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If you have had gentian tea, you know just how bitter a tea can be. There's no doubt that gentian root is a medicinal herb. It tastes awful.
The world's most famous gentian tonic, however, can become an acquired taste. In 1824, a German doctor named Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, who was the surgeon general of Simón Bolívar's revolutionary army in Venezuela, developed an alcoholic beverage he called Angostura Bitters, named after the town in Venezuela where it was made. Angostura Bitters are a mixture of 94-proof alcohol, gentian root, and spices that can be used to make "interesting" cocktails and after-dinner drinks. Now nearly 200 years later, they are still being made (now in the neighboring country of Trinidad), and extremely popular in parts of Europe as an apéritif or digestif for a heavy meal. Gentian helps digestion.
What Is It About Gentian That Helps Digestion?
The reason gentian powers normal digestion is in part due to the fact that bitter substances trigger a reflex of the vagus nerve. When you consume anything bitter, about as quickly as the taste hits your tongue, your stomach starts releasing more acid. There's a very simple reason for this. Many of the poisonous substances in nature are alkaloids, which have an intensely bitter taste. Releasing stomach acid gives your body a chance to break down the potentially toxic substances before they can reach your bloodstream.
With this safeguard in place, the bitter flavors that taste bad actually increase your appetite. This is a principle worked out by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who was more famous for experiments on "Pavlov's dog." Pavlov wrote about bitter substances, "The appetite is sharpened because the gustatory nerves are stimulated; this reflexively leads to dilation of the gastric vessels and to an increase in the gastric and salivary secretions." There aren't any alkaloids in gentian, but it activates the same reflex. Gentian helps you enjoy your meal and digest it better, too.
Gentian Isn't Like Other Bitter Herbs and Foods
Many other "herbs" have a similar effect. One reason for drinking coffee after dinner, for example, is for the bitter taste of the coffee to stimulate your digestion. It's both the bitter compounds in coffee and caffeine that have this effect. Drinking tea can also stimulate digestion, if it contains caffeine. However, caffeine has a secondary effect. It increases your pulse. Your heart beats faster when you drink coffee, if only slightly.
Gentian (and another herb that isn't as universally accepted, wormwood, also known as artemisia) acts in a slightly different way. It stimulates the release of acid to help your stomach break down food, but instead of increasing your heart rate, it sends blood flow to your abdomen. This helps your bloodstream absorb the newly digested amino acids, fatty acids, and sugars from your small intestine. It helps you stay hydrated by stimulating the absorption of water from your colon. And it stimulates the release of bile from your liver, which helps your body absorb just the right amount of cholesterol from your food, while carrying away byproducts from hormone production.