Students of Ethnobotany: Bittersweet Digestive Health


Digestive bitters. Image by Laura E.

This easily digestible edition of Students of Ethnobotany is brought to us by Laura E.

When I was a kid, I really hated licorice.  The taste just put me right off; I wouldn’t go near anything that resembled the sweet, bitter flavour.  Lately, however, it is helping me to heal in a powerful way.

I have suffered from a variety of digestive complaints for the last few years and have tried a variety of cures.  Since I have embraced a love of plants and natural healing, I decided to explore what the botanical world can offer me.  It turns out that licorice and its relatives are effective digestive aids.  Luckily, my tastes have “matured” over the years and I now don’t mind the flavour, and indeed quite enjoy it.


Common fennel. Image from Wikipedia by Alvesgaspar.

Fennel seed is an herb from the Apiaceae family, similar to dill, caraway, cumin, and anise (Simpson, 2001).  Its botanical name, Foeniculum vulgare, refers to two common varieties: wild fennel used as a herb, and sweet fennel used as a vegetable (Wood, 1999).  Fennelcontains the volatile oil anethole, which is the active chemical that acts on indigestion and helps to sooth spasms and promote peristalsis (Wood, 1999).

Digestive bitters were recommended by my TCM doctor (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and instead of buying them, I was inspired to make the tincture myself.  Seeking out the ingredients turned out to be more time consuming than anticipated, though it allowed me to explore the various herb shops in Vancouver.  I made use of Finlandia Pharmacy, Gaia Apothecary, and Quidditas.  Most of the herbs I found in powdered form already, though I ground up gentian root myself (with a coffee grinder!).  I put the herbs into a glass container and covered with brandy and then allowed it to sit for about 6 weeks, giving it a daily shake to help the infusion.

If you’re unfamiliar with digestive bitters, perhaps you’ve come across Angostura bitters in more traditional cocktails or martinis.  Angostura bitters are also used to help indigestion, though have become more of a flavouring addition rather than used medicinally.  Bitters work to aid digestion differently depending on the herb formula.  For the recipe I used, here are the uses of the herbs according to the invaluable texts, Asian Health Secrets and Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine:

Fennel – carminative, anti-inflammatory

Milk Thistle – improves liver function and toxin elimination

Dandelion Root – carminative, anti-constipation, anti-inflammatory

Gentian Root – anti-ulcer, anti-diarrhea

Ginger Root – carminative, stimulates digestion

I have been using the bitters now for about 3 weeks and have noticed a gentle improvement in my digestion.  I feel the tincture working its magic and I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of making my own medicine.  I feel that as my stress levels improve, so too shall my health!  Though I do admit, the tincture I created is quite strong and is not the most palatable.  But my curiosity of herbs has not diminished, in fact it has become more alive!  If herbs fascinate you also, I highly recommend any of the sources mentioned for further reading.


Basic ingredients. Image by Laura E.

Digestive Bitters:

2 parts fennel seed powder

1 part milk thistle powder

1 part dandelion root powder

1 part gentian root powder

1/2 part ginger root powder

Cover with alcohol for 4-6 weeks, shaking daily.  Strain and bottle into glass dropper bottle.  Take dropper squirt in a little water with meals.

Tincture recipe from personal correspondence with Dr. Samantha Jennings,


Bitters brewing. Image by Laura E.


Hadady, L. 1996. Asian Health Secrets: The Complete Guide to Asian Herbal Medicine. Three Rivers Press: NY.

Murray, M. and J. Pizzorno. 1998, Revised 2nd ed. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Three Rivers Press: NY.

Simpson, B.B. & M.C. Ogorzaly.  2001, 3rd ed.  Economic Botany: Plants in Our World.

Wood, R. 1999. The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia: A Comprehensive Resource for Healthy Eating. pp. 52-54. Penguin Books Ltd.: USA.

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