‘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.

chamomile + dried plum nut butter bars

Last week I shared about the connection between the gut and the nervous system. After hearing from several that it was helpful, I’ve been thinking about the use of herbs in particular for nervous system and gut support.

Herbs in the category called nervines really shine here. They are the herbs that specifically affect the nervous system. While there is a giant list of herbs that can be used for nervous system support depending on where and what type of symptoms are showing up for an individual as well as the person’s energetics, chamomile, skullcap, lavender, holy basil / tulsi, lemon balm, and California poppy are some of my personal favorites. When we get to the point of really using herbs medicinally to promote balance, we often need them in larger amounts such as at least three cups of tea daily for several weeks, or an herbal tincture, large amounts of herbal powders, etc. It becomes like taking medicine, only with no side effects, nutritional interactions or depletions (when administered correctly).

But before we get to that stage where it’s best to have either more personal experience or guidance by a trained professional to take herbs at a medicinal level, many of us can benefit from incorporating more herbs into our everyday foods. This is what a lot of our ancestors did by collecting herbs that grew nearby and incorporating them into household remedies and cooking. And that’s what I’ve done here.

This is a base recipe for a nut/seed butter and dried fruit bar that I routinely make to enjoy as a snack. In this particular version, I added chamomile flowers and dried plums, two foods with a particular affinity for gut health. Many individuals enjoy chamomile as an evening wind-down tea but if you steep it long enough or bite into a whole chamomile flower, you’ll notice a definite bitter taste. That bitter component is important for gut health! We need bitter flavors to help the digestive system function properly, since the bitter taste stimulates the digestive system by activating gastric juices and the liver so we can break down and absorb our food.

Additionally, you might have noticed the strong, fragrant smell of chamomile in freshly brewed tea. The volatile oils in herbs which have an intense smell gives them an action that is called carminative, giving them the ability to promote a healthy digestive system by soothing inflamed tissues, giving relief from GI cramps and spasms, and helping relieve indigestion, bloating, gas, and nervous/anxious tummys. A couple other of my favorite carminative herbs/spices are fennel seeds, cardamom, and lemon balm, which can all be added to these bars instead of and/or in addition to the chamomile (amounts would need to be adjusted for taste, however).

A couple other ways to incorporate more chamomile into your days is in chamomile tea with ginger and licorice, chamomile tea simply by itself, and chamomile added to morning oatmeal. This apple, walnut, chamomile version is pretty outstanding. Overall, I highly encourage you to incorporate more nervous and digestive system supporting herbs into your meals.

Chamomile + Dried Plum Nut Butter Bars, makes 4
This is a great base recipe to experiment with different flavor combinations and incorporate various herbs into your daily snacks. If you’d rather skip the protein powder, try an equal amount of hemp seeds instead since they’re high in protein compared to many other nuts and seeds. Remember, protein is important in small to medium amounts throughout the day, and helps to balance out the heavy sugar and fat that most snacks contain. These also work great both before and after athletic activity as a quick fueling option, as they’re balanced in their carbohydrate to protein ratio.

3 Tbs. / 50 grams nut butter of choice (cashew or coconut work great here)
1/4 cup / 45 grams dried plums
1/3 cup / 45 grams dates, pitted
3 Tbs. / 30 grams hemp protein (or similar unflavored protein powder, such as plain pea protein)
3 Tbs. loose chamomile flowers
1 cup / 30 grams crispy rice cereal (or 1/3 cup oatmeal)
1 tsp. honey or maple syrup
1/8 tsp. salt

  • In a food processor, combine all ingredients except for a small amount of the rice cereal or oatmeal. Puree all the ingredients until they come together and are slightly sticky to the touch. You might need to add up to 1 Tablespoon water.
  • Then add the final amount of cereal or oatmeal and pulse until it is incorporated but not finely pureed.
  • Turn out into a small rectangular dish and press in. Cut into bars and eat, or store in the fridge and cut and eat as needed. Otherwise, you can certainly make these into energy balls instead if you’d like a circular shape.
  • These keep well for at least a couple weeks.

The nervous system 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’ll explain the other categories of digestive imbalance in future articles. And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Answers to the Big Questions and a Hearty Runner’s Brunch Hash

Lately, I’ve returned to reading two books. First the Purgatorio, the second in Dante’s Divine Comedy. My former English professor and deacon at my church in Corvallis has been leading a weekly class lately guiding us through the Purgatorio and the timing feels just about right since the class began the Wednesday of Holy Week and is leading us through this continued period of staying at home and distancing. Purgatory—the place between two more known-of places—seems the perfect description for where we all are now.

If there’s anything I can pick up from Dante’s 14th century poem, it’s that it gets easier as we keep going.

