Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Gentian for Acid Reflux, GERD, and Heartburn

There seems to be a glut of well-known herbs brought to you by the letter G. Among them are garlic, gingko, goldenseal, and ginger (with the lone standout, echinacea, rounding out the top five). While I'm in practice and writing, I'll push for gentian to make it to the top five. (I don't think echinacea is going anywhere, so there won't be an herbal G-5 summit anytime soon.)

Gentian (with the taxonomic name Gentiana lutea) is one of the best herbs to support digestion. It enhances the body's natural actions, and doesn't work against them. In the act of digestion, the body normally secretes saliva in the mouth to begin digestion of carbohydrates (and to a lesser extent, proteins). Hydrochloric acid is then secreted in the stomach to further break down proteins. The body also secretes various digestive enzymes from the gall bladder (and by extension, the liver) and the pancreas to further assist in digestion of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. And finally, the stomach and intestines engage in peristalsis, or rhythmic movement, to ensure that every last bit of food comes in contact with digestive juices and has the best opportunity to be assimilated into the body. Gentian increases the body's secretion of digestive juices, and to some extent, also increases peristalsis. Having said this, it does not increase the risk of diarrhea unless you overdose. There is also a theory that when taken after meals, gentian actually (harmlessly) decreases peristalsis.

Millions of people deal not only with the scourge of heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), but also with chronic consumption of acid blockers and proton-pump inhibitors and the many potential diseases that could also be caused by them. Regular use of gentian could go a long way in decreasing the incidence and severity of these conditions and even decrease the need for acid blockers.

Gentian has a cold nature, which often complements people who have a hot constitution - for example, those who are often angry, have a red complexion, or who generally have a "hot temper." How is this? Well, gentian is an exceedingly bitter herb (which probably explains why it isn't terribly popular). Imagine eating something bitter. Did you shiver a bit in revulsion? That's the cold energy of gentian, and indeed, of most bitter herbs. (In comparison, guess what energy herbs like cayenne, cinnamon, and garlic have!)

Gentian's very bitter nature also makes it a great digestive herb. Again, imagine eating something bitter. What's your first response? To spit it out, right? That's the body trying to protect itself from something it construes as potentially poisonous. But if you end up swallowing this potentially harmful substance, the body wants to destroy it as much as possible. This is where secretion of the body's digestive juices and increased peristalsis comes into play. Gentian, of course, is not poisonous - at least, in doses of 5-30 drops of the tincture at a time. (As with everything, including water, the dose determines whether a substance is helpful or harmful.)

The best way to take gentian is different from how most other herbal preparations are taken. Usually, people pop capsules, drink tea, or squirt a dropperful or two of a tincture in the mouth, then wash it down with water. But with gentian, the most beneficial action is seen when you taste it. So the dose, again, is 5-30 drops of a tincture, in about 4-8 ounces of water. Sip the water slowly about 10 minutes before eating to stimulate digestion. You may also use the same dose after eating if you feel that typical "brick in your stomach" feeling that doesn't go away easily. It also can help in cases of mild nausea after a meal. Of course, if you just can't handle the taste of gentian, you can take capsules that do a reasonable job of stimulating digestion as well.

Disclaimer: Gentian is not always the best herb to reach for in severe cases of GERD. Sometimes, there is so much inflammation in the esophagus that stimulating more acid in the stomach could be harmful. Here, herbs and nutrition to soothe the esophagus and decrease inflammation may be necessary before using gentian. Food sensitivities may also play a part in GERD, so if you are dealing with GERD that doesn't seem to respond to different therapies, this may be an avenue to explore. Finally, although not necessarily harmful, the acid-producing properties of gentian temporarily counteract the antacid properties of acid blockers and proton-pump inhibitors, potentially making them less effective. In any case, GERD is a potentially serious issue that should be managed by a health care professional well-versed in supporting the body's natural healing processes.
Gentian (Gentiana lutea)
Part used: root
Dose: 5-30 drops in water, sipped 10 minutes before a meal
Indications: weak digestion, low appetite, heartburn, acid reflux, mild cases of GERD, mild nausea after meals, general debility.
Contraindications: advanced cases of GERD, Barrett's esophagus, esophageal or stomach cancer.
Combines well with: ginger root (to increase appetite); skullcap root (to enhance overall digestion and relaxation during meals).
Do you have health issues that aren't being adequately addresssed by conventional medicine? Naturopathic care may be the answer you're looking for. Visit my website for more information about naturopathic medicine, and begin your journey toward optimal health!


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