‘Bitter’ Spring Tonics – for Optimal Digestion

And spring soup that doesn’t taste at all bitter.

One of the practices that routinely helps us to continue in or return to health is to eat with the seasons. In the springtime, that means more super-green tasting and often slightly bitter greens. Traditionally, all cultures enjoyed bitter foods during their mealtime rituals, especially in the spring. In both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, particular attention is brought to the liver and gallbladder in spring. These are digestive organs that are important for storing bile to emulsify and breakdown fats, and to process metabolic wastes, environmental and food toxins, and to store and secrete vitamins and minerals.

In early spring, the new plant growth – if you’ve ever plucked greens from the wild or even from your backyard – is often bitter. But farming, and to a certain extent climate change, has actually changed the taste of many of our bitter greens so they’re milder, more sweet, and pleasing to modern eaters. 

The Bitter Taste is Critical for Healthy Digestion

Ideally, we include all six of the flavors in our meals in a balanced way, so no one flavor stands out.

The bitter taste is so important because it activates the liver and stimulates the release of digestive secretions which promote the digestion of food and help the body to absorb and use the nutrients in the foods you eat. 

The bitter flavor also promotes gentle movement in the gastrointestinal tract (GI), which reduces cramping, bloating, and sluggish or stagnant digestion. Ever feel particularly heavy and lethargic after a rich and decadent meal? That’s the feeling that the bitter flavor prevents or alleviates. 

The bitter flavor is especially helpful when digesting foods is problematic. 

While you may not particularly enjoy the bitter flavor, it works best when you taste it directly on your tongue. If you put a few drops of a bitter herbal tincture on your tongue, you just might have a brief whole body, chill-like, reaction. That’s a good thing. That’s the stimulating effect that bitters have on the digestive system. 

Just like other flavors, bitter foods and herbs range from mild to intensely bitter. Often, we don’t need to overdo a good thing. For this flavor, a small amount is helpful. And depending on you, starting with incorporating more mild bitters is plenty effective.

Fresh Burdock Root – a nice mild bitter to cook with

Burdock Root

Burdock is a tried and true liver and skin tonic. Often used in it’s dried form, in herbal teas, it’s also wonderful to use fresh. If you can get your hands on some (found in the produce section of a grocery store that carries local items) or from a local farmer, I highly encourage you to incorporate it into your spring meals. Chopping and cooking into soups, stews, stir-fries, and sautéed in a little oil and spices is where it really shines.

I consider burdock root to a be a mild but highly effective bitter that’s a little different than all the other bitter spring (green) foods. One, because it’s a root instead of a leaf, but also because it contains a high percentage of inulin. Inulin is a pre-biotic fiber that is food for the beneficial bacteria in our lower GI.

Looks can be deceiving. This is what burdock root that’s been stored for a while –but is still nice on the inside–looks like

Common bitter foods and spices to incorporate into meals

Bitter Spring Vegetables:
Arugula
Broccoli
Fresh Burdock Root
Cabbage
Dandelion Greens
Other Dark Leafy Greens
Kale
Radicchio + Chicories
Watercress

Bitter Spices:
Fenugreek Seeds
Sesame Seeds
Turmeric

Happy Liver Spring Green Soup, serves about 4

Spring is a good time to incorporate more fresh greens and bitter herbs—local if possible—into your routine. This soup is an example of how to balance flavors so there is a hefty dose of liver-supportive bitter herbs, but the end result is balanced and delicious. It tastes like a smooth bowl of comfort rather than a bitter stew. I had a busy day when I first made this and texted William to tell him about it so he could have dinner ahead of me. He’s one of the best recipe testers because he’s one of those supertasters that picks out anything strong flavored or off. When I got home and asked him about this soup, his response was “That’s A LOT better than I was imagining.” And an empty bowl. This is a true spring tonic. Enjoy! 

2 Tbs. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. fresh ginger, finely grated or minced
1 tsp. turmeric
Small pinch of ground black pepper
1 fresh burdock root, peeled and diced
1 pound sweet potatoes, (4 cups chopped)
4 cups mineral broth or water
1 Tbs. dried nettle leaves (or 1 handful of fresh nettles)
2 cups arugula or similar seasonal greens (watercress, spinach, chard, nettles, etc.)
4 cups kale
1 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
Fresh herbs to top
Cooked lentils to top (recipe below)

