In Nature, the bitter taste is often associated with poisonous plant chemicals. Animals generally find bitter plants distasteful and so avoid eating them. However, animals often change their preferences and tolerance for bitter plants when ill. That’s when a poison can become a medicine.
Chimpanzees with digestive upsets due to intestinal round worms have been observed to seek out a bitter plant (Veronia amygdalina) that they normally avoid. They strip off the outer layers of the young shoots and suck on the very bitter inner pith. Within 24 hours the worms are passed in the stools and their behaviour returns to normal. Perhaps grass eating in our domestic dogs and cats is also an example of this sort of self-medication with bitter herbs.
Bitter herbs strongly affect the digestion, and many bitter herbs are traditionally referred to as digestive tonics, or bitter digestives. For us human animals, bitter tasting drinks have commonly been used to prime the digestion before meal times. Apéritif is a French word derived from the Latin aperire, meaning ‘to open’. These pre-dinner drinks often originated from traditional bitter herbal remedies.
The bitter taste of herbs ranges from the mildly bitter (Dandelion root, Chamomile) to the extremely bitter (Wormwood, Rue, Gentian). Bitter herbs get their taste from a range of plant chemicals called bitter principles. These chemicals are detected by bitter receptors located in taste buds on the back of the tongue. The bitter taste triggers, via the nervous system, a range of effects primarily on an animal’s digestive system.
Bitter herbs increase digestive secretions, including saliva, bile, stomach acid and digestive enzymes. They also enhance appetite and liver function, promote bowel movements, and stabilize sugar metabolism. These qualities can be beneficial to animals with a poor appetite or indigestion associated with old age or illness, especially if that animal’s lifestyle includes too much food and too little exercise.
Common Herbal Bitters
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) – A gentle bitter that has many other benefits on the digestion. Safe to use in young and old, Chamomile flowers are known as ‘mother of digestion’ for a reason.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – Another mild bitter herb, and both leaves and roots can be used to stimulate digestive juices. Besides the effects on digestion, the roots also support the liver’s function, while the leaves provide nutrients and a mild diuretic effect.
Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) – Devil’s Claw is perhaps better known for arthritis, but this herb is also an important digestive remedy. The root tuber is used and is moderately to strongly bitter.
Globe Artichoke (Cynara scolymus) – In addition to supporting digestive function, the Globe Artichoke has a pre-biotic effect that promotes a healthy gut flora. The leaves of Globe Artichoke are moderately bitter.
Sutherlandia (Sutherlandia frutescens) – The leaves of this indigenous herb can be very bitter, and have a range of beneficial effects. Besides the useful digestive effects, this herb is especially useful in long-term or stress-related illness.
Wilde Als (Artemisia afra) – this important indigenous herb can be very bitter. The leaves are used to promote a healthy digestion and also for the useful anti-viral properties. Due to the thujone content, a potential toxin, this herb should not be used for extended periods.
First Aid from the Garden
The ability of taste buds to detect the bitter principles is very sensitive in animals. The more bitter herbs (like Wormwood, Globe Artichoke and Sutherlandia) can be detected, and support digestive function, in very weak concentrations. The best way to use them in animals is as a weak tea, just strong enough to cause the bitter taste and get the digestive juices flowing. Add ¼ teaspoon of herb to a cup of hot water, and allow to cool. Then use a few drops or teaspoons of the tea directly in the mouth depending on the animal’s size. The best time to give bitter herbs to promote a healthy appetite and optimal digestion is about 15 to 20 minutes before a meal. The mildly bitter herbs can be brewed into a stronger solution using 1 or 2 teaspoons per cup of water.
Words of Wisdom
Herbal bitters are generally contra-indicated in any conditions where increased intestinal movement or digestive secretion could worsen the situation. This includes animals with stomach inflammation or ulceration (gastritis), possible intestinal obstruction, and gall stones. Always consult your veterinarian if your animal is on medication, pregnant, lactating or undergoing surgery before using herbs.