What they are: Liquid herbal bitters are combinations of herbs that stimulate the production of digestive juices. Cultures around the world use bitter herbs, such as artichoke leaf and gentian, to improve digestion and alleviate heartburn, bloating, and gas.
How they work: When bitter substances contact taste buds, they trigger the flow of digestive enzymes and stomach acids that help digest food. Although it sounds paradoxical, a lack of digestive acids can cause heartburn. Undigested food sits in the stomach, churning and producing excess acid. When the stomach acid bubbles up into the esophagus, you feel heartburn's characteristic pain, burning, and belching. A 2003 study found that artichoke leaf extract provided significant relief from symptoms of indigestion, such as heartburn (Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 2003, vol.18, nos. 11–12).
How to take Them: Herbal bitters are widely available in natural foods stores. A typical dose is 1/2 teaspoon diluted in 1/2 cup of water, sipped 15 minutes before meals. Herbal bitters are safe and improve digestion with no negative side effects.
DGL (Deglycyrrhizinated licorice)
What it is: Popular for centuries, licorice root traditionally was used to treat coughs, sore throats, and stomachaches—and to make medicines taste better (it's 50 times sweeter than sugar). In 1946, a Dutch pharmacist discovered licorice's efficacy in treating ulcers. Later, when scientists observed that the licorice compound glycyrrhizic acid raised blood pressure, they created DGL, a safe form of the herb.
How it works: Numerous studies have shown that DGL increases the secretion of mucus that lines and protects the gastrointestinal tract and stimulates healing of the gastrointestinal lining. Studies have proven that DGL is as effective as conventional drugs that suppress or neutralize excess gastric acids but doesn't cause rebound acid production, diarrhea, or heart-rhythm disturbances. DGL has even been shown to protect the gastrointestinal lining against damage by aspirin, a common cause of severe gastric distress.
How to take it: Because DGL needs to mix with saliva to be effective, tablets must be chewed thoroughly. A typical dose is one to two tablets taken between meals or 20 minutes before eating. DGL has no side effects, even when used long-term.
What it is: A hybrid of the trace mineral zinc and the amino acid L-carnosine, zinc carnosine combines zinc's wound-healing properties with L-carnosine's antioxidant properties. Chemically bonding them magnifies their healing benefits.
How it works: Since the early 1990s, dozens of laboratory studies have shown that zinc carnosine eases ulcer pain and helps heal ulcers by protecting the stomach lining, adhering to stomach sores to deliver a continual dose of healing nutrients, and acting as a barrier against gastric acids. It also calms gastrointestinal inflammation and helps prevent erosion of the gastrointestinal mucosa (Helicobacter, 2002, vol. 7, no. 6). And medical experts hypothesize that zinc carnosine protects against heartburn, which occurs farther up the digestive tract.
How to take it: The recommended dose is 75 to 150 mg twice daily. There are no known side effects.
Herbalist Laurel Vukovic lives in Ashland, Oregon.