Ask a Naturopath

All disease begins in the gut: bitters for stomach troubles

By Terry Vanderheyden, ND, RH

The guts of the issue.

In Canada, digestive issues afflict more than 20 million people per year and cost the health care system more than $18 billion.

Season’s grievings

 At no time do the challenges of digestion come back to haunt us more than during the festive season. Not only do we overeat, consuming large portions of holiday fare, brimming with sugar and fat, topped off by generous libations of alcohol, but we endure the many other stresses that can aggravate digestion—cooking, cleaning, shopping, travel, and family chaos, for example. Which makes it all the more important to pay heed to this most important system of the body.

Listen to your gut

The maxim, attributed to Hippocrates, that “all disease begins in the gut,” is still apropos. We know as NDs that many of today’s chronic ills, especially conditions like autoimmune diseases, have their origin there. Numerous afflictions can be remedied by optimizing digestive health, as I can attest from the experience of 24 years of naturopathic practice.

If you suffer from acid reflux, gas, bloating, indigestion or dietary sensitivities, don’t ignore these symptoms. These should alert you that something needs to be addressed, or, to quote English jurist Henry de Bracton, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The fasting cure

If I could make only one recommendation, I would say, eat moderately. A patient told me this week that he has adopted a habit to “eat until I am no longer hungry, not until I am full.” No better advice can be given. Another option is to fast intermittently, i.e. to rest the GI tract for a period, whether it be for 18 hours per 24 or for a full day or two each week. This can be very effective for restoring GI health. Remarking on the transforming effectiveness of self-restraint for his health, 16th century author Luigi Cornaro writes, “I betook myself entirely to a temperate and regular life, and … in less than a year, it rid me of all those disorders which had taken such hold on me, and which appeared at the time incurable.” (Cornaro, Discourses on the sober life, ca 1550)

Eminent herbal authority Paul Bergner adds that the effectiveness of herbal “gut-healing formulas … are greatly enhanced during the fasting … state.”  Thus, combining a herbal approach with fasting is even more effective than either approach alone.

A bitter way to better digestion

Herbal bitters have long been an essential component of traditional medicine and a digestive aid used around the world.

Individuals who have trouble with dyspepsia—gas, burping, bloating and indigestion—will benefit from bitters.

Corollary Symptoms of Impaired Digestion

Ancient Ayurveda agrees with modern Naturopathy, which holds that mandagni, a loss of digestive fire due to lack of and/or poor quality of digestive juices, is the root cause of every disease. In addition to the usual digestive upsets, Ayurveda adds other symptoms associated with mandagni, including asthma and respiratory problems, fatigue, nasal obstruction and sinusitis, edema, and hemorrhoids .

Whole-Body Tonic and Energy Tonic

By optimizing digestion, bitters act indirectly as tonics to the whole system, improving well-being, endurance, and energy levels.

Eclectics – physicians of the 19th and early 20th centuries who tended to rely on herbal therapies – Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D. and John Uri Lloyd, Pharm. D., Ph. D. explain further that gentian should be used “where the powers of life are depressed and recovery depends upon (the) ability to assimilate food.”

Consider herbal bitters as a time-honoured natural remedy to help stave off chronic disease and remedy digestive problems, especially during a hectic, sometimes stressful holiday season, when our normal eating habits can be a bit topsy-turvy!

Terry Vanderheyden is a naturopathic doctor and registered herbalist with a practice in Barry’s Bay, ON and works as a medical consultant and formulator for St. Francis Herb Farm, Inc.

Website: www.stfrancisherbfarm.com


 Paul Bergner, “Little Known Physiological Facts That May Change Your Practice of Herbalism.” Traditional Roots Conference, Portland, OR, May 2018.

  Singh Akhilesh Kumar, “Clinical Evaluation of Trikatu as Appetite Stimulant (Agnivardhana)”, Journal of Pharmaceutical and Scientific Innovation Jan – Feb 2012; (1): 50-54.

  Singh Akhilesh Kumar, “A Critical Review on Ayurvedic Concept of Agnimandya (Loss of Appetite)”, Journal of Pharmaceutical and Scientific Innovation March-April 2012; (2): 5-8.

 HW Felter and JU Lloyd, King’s American Dispensatory. Portland, Oregon: Eclectic Medical Publications; 1983. Reprint of Eighteenth Edition of 1898, pp. 924-926.

For more information please visit www.stfrancisherbfarm.com

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