  1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil on medium heat. Stir in the chopped onions and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in the minced garlic, salt, and ginger and cook a couple minutes more. Add the turmeric and black pepper and let it cook just until the aroma comes up. Then stir in the sweet potatoes, burdock root, broth and nettles. Bring to a boil.
  2. Once it boils, cover and turn down to simmer for 15 minutes or more, until the sweet potatoes and burdock are soft through. Then add arugula and kale to the top. Cover and allow them to steam soften for a couple minutes. Stir them in. 
  3. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for a few minutes before pureeing in batches until smooth.  Return to the pot and add the apple cider vinegar and taste to adjust seasoning. When it’s missing something, I find it often needs just a tiny bit more acid to balance – try adding a few more drops of vinegar.
  4. Serve topped with fresh herbs and cooked lentils. I chose lemon balm since that’s what is growing abundantly in my garden right now. Mint or parsley would be wonderful as well. For an active individual, pairing this with a slice or two of a nice whole grain sourdough or similar bread may round out the meal even more

A Good Pot of Lentils, serves 3-4
Portions to Serve 1: 1/2-3/4 cup lentils

1 cups green or brown lentils
1/2 tsp. salt
3 cups water

Optional Aromatics: Choose 1-2
1 tsp. coriander seeds; ½ carrot; fennel fronds; 1 sprig thyme; 2 sprigs flat-leaf parsley; ½ celery stick; 1 small bay leaf

  1. Place 3 cups water, lentils, and salt in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add 1 to 2 of the aromatics and return to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat and simmer until the lentils are tender and no longer chalky at their core, about 30-45 minutes. Let them cool slightly in their cooking liquid.  

Much of my nutrition practice is focused on individuals and athletes with digestive health issues such as leaky gut, food allergies and intolerances, chronic GI distress, malabsorption of foods and nutrients, and inflammation. If you’re tired, stressed, and not really sure what to eat to help or hurt anymore, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

What is Leaky Gut and What Does it Have to Do with Your GI Symptoms, Athletic Performance and Long-Term Food Intolerances?

Just after an incredibly warm, humid and ROUGH marathon in which my gastrointestinal system barely held on to the end, and then subsequently fell completely apart at the finish line. In a prelude to what’s below, I was also stressed out for weeks before that race.

Leaky Gut, also called increased intestinal permeability or gut permeability is when the tight junctions, which are the space between each of the cells that line the small intestine where nutrient absorption occurs, loosen a little and allow larger food particles and bacterial fragments into the bloodstream, potentially setting off an immune response and inflammatory reactions (1).  

If you have a digestive disorder or gut health problems, it’s generally safe to assume you have a leaky gut. Likewise, leaky gut symptoms can present in a wide variety of ways across multiple body systems – not just in the digestive system.  

Leaky Gut is associated with Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD), Crohn’s Disease (CD), multiple sclerosis (MS), rheutamoid arthritis (RA), type 1 diabetes (T1D), asthma, necrotizing enterocolitis, and autism spectrum disorder (2), as well as celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, various skin disorders (if your skin has problems–then you have digestive problems), and more (3). However, we haven’t yet determined whether leaky gut is a cause or consequence of these disorders.

The Athlete Component

What is not as well known to a lot of the run long and run harder crowd is that sustained endurance activities, particularly the jostling and pounding that we do as runners, can and will cause a fair bit of leaky gut symptoms. If you consider the anatomy and physiology of this region of the digestive system, it’s easier to see why. Picture a person running a three (or four, or nine) hour marathon or ultra endurance race, or a series of training runs day after day and throughout weeks and months. The race and many of the runs leading up to the race is going to be a hard and a long effort (sometimes both), which we also will sometimes begin without feeling as recovered from the last effort as we’d prefer. Then, while running, we down any number of foods and food-like substances to provide fuel to sustain the effort and to “train the gut.” This fueling on the go is something the digestive and nervous systems are arguably not designed for. We’re “supposed to” be in rest and digest mode while we’re processing those calories. So utilizing them on the go is a stress to the system.

Then there’s the gut itself. At the small intestine, the cells between it and the bloodstream are approximately one cell thick. This is because this is the site where broken down nutrients move through to be transported to the liver and other regions of the body for use. It’s super thin so nutrients can get where they’re supposed to go. But one cell, and the space between it and the next one, is pretty easy to damage with jostling and stress. So even with a perfect diet, a hard long run (or even a hard shorter run) can cause some damage down there. This is why many people have digestive complaints for three to five days after a race or hard effort. That’s exactly how long it takes for the epithelial lining to turnover into completely new cells!

But what makes leaky gut become chronic, thus inviting long-term digestive (or widespread) symptoms?

