Optimal Digestion for Optimal Health: Fermented Foods and Bitter Herbs

9 years ago

This will be the first of many blogs that will look at the issue at the root of countless diseases and disorders in American adults and children: digestion.

Perhaps you don't think that this is an issue for you- your stomach never really hurts and it seems that your elimination is pretty regular. But if you have ever been on antibiotics, eaten large amounts of processed foods, or if you were formula fed, it is likely that your digestion is not performing optimally. And if you are tired more often than not, your nervous system constantly feels on edge, and you can't seem to summon the energy needed to get through the day, then it is certain.

It's simple: digestion is the key to good health. Good digestion is absolutely essential for optimal assimilation of the nutrients that we take in with our food. We Americans tend to think of eating food as fueling up and filling up, instead of what the act truly is- the taking in of the nutrients from which all future cells will be made. And those cells, of course, make up every single organ and system in the body.

Every morsel that we eat will either be welcomed by the body- "Hey! I'll use the protein from this chicken muscle to grow fingernails! Oh, and I'll use the fat from this chicken fat to lubricate the neural network in the brain! Oooh, and the Vitamin C in this tangy citrus sauce will strengthen the elasticity of the blood vessels, bones, ligaments, and tendons!"- or rejected by the body- "What the...? High fructose corn syrup? Yellow #3? I can't use these for anything! Eliminate!" In the first case, the body is given what it needs in order to fulfill the highest potential of its innate intelligence and put the nutrients given to it to good use. In the second, the effort to eliminate these "edible food like substances" will only waste precious energy and leave the body feeling tired and drained.

So what can we do, alongside eating high quality, nutrient-dense foods, to help our bodies digest what we eat? In our family, we focus on two things: fermented foods and bitter herbs, both of which were a staple in the cuisines of traditional people from around the planet for most of human history, and both of which are almost entirely absent in our modern diets.

You have probably heard all about probiotics by now. Perhaps when you were on a round of antibiotics someone told you to go to the health food store and buy some probiotic pills. Their reasoning was this: antibiotics kill all of the bacteria in your body, including the beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract. Probiotic supplements resupply the body with these very necessary organisms.

But I am, like most herbal minded folks, of the mindset that getting nutrients through food is infinitely superior to getting them through a pill. The body recognizes food, it knows what to do with it, how to break it down, where to distribute it, how to assimilate it. A pill is a bit more confusing, especially if it is made with all sorts of fillers and other unnecessary ingredients (read a pill label sometime, even on "natural" supplements, they even put dye in them sometimes!). The body has to do a lot of work in order to excrete all of the unrecognizable stuff found in capsules and tablets. It will have to use energy that could be used in order to heal the body.

So, back to food. I plan on referring back to this post often in future posts, as my man friend has become quite enthusiastic about fermentation and has been whipping up some ingenious concoctions. So now let's cover the basics.

Fermenting foods allowed our ancestors to preserve the current harvest for future use at the same time as it made the food more nutritious. Here is what Sandor Ellix Katz, author of the very best book on the subject Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods has to say:

"Fermentation is everywhere, always. It is an every day miracle, the path of least resistance. Microscopic bacteria and fungi (encompassing yeasts and molds) are in every breath we take and every bite we eat. Try- as many do- to eradicate them with antibacterial soaps, antifungal creams, antibiotic drugs, there is no escaping them. They are ubiquitous agents of transformation, feasting upon decaying matter, constantly shifting dynamic life forces from one miraculous and horrible creation to the next.

Microbial cultures are essential to life's processes, such as digestion and immunity. We humans are in a symbiotic relationship with these single-cell life-forms. Microflora, as they are often called, digest food into nutrients our bodies can absorb, protect from from potentially dangerous organisms, and teach our immune systems how to function [one of the reasons formula fed babies are at such a disadvantage when it comes to life long immunity- mama's milk contains scores of living microbial cultures that evolve to meet the child's exact needs, formula doesn't]. Not only are we dependent upon microorganisms, we are their descendants: According to the fossil record, all forms of life on earth spring from bacterial origins. Microorganisms are our ancestors and our allies. They keep the soil fertile and comprise an indispensable part of the cycle of life. Without them, there could be no other life."

