The Importance of Herbal Bitters for Healthy Digestion and Elimination

Specific bitter herbs and vegetables have formed an integral part of the diet of many traditional cultures for their beneficial effects on the digestive system. In the Western diet however many bitter foods or drinks are seldom used anymore, such as bitter aperitifs and liqueurs which were common in times past. This lack of bitter digestive stimulant foods and excess sweet foods has contributed to the many health problems in modern civilization, including late onset diabetes.

These famous bitter remedies stimulate the flow of enzymatic secretions and digestive juices. This includes gastric secretion from the stomach, pancreatic digestive enzymes and bile from the liver. This aids many of the symptoms of indigestion, improves the absorption of nutrients, and reduces the tendency to develop food allergies. From improved digestion comes good elimination, as the organs of detoxification, the bowels, kidneys and most importantly, the liver remove the wastes from metabolism.

Signs that you may have an overworked liver:

  • Intolerance of fatty foods
  • Frequent nausea after meals
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Constipation
  • Low energy leading to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Inflammatory diseases e.g. skin conditions
  • Frequent allergies

How strong is your liver?

The liver performs hundreds of functions, and is compared to a “chemical factory”. It is involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins.  It manufactures bile, filters impurities and toxic wastes from the blood, produces blood-clotting factors and destroys old worn-out red blood cells. It is not surprising that if the liver does not function well our health is affected in many ways. One of the liver's primary tasks is to filter toxins, a function for which it is continually put under stress by various factors of modern living. If prolonged, these stresses can lead to liver disease and subsequent toxic overload.

It is very important to have your liver function test performed regularly in conjunction with your GP to check for any major issues affecting liver enzymes. Even when these test may come back negative then this is only a sign that no major issue is yet present however we can take steps to support our liver function and prevent the occurrence of future liver disease.

Is our liver the most overworked organ in the 21st century?

The food we eat is an increasing source of unnecessary and sometimes harmful chemicals in the form of flavourings, colourings and preservatives, especially nitrates. In addition, pesticides extensively abused in farming leave a great deal of chemical residues on our vegetables, fruits and within processed foods. These agricultural chemicals actually accumulate in the meat products we consume due to the livestock being fed with heavily contaminated cheap grain products. This, together with the drugs given to intensively reared livestock, especially antibiotics and growth hormones, have repercussions on our liver health. Our oceans, lakes and rivers have also been contaminated by plastics and industrial wastes which has led to an alarming rise in levels of harmful chemical compounds and heavy metals in fish and other seafood. Other harmful chemicals that enter our diets are the peroxidized oils from fried and oily foods, especially from supermarket processed vegetable oils that oxidize rapidly when heated. These are excessively high in inflammatory compounds and free radicals, known cancer causing agents, that deplete our natural antioxidant enzymes and nutrients. Alcohol and smoking of course, also put an extra workload on the detoxification workload of the liver and further increases free radical levels, leading to an increased risk of cancer.

What is toxic?

A substance is classified as “toxic” when it has the ability to produce undesired physical or mental effects on living organisms at relatively low concentrations. This may be because it destroys certain cells or impairs or upsets certain cell processes and organ functions. Examples are free radicals, also known as oxidants, that when are present in excess amounts lead to cellular destruction. Another toxin is the heavy metal lead, which targets the nervous system and when it reaches toxic levels, will disrupt the functions of nerve cells.

Toxins accumulate in the body to harmful amounts when the eliminatory process is slower than the rate in which the toxin enters the body. Without any noticeable symptoms these substances may be ingested for a long period of time, until the toxic level is reached and then subsequent illness results.  Fortunately, our body has natural mechanisms to deal with toxins and wastes: our immune system, the skin, liver, kidneys, and bowels all help to metabolize, excrete and eliminate unwanted products. However, when the eliminatory capacity of these tissues and organs becomes overburdened by the excessive demands of the collective load of toxins, it will result in their accumulating in different tissues of the body. Eventually this may inhibit the elimination processes itself, creating an acute health crisis or chronicdisorders.

The King of Bitters, Hempedu Bumi (Andrographis paniculata)

The first choice for digestive system support in the modern age

Research has confirmed Hempedu Bumi’s long tradition as a liver tonic throughout Asia. Laboratory and clinical trials have demonstrated its effectiveness in cases of toxic liver damage, poor liver function and hepatitis. The primary active constituent, andrographolide has been found to produce a stronger choleretic effect (increased bile flow, bile salt and bile acids) and hepatoprotective effect than silymarin from Milk Thistle. In some tests the whole leaf extract showed stronger activity than andrographolide alone, confirming the benefit of using the whole herb extract.

Heart health and prevention of oxidized cholesterol

Andrographis also plays a valuable role in cardiovascular health and protection from atherosclerosis. Andrographis was found to significantly alleviate atherosclerotic build-up following a high cholesterol diet and the effect was superior to the anti-atherosclerotic effects of Fish Oil (omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids over 70%). In another study conducted by the Department of Pharmacology, National University of Singapore, the aqueous extract of Andrographis was found to lower blood pressure by reducing circulating angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) activities in plasma as well as by reducing free radical levels in the kidneys. Further studies have demonstrated that Andrographis prevents heart attacks by reducing thrombosis potential. It was also demonstrated to protect the heart muscle from further damage following a heart attack.

Supporting our own immune system

Clinical studies in bacterial and viral respiratory infections have demonstrated good effects, implying an immunostimulant action especially on phagocytosis. Human trials have found Andrographis useful in pharyngotonsillitis, providing relief of fever and sore throat. Andrographis fluid extract and isolated andrographolide stimulated both antigen specific and non-specific immune responses in mice. The whole herb extract produced stronger immunostimulation. Fluid extract of Andrographis root demonstrated strong in vitro anthelmintic activity against human malarial infection.

Recovery from hepatitis

Years after the resolution of a bout of hepatitis we may continue to feel signs of liver sluggishness in the form of indigestion, nausea and intolerance of fatty foods. Hepatitis can also lead to severe or long-term liver dysfunction. Specific herbs have a great deal to offer in the gradual strengthening of the liver. Together with the liver protecting effects of Andrographis paniculata, two additional tropical herbs: Phyllanthus niruri and Curcuma longa have a long history of use for liver conditions and thousands of clinical and laboratory studies between them showing their effectiveness in supporting liver function.

Please note that herbs should never be taken during the acute stage of hepatitis or when any yellowishness of the skin is present as this may be due to a blocked bile duct and require urgent medical treatment. Always seek accurate medical diagnosis and attention if any liver condition is suspected.

The list of scientific references for clinical and laboratory studies on Andrographis paniculata is lengthy indeed and one only visit the PubMed website for an extensive access to the report abstracts and certain full scientific papers.