‘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.

connecting the gut and the nervous system

I had an emotional couple of days last week. If you know anything about the Enneagram personality archetyping, I’m most definitely a type 4, so deep and vast emotions are a familiarity for me. That aside, I was emotional. I cried a fair bit and felt my own little volcano of melancholy come out in periodic waves. One such wave was on a run last Thursday morning. Most long-term runners know certain runs can be incredibly therapeutic and where we work through challenging emotions. This was one of those.

When I returned to the house after finishing and began my cool down stretch, I had a familiar mild, dull pain in my abdomen set in, and it continued throughout the day. As an old familiar, I knew exactly the cause of the pain when I first noticed it. As a sensitive child, I grew up with routine anxious ‘tummy aches,’ on Sundays before a new school week began, couldn’t eat before stressful events, and generally would feel knots in my middle when emotionally distraught.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a reason for this.

For anyone that likes to show up to an athletic race early in the morning, stand in line at the porta potty, and then hope to put your best foot forward in your event of choice, or perhaps engage in a similar nervous-inducing event in another area of life like a job interview, you know that when you’re anxious, nervous, or otherwise stressed, digestion is quite a bit off. That’s because the gut and the brain are intimately connected. The nervous system has several branches and one section, the enteric nervous system (ENS), is often called ‘the second brain.’ The ENS is the section that runs through our digestive system and is connected to the actual brain through a large nerve that runs through are central body and communicates in both directions. This is called the vagus nerve.  When we have a really emotional episode, like I did, our brain can send chemical messages to the gut that change our gut bacteria, leading to low-grade gut inflammation and possibly GI distress. Similarly, if we have a particular imbalance in the gut itself—through food that doesn’t sit well or isn’t best for us, or inflammation and excessive permeability to the gut lining for another reason, we often notice behavioral changes as well. For example, persons that have chronic GI distress often also experience one or several mental health symptoms, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, confusion, brain fog, poor memory, migraines, and more.


When we have continued stress, whether in our body or in our mind, the nervous system slows down or impairs digestive function. This is why it’s best to not eat when we’re in a stressful mindset or running out the door in the morning before work or while rushing between meetings. And why one simple way to improve digestion is to single-task while we eat. That is, eat in a quiet, peaceful environment and do only that. Just eat, enjoy, and actually chew the meal. And its why major stressful life events often precede major health symptoms and then diagnoses. If you struggle with digestive conditions such as one of the Irritable Bowel Diseases (Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Diverticulitis, etc.), IBS, GERD, ulcers, chronic constipation or diarrhea, and any autoimmune disease, your condition will often respond favorably to stress-reduction techniques. For athletes with any of these conditions, we often argue that our physical activity is our source of stress reduction. That may be true—in theory—but often our activity load is contributing stress when our physical and mental systems are way out of balance.

True rest and relaxation, such as spending an hour or more per day doing absolutely nothing, deep breathing, meditation or prayer practices, spending quiet time in nature, gardening, yoga, painting, or other quiet activities without a screen are sometimes exactly what we need most to begin digestive healing – not a fancy, stressful, rigid new eating plan. (Gasp! I know; how dare I say that as someone that works with people on food!)

Otherwise, I love to work with herbs for the nervous system. In fact, nervines, the category of herbs that work on the nervous system, are by far the ones I work with and recommend the most. Lavender in this blueberry lavender smoothie bowl, and skullcap, tulsi / Holy Basil, lemon balm, and lavender in this stress-reduction tea or herbal latte are just a couple relax-inducing herbal ideas to consider.

The nervous system is one of the primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically with impaired digestion. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, fatigue, or anxiety, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I shared about the immune response and subsequent inflammation in part two, gut microbes and dysbiosis in part three, and a tip to support digestion and absorption in part four. I’ll explain remaining categories 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.

References:
1: Lipski, L. (2012). Digestive Wellness (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.