Taos Herb: The bitter truth about herbs and digestion

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Bitter is a taste that has become so foreign to most of us that when I ask people if they know what tastes bitter, I get answers like “lemons” and “vinegar.”

Perhaps you know those as sour tastes — just one of the six basic tastes that our tongue and brain sense. Others are sweet, salty, umami (savory), oleogustus (fat) and bitter.

Bitter is an important principal in herbal medicine. The taste of bitter, which is detected by the taste buds at the back of the tongue, is very effective in treating a variety of digestive problems, especially those caused by stress. When we are under stress, our sympathetic nervous system is “turned on” by the hormone adrenaline. This sympathetic response causes our digestion to essentially “turn off,” reducing digestive secretions and appetite — and contributing to many stress-related digestive problems, such as heartburn (esophageal reflux), indigestion, gas and bloating.

So, in a culture that is under constant stress (and adrenaline production that comes with stress), it is no surprise that so many of us are taking antacids, like Tums and Maalox, and drugs that reduce hydrochloric acid, such as Tagamet, Prilosec and Zantac.

The problem is that none of these drugs do anything to improve the action of digestion that is at the heart of the problem. And there can be significant side effects, such as increased risk of kidney stones with antacids and an increased risk of osteoporosis caused by drugs that reduce hydrochloric acid production.

On the other hand, a bitter herb tea that is sipped slowly before a meal can both prevent indigestion and heartburn and, if used regularly, can actually strengthen the digestive system and help heal these conditions.

Here in New Mexico, the bitter herbs most often used are chamiso pardo (sagebrush – Artemisia tridentata), marrubio (horehound – Marrubium vulgare), plumajillo (yarrow – Achillea lanulosa) and yerba de la sangre (Oregon grape root – Mahonia repens). The preparation of any of these herbs is simple. Just simmer a heaping teaspoon full in a cup of water for about 10 minutes, allow to cool and slowly sip 2 ounces of the tea about 15 minutes before each meal.

Consult your health care practitioner about the use of herbs or supplements, especially if you are pregnant, taking prescription medication or administering herbs to children.

Hawley is the co-founder of Taos Herb Co. He can be reached at (575) 758-1991 or at taosherb.com.

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