There are several lifestyle factors that can also lead to and sustain a leaky gut including stress (a BIG one!), lack of sleep, eating inflammatory foods, alcohol, antibiotics, oral contraceptives, prescription medications, exposure to environmental toxins, and frequent use of NSAIDS such as ibuprofen. Likewise, nutrient deficiencies, poor digestion due to digestive enzyme deficiency, overeating in general, wrong ratio of dietary fats, gut microbe dysbiosis and (sometimes hidden) other food allergies can also contribute. Oofda! That’s a lot of factors that can be working against us.

That Villain Gluten and the Bacterial Connection

Dr. Alessio Fasano, a leading scientist who studies celiac disease and related pathologies, discovered an enterotoxin called zonulin a few years ago. Zonulin disassembles the tight junctions in the intestinal lining, allowing pathogens through and thus causing more intestinal permeability. Dr. Fasano’s research team found that zonulin release is primarily triggered by both bacteria and gliadin. Gliadin is part of the gluten protein complex (2.) Hence the reason many of us are either mildly or definitively reactive to gluten-containing foods, at least some of the time.

Before developing increased intestinal permeability, changes in the gut microbiota have also been shown to occur, which, given that zonulin release is often triggered by bacteria, suggests that the bacterial change occurs first, and then zonulin release assists the epithelial tight junctions to disassemble, leading the way for subsequent disorders or diseases to develop after sustained leaky gut-inflammatory reactions. It has been suggested that an environmental stimulus, (that list above including stress, gluten, a virus, inflammatory diet, etc.) first causes the change in the gut microbiota (2).

How to Heal

Healing chronic leaky gut often takes a many-pronged approach. We have to remove as many of the things that are causing it as it’s appropriate to. For those of us who aren’t willing to give up endurance athlete lifestyles, that means eating a diet appropriate for the individual, repletion of nutrient deficiencies, and lifestyle tactics (that stress relief component!) become particularly important.

Want to Know More?

A leaky gut is one of the primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically with digestion-related and sometimes widespread symptoms. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, fatigue, and malabsorption of foods and nutrients, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I shared more about this topic in the nervous system’s role in part 1, the immune response and subsequent inflammation in part two, gut microbes and dysbiosis in part three and the importance of chewing our food in part four.

And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI symptoms and fatigue, and would like to get back to feeling and training well, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

References:
1). Lipski, E. (2012). Digestive Wellness (4th ed). McGraw Hill: New York, NY.
2). Sturgeon, C. and Fasano, A. (2016). Zonulin, a regulator of epithelial and endothelial barrier functions, and its involvement in chronic inflammatory diseases. Tissue Barriers, 4(4). https://doi.org/10.1080/21688370.2016.1251384.
3) Kneessi, R. (2017). NUTR 635: Adverse Reactions to Food. [Lecture]. Maryland University of Integrative Health. Retrieved from: https://learn.muih.edu

the simplest sourdough flatbread, and what probiotics and gut microbes have to do with it

“Why are you people always switching out sour cream for yogurt in all your recipes?”
This was the question I was asked a few weeks ago while teaching a (virtual) cooking store tour. The question had me pausing because it was so good and to be honest, I’m surprised no one has ever asked me before. I paused also because it’s been so many years since I’ve actually eaten sour cream – and years too since my yogurt-in-every-meal days.

So why do nutritionists and health-minded persons tend to switch out sour cream and add yogurt at every opportunity? Without jumping too deep into the science at first glance, I think we can look towards long histories of fermented foods in virtually all traditional ways of eating around the world. Our ancestors were fermenting foods in all sorts of ways for better health and as a way of food preservation. Yogurt products—whether they are dairy-based or non-dairy—all have the same culture of bacteria added, and as most of us have learned from countless yogurt advertisements, it’s good for gut health. Plain old sour cream, and other creamy dairy foods, can’t generally say the same.


Fiber Nourishes Your Gut – Prebiotics

What we’ve learned in the science and nutrition community over the last couple decades is that what we eat affects our gut bacteria. Our digestive system is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria, called the gut microbiota or microbiome. These bacteria live in an (ideally) symbiotic relationship with us. In the case of beneficial bacteria, they feed on the undigested part of the food, (fiber), that is passing through the large intestine by fermenting it into short chain fatty acids such as N-Butyrate. That’s a good thing.

When we eat fibrous plant-foods, we are essentially feeding many species of beneficial bacteria from the fiber that we ourselves cannot digest. And when we don’t eat the foods that beneficial bacteria need, we lose harmony and balance between beneficial and disruptive bacteria, and dysbiosis occurs. Often with all sorts of negative symptoms that we experience. This beneficial fiber-rich food is what we’ll often call ‘pre-biotics.’


