a big boost to another super important elimination system. Dandelion is great for constipation and bloating.
Yellow Dock Root is another bitter that is just out of this world! It’s high in iron (that’s why the root is yellow and the stalks are those rusty, red color). Are you going on a first date later? Yellow dock is really wonderful for nervous indigestion and that ‘pit in the stomach’ feeling.
Lemon Balm is a fun one (I mean, as fun as gut health can get) because it’s amazing for the nerves and it’s a really social plant. I love to take lemon balm before a party or if I’m feeling a little down in the dumps. Like yellow dock, it’s really nice for nervous digestion but it also works wonders for gas and nausea.
Mugwort is one of my all-time favorites for stimulating digestion! I know wrote about it before, but I couldn’t help including it in this list, too! I have seen it work wonders for people who are chronically underweight because they don’t feel hungry enough to eat. One woman told me that taking mugwort made her so hungry that she ransacked her own house looking for food. It is most often touted as a 3rd eye decalcifier and a woman’s herb but it’s an awesome bitter, too.
What’s your favorite bitter to use and why? Let us know in the comments below!
by Aubrey Wallace, Resident Herbal Scholar
Alfs, M. (2003). 300 Herbs Their Indications and Contraindications. New Brighton, MN: Old Theology Book House.