The other book I’ve begun again is Sajah Popham’s Evolutionary Herbalism: Science, Spirituality, and Medicine from the Heart of Nature—a reading I encourage everyone, yes everyone to read. For it guides you back to a perspective I think we all had as children and lost along the way.

I’ve been considering a lot these last few weeks. About this space, this encouraging journal and recipe guide of sorts, my role as a nutritionist and in the community, health and true wellness, and of course, nature.

On that note, I wrote in two questions for a couple of favorite podcasts a few months ago and surprising to me, both questions were answered by the respective individuals this past week. Unsurprisingly –if you know me—my questions were on the topics of sustainability and having a lower ‘footprint’ as a company, and on navigating faith and spirituality amongst busy seasons and family traditions that don’t partake in that faith. I know. I know. I like to ask the tough questions.

So why am I bringing all that up here? This past week my big questions semi-paralleled with those of Brett Farrell, the founder of Territory Run Co., for which I am a content ambassador and contribute seasonal articles. Brett spoke about his own big questions, the clothing industry’s own climate footprint, challenges with community, and more. Check out those here and here. As well as recent contributions on the Territory Run Journal – there are several excellent and thoughtful articles there lately.

What I was really reminded of however, was that in a conversation with Brett about a year ago, I spoke about the draw of trail running, the joy and peace and healing it has brought me personally, and about getting to the know the medicine around me—literally coming to know the plants I spend time with on the trails. Though I’ve only written or spoken about it in pieces, I came to an interest in herbs and herbalism like a lot of individuals. I was really sick, in a way that modern medicine wasn’t going to cure or even temporarily fix. And after a while of taking various herbs and formulas which my doctor gave me, and around the same period spending more of my running hours in the forest, the plants reached out to me and pulled me in, sometimes sharing themselves in profound ways –like being pulled to a stop suddenly alongside a trail, staring captivatedly at one, and (internally) asking, who are you? Crazily enough at times, I’d find I had my answer when the plant’s name simply came to the edge of my tongue, when if you’d asked on any other day, I wouldn’t have known it.  In fact, it happened again today.

And then Brett asked me another ‘big question’ about what it is I really want people to know in regards to nutrition and health. My answer is one I still will give and one I’ll likely give for the rest of time. What I really want you to know about nutrition and health is that if you get quiet enough – go deep enough into the forest’s eternal wisdom, and your own—you’ll find you already have the answers to the questions you seek.

To explain this more since the concept can be a little esoteric, I’ll refer to a couple lines from Sajah’s first two chapters:
To begin gathering natura sophia (the intelligence of nature), we must learn to see beyond the limitations our modern world has placed upon our perception and see the living intelligence of the Earth. And this can only be done through gnosis cardiaca—the knowledge of the heart.

and

To truly enter the kingdom of nature we must suspend our rational thought, let go of our knowledge of botany and chemistry, even dispense with our systems of herbalism—for any potential interference of the mind will get in the way of our capacities to directly perceive the intelligence within the plants. To move beyond herbal knowledge and into herbal wisdom, we must tread the pathway down the mind into the inner temple located just inside our chest.

Bringing this back down to earth even a little more, the answers to these big questions don’t come easily, they don’t necessarily just appear when we ask them or when we want them to. There can be many layers to the answers of how to be a better patron of the planet, or how to balance a spiritual life in faith with the goings on of the ‘real world,’ or how to heal – truly heal the body and mind.

Over time, I’m beginning to realize my role here is to educate about true wellness, about true healing, to be more of the guide—the Virgil and/or the Beatrice (though I claim no Godlike abilities)—and no longer the lost and hurting Dante who I was for a long time. To provide encouraging words yes, and recipes to nourish the body yes, and with those working with me clinically, proven scientific strategies to heal root cause imbalances yes. But it’s also to remind you, to remind us, that we also have the answers. That we’re not victims.

In every relationship whether it’s with me your nutritionist, your coach, your chiropractor or PT, your family and friends, your life partner, or with the plants in your window box, yard, locally farmed vegetable box, or forest, there’s an opportunity for a two-way conversation, a partnership to come to the answers that are already within you waiting to be revealed.

Maybe that’s the point of this slow down period we’ve been given, for I know it’s not for many millions to suffer. Maybe it’s the time to return to our childlike ways, picking the dandelions and blowing our wishes into the big questions, letting the answers present themselves in their own time and way.

Now for this hearty brunch hash.

You’ll need a hearty, though not heavy, meal to refuel the system after your time in the forest– or wherever you go to dwell in your own big questions and their answers. I’ve shared the recipe over on the Run Journal at Territory Run Co. Get the full article and recipe here.