How Bitter Foods & Herbs Can Relieve IBS + Heal Your Gut

Besides welcoming spring, April is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Awareness Month. This becomes the perfect time to learn more about IBS along with incorporating Happy Gut strategies to heal this condition.

Running to the bathroom, gastric distress, living in extreme discomfort, and other symptoms shouldn’t be part of your daily routine. These are not normal problems.

Signs of IBS include diarrhea, stomach pain, constipation, and general changes in bowel movements. Emotional and psychological stress often accompanies these and other digestive issues as you, say, panic that you won’t have a bathroom nearby after a big meal.

You’re not alone if you have IBS. In fact, 10 – 15 percent of Americans struggle with this condition. (1) That number could actually be much higher, considering that many people haven’t been officially diagnosed with IBS.

As its name implies, IBS is a syndrome or a cluster of symptoms, and we don’t have a definitive test to diagnose this digestive disorder. Instead, you’ll want to pay close attention to your specific symptoms, diet, and external stress to better understand what triggers or exacerbates IBS.

Several factors can trigger IBS, and they all begin in your gut. Your microbiome is a complex environment of bacteria strains. Ideally, you should maintain a balance of beneficial bacteria to fight off invaders such as fungi, parasites, and other bad bugs. An imbalance between good and bad bacteria can adversely impact your gut.

Numerous things contribute to those imbalances, including:

  • Processed foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates (pasta, cereal, bread, bagels)
  • Medications
  • Emotional stress
  • Environmental toxins

These imbalances can manifest as gut conditions including leaky gut. In fact, the symptoms of leaky gut show up as IBS. (To learn more, check out my blog post on leaky gut syndrome.) Addressing underlying causes of these imbalances can create relief from your IBS.

That’s where Functional Medicine comes in. This approach treats the individual as a system—like a symphony orchestra. Any underlying imbalance in one part will be felt throughout the entire system.

The focus then, becomes identifying and addressing the underlying causes of the problem and bringing them back into harmony.

The first place to restore balance comes from the end of your fork: Food becomes powerful medicine to heal IBS and so much more. In fact, a number of Happy Gut-approved foods can reduce your pain and symptoms to help you live a life free from IBS.  

The Bitter Solution

Bitters make a great but often-overlooked way to alleviate IBS symptoms and heal your gut. Bitter-tasting herbs and foods have been used in many cultures for years to support digestion and alleviate symptoms of IBS. The bitter taste stimulates receptors in your gut that rev up the digestive juices. (2)

Bitters support production of hydrochloric acid, digestive enzymes, and bile flow: All crucial to optimally digest your food and absorb nutrients. Among their benefits, bitters can help normalize bowel movements and improve digestion.

In Chinese medicine, practitioners sometimes use bitters to balance the liver and gallbladder meridians. The liver and gallbladder are associated with agitation and anxiety. (In fact, bilious means “bad-tempered.”)

If you feel irritated, bothered, and anxious, add bitters to your next meal to help balance out your liver/gallbladder Qi meridians. You may find bitters create a calming effect on your internal angst.  

Incorporating Bitters

There are a few ways you can add bitters. One is to take a tincture of bitter herbs before or after meals. You can also incorporate bitter foods as a dish at the dinner table.

Bitter greens make a great side dish or main salad, and they come packed with fiber, magnesium, as well as vitamins A, K, and C. These leafy greens are nutrient powerhouses to help heal your gut and alleviate symptoms of IBS.

Bitters also promote detoxification. Dandelion greens, for instance, are powerful liver-kidney cleansers. You can even drink dried dandelion as a tea.

Visit your local farmers market or grocery store to add bitters to your diet this spring! (3) This list can help you get started:  

  • Arugula
  • Beet Greens
  • Broccoli Rabe
  • Dandelion Greens
  • Escarole
  • Endive
  • Radicchio
  • Radish Greens

Bitter is Better

Many foods in the American diet are what we call hyperpalatable: Loaded with sugar, salt, and unhealthy fat to make us crave more. These foods exacerbate symptoms of gut problems including IBS (especially gluten and sugar) and contribute to weight gain.

If you’re new to bitter foods or herbs, you might not find them pleasant tasting initially. Keep using them: Over time you will become accustomed to the flavor.

Adding more bitter foods can expand your palate and reduce cravings. When you season bitter foods, they make delicious dishes.

If you’re curious to incorporate more into your meals, try my Happy Gut recipe that highlights bitter leafy greens as a delicious dish for your meals. Learn more about this amazing recipe here.

If you’re struggling with IBS or other gut issues, I’d love to give you more support with my Quick Start to a Happy Gut

Citations

1.About Us. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2018, from https://www.aboutibs.org/ibs-awareness-month.html

  1. McMullen, M. K., Whitehouse, J. M., & Towell, A. (2015). Bitters: Time for a New Paradigm. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM, 2015, 670504.

3.Valussi M.Functional foods with digestion-enhancing properties.Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2012 Mar;63 Suppl 1:82-9.