A healthy gut microbiome can protect us against disease-causing bacteria because the good bacteria competes for space in the intestines, blocking the bad guys from establishing a strong community. Beneficial bacteria can also help us absorb otherwise non-absorbable nutrients like certain antioxidant polyphenols, produce some micronutrients like vitamin K, and provide needed fuel for the cells in the colon. Production of short chain fatty acids by bacteria in the intestine also plays an important role in the maintenance of the intestinal barrier. Butyrate, the short chain fatty acid I mentioned above, has been shown to be protective against colon cancer.

Whereas we don’t want an overgrown of bacteria in the small intestine, having ample beneficial bacteria in the colon is a hallmark for optimal health. Low beneficial bacteria can impact your protective mucus lining in the intestinal tract, which supports up to 70% of our immunity. The commonly used phrase “leaky gut” comes in here when the interplay between a low fiber diet, low beneficial bacteria count, and difficult to digest macromolecules poke holes in the cheesecloth-like fragility of the intestinal lining and then opens the way for the immune system to do its job –in overdrive – resulting in sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies to many foods. 


Fermented Foods and Probiotics

On the flip side of the prebiotic/fiber-rich food equation is a term we’ve all heard. Probiotics. That stuff that makes yogurt and other fermented and/or bacteria-containing foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, raw vinegar, raw honey, and (traditional) sourdough bread health-promoting. Probiotic-rich foods essentially mean we’re eating the beneficial bacteria rather than feeding the good bacteria we already have.

When to Supplement

Probiotic supplements, especially in high doses, are often extremely helpful for individuals with an autoimmune flare, food or environmental allergies, metabolic concerns, hormone imbalance, skin health, cognitive and/or mental health, long-term and/or frequent antibiotic use, and of course, any sort of symptom that’s related to negative digestion—which tends to be a precursor to many of the other health challenges. When we’re using probiotics that occur naturally in fermented foods, we’re trying to maintain the balance of beneficial bacteria in our system (not just our gut either, our skin and many other areas of the body also have a microbiome). But when we’ve been in a pattern of long-term distress, we often need a little help from more bacteria than we can ingest through food. So a supplement might be necessary—ideally one of a reputable brand and with strains and quantities of bacteria that are scientifically founded for the symptoms or imbalance.



Going back to that question I received about sour cream and yogurt. I don’t tend to push a lot of yogurt as a preferred probiotic food source. Many individuals don’t tolerate dairy at all and the dairy industry is sadly pretty corporate and non-supportive of small producers these days. If you tolerate dairy products, and can source from a small dairy producing yogurt from grass-fed cows, then yes, it can be healthful. And while non-dairy yogurts contain some bacteria cultures, they often don’t provide much else in the way of protein or micronutrients. Flavored varieties of all types of yogurt are problematic due to all the other added ingredients, such as fillers, gums, sweeteners, and preservatives. Instead, I definitely encourage choosing a range of all the bacteria-containing foods.

One of my favorites is whole-grain sourdough. If you need a home project this fall and winter, starting your own sourdough mother (and naming it), will be immensely rewarding. My sourdough mother’s name is Esmerelda. Even if you’re not a baker. The flatbread below has become one of my five-minute favorites as a bready lunch side when I’m short on pre-made options, and with just the mother, you never actually have to launch off into sourdough baking (but I certainly recommend it if you’re ready for a next step).

Enjoy!

Dysbiosis in the gut microbiome is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I previously shared about the nervous system’s role, and the immune system leading to inflammation and food reactions, a tip to support impaired digestion and absorption in part four, and I’ll explain remaining topics of digestive imbalance in future articles.

And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI and would like to get back to feeling and training well, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Simple Sourdough Flatbread, makes 1
This is the absolutely simplest flatbread made from the sourdough mother. It’s rich and delicious, tastes bready and substantial, and can be flavored in many ways beyond the simple (plain) way I’ve made it. For a few more ideas, see this video which was the original that clued me into this delicious bread idea. For a larger amount, just use more starter. If you do not have a sourdough starter, I made mine from Baking Magique’s instructions. Instead of a mix of buckwheat and brown rice flour, my starter is 100 percent buckwheat. It keeps feeding Esmerelda super simple that way.

70 grams / ~1/2 cup sourdough starter
a little oil for your pan

  • Heat a medium to large skillet over medium-high heat. Add a little oil of choice, such as olive or coconut oil.
  • Pour your measured sourdough starter directly onto the pan and with a rubber spatula, gently spread it out so it’s smooth. Cook for about 3-4 minutes; then flip and cook 3-4 minutes more. You might need to turn your pan down a little, as this bread is slightly thick and you want to make sure you cook it all the way through.
  • Remove from pan, and add to your meal. I often eat it as a side like naan, but sometimes use it as a base for random other toppings that I have on hand for a quick lunch.