Makes you want to eat more fermented foods now doesn't it? Sandor's book is a wealth of information on the subject: from theoretical genius like what you just read to the practicalities of making delicious beer, wine, mead, vegetable krauts, kimchi, miso, tempeh, sourdough bread, yogurt, cheese, and so on.

Here are some of Graham's recent cultured creations. They are, from left to right, rose hip and hibiscus soda (note the bright pink sparkliness!), local heirloom tomato salsa, and garlic and basil sauerkraut:


We try to consume fermented foods and drinks every day, preferably at every meal. Having kombucha and herbal soda in the fridge is great in the summer time and is an easy way to make sure we are getting what we need. We also take a bite of sauerkraut before every meal. (If you are going to buy kraut at the store make sure it's raw and in the refridgerated section- otherwise the live organisms have been killed).

Here is some more great info on this fascinating- and yummy!- subject.


As stated, I plan to blog a lot more about the health benefits of fermented foods for ourselves and our families. Look for future posts about autism/ADHD and the probiotic link, as well as one on the connection between the digestive & nervous systems.


Now onto the bitters. What is a bitter? A plant that, when placed in the mouth, tastes bitter. Easy. Human beings from diverse cultures have always valued bitter herbs for their health giving properties, and today science tells us exactly why the consumption of these bitters aids digestion.

Bitter herbs stimulate taste buds on the tongue that were designed for that sole purpose. This contact immediately sends a signal throughout the digestive tract that stimulates the stomach lining to secrete the gastric juices needed for optimal digestion, causes the gall bladder to release bile into the intestines in order to better digest fats, regulates the pancreas's secretion of insulin and glycogen (an aid to those with hypoglycemia and diabetes) and strengthens the activity of the liver which, of course, is the body's central agent of detoxification and assimilation.

So, yeah, bitters are good. Except that, perhaps you're thinking, they don't taste so good. It is interesting to note that our ancestors, and still living indigenous people, savor the taste of a bitter herb upon the tongue. It is only us modern folk who have grown up on over-sweetened processed foods who have developed a dislike for bitter tastes. But it is recoverable. Start slowly. I started with one of my most beloved plant allies, mugwort. Whenever I come across some I place a leaf in my mouth. The bitterness is tasted immediately, and I can feel its effect throughout my body. The more I do it, the more it becomes less unpleasant and more... interesting. The herbalist and author Kathi Keville once told me that she has been able, through decades of practice, to shift her taste buds into a state of enjoying bitter flavors.


The easiest way to incorporate bitters into your life, if any of the above digestive benefits sounded helpful for you or your loved ones, is to use a tincture. If you're not yet at a place in your life where you are making your own tinctures (and I highly recommend getting yourself there- it's about a million times easier than you think!), any health food store will have at least one, sometimes a whole shelf full, of bitters tinctures.

It works best to take this right before a meal. Follow instructions on the bottle. I have heard people say that this simple practice has worked wonders for their digestion and overall health (I'm remembering the word "miraculous" come out of an 83-year-old woman's mouth in an herb class last summer). Once I bought some for a friend and we both took a dropper full in water right before eating. This friend has had severe digestive difficulties and has eaten mostly processed foods for her entire life. Right after swallowing she ran over to the sink gagging. She and I agreed that this strong reaction was an indication that this was a medicine she needed. These humble herbs would have never caused that kind of reaction in a person who had eaten more natural, unprocessed, whole foods throughout their life.

No matter what you eat or how healthy you perceive yourself or your loved ones to be, doing what you can to enhance digestion will only add vitality to your being. Fermenting food is fun, taking a bitters tincture is easy, and the rewards are immeasurable.

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