Bitters weak as a digestive aid

The species of flowering, alpine perennials known as gentians produce some of the most bitter chemicals known in nature. Bitters, as the herbs are collectively known, are often used to flavor alcoholic drinks, and have been used in European folk medicine for centuries. (The plants were named for King Gentius, the leader of the ancient Roman-era kingdom of Illyria, who purportedly discovered the plants' medicinal properties.) In Europe, Gentiana lutea has been traditionally taken for conditions such as wasting and high blood pressure. Some gentian species have been used to treat malaria and leprosy in Africa, and snakebite in North America. In traditional Chinese medicine, gentians are used to treat liver and sexually transmitted diseases.


Uses: Today in the U.S. and Europe, gentian (in the U.S., usually G. lutea) is used largely for indigestion and to stimulate the appetite.

Dose: Herbalists recommend up to half a teaspoon of liquid gentian extract or 2 to 4 grams of the dried root per day, taken before meals.

Precautions: Because gentian may stimulate stomach acid production, people with ulcers or chronic indigestion should seek their doctor's advice before taking it.

Research: A few Chinese studies have examined how herbal remedies containing gentian affect humans, but gentian alone has not been examined, except in a few test tube and animal studies. Animal studies have suggested G. lutea may help lower blood pressure and increase exercise endurance. But in a recent experiment published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, the root showed weak activity against Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium implicated in a number of gastrointestinal conditions, notably peptic ulcers. For the most part, evidence for gentian's effectiveness in humans is lacking.

Dietary supplement makers are not required by the U.S. government to demonstrate that their products are safe or effective. Ask your healthcare provider for advice on selecting a brand.

-- Elena Conis

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