Gentian root, is considered the king of the bitter herbs with many health benefits. In tests, it was found that the bitter taste from Gentian can still be perceived even when diluted down to 1 part in 12,000
The yellow gentian root used for medicinal purposes. The gentian flower grows to a height of up to one and a half meters, dominating most other plants in its surroundings. It further stands out because of its bright yellow flowers. The flowering season lasts from July to September. The mountain plant is rare, and even considered endangered in some places.
About 300 to 400 species belong to the gentian family. In addition to the yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea), the species Hungarian gentian (Gentiana pannonica), purple gentian (Gentiana purpurea) and spotted gentian (Gentiana punctata) are also used for folk remedies. Blue-flowered gentian is only used as an ornamental plant.
Gentian Bitters in Herbal Medicine
Romans actively used yellow gentian roots as a medicinal plant. Specifically, they used it as an herbal bittering agent for gastrointestinal complaints. In the herbal books of the Middle Ages, yellow gentian roots were considered a universal remedy. In large part because plants containing bitter substances were considered particularly effective, and yellow gentian was the most bitter of all.
The “rootstocks” of some species have been used since the Middle Ages for the production of schnapps, as medicines and to balance the appetite. While the blue flowering gentians were pictured on traditional German bottle labels, it was the larger yellow gentian species (Gentiana lutea) used to treat ailments.
Hildegard of Bingen on Gentian
Hildegard von Bingen described the medicinal use of gentian “who has fever in the stomach, often drinks powdered gentian in warm wine and his stomach is cleansed of fever”. After Hildegard, in 1551, the German botanist and physician Hieronymus Bock described yellow gentian as the most important and most common healing root for stomach disorders.
What is yellow gentian and where does the medicinal plant grow?
The yellow gentian can grow up to 1.5 meters high. It has a hollow upright stem and a root as thick as an arm. The bluish-green leaves arrange themselves crosswise, form elliptically and are strongly longitudinal nervy. In the upper leaf axils there are about three to ten pale yellow flowers arranged in cymes. The fruit is a pointed conical capsule.
Yellow gentian belongs to the gentian family (Gentianaceae) and blooms between June and August. It grows naturally in mountain meadows in the Alps and in the mountains of Central and Southern Europe. The plant is protected in Germany, meaning that harvesting yellow gentian in the wild is prohibited. As a result, we obtain the medicinal plant parts of yellow gentian through commercial means.
Modern Uses of Yellow Gentian
The subterranean plant parts of the gentian are used. The root of the gentian is medically effective. It contains so-called secoiridoid bitter substances, which include the substances gentiopicroside and amarogentin. In particular, gentians are used as bitter substances. For example, the bitter agents in gentian are credited as the active ingredient in Declinol, a commercial drug used to reduce alcohol consumption. The substance Amarogentin is mainly responsible for the bitter taste of the gentian plants.
The root of certain gentian species contains the bitterest natural substance in the world, amarogentin. By itself, amarogentin may still be perceived in dilutions up to one in 58 million. In many gentian species, the above-ground parts also taste bitter and are therefore avoided by grazing animals. This is one of the reasons why gentian species survive particularly well on grassland alpine meadows and used to be an unwelcome plant for mountain farmers.
The root also contains yellow coloring – the xanthones – and plenty of carbohydrates such as glucose and fructose, as well as some essential oil.
Wild gentian is protected
Wild gentian is hard to find in nature today. For this reason, all gentian species in Europe are protected, which means that they may neither be picked nor harvested. For this reason a large proportion of the gentian needed for the production of gentian liqueur and medicines is cultivated and harvested in commercial settings.
Gentian Root Benefits
Gentian root has a strong digestive effect. In addition, gentian stimulates bile and relieves the liver. The plant possesses antimicrobial, immunomodulatory, anticancerogenic and is therefore administered especially in cases of diseases of the digestive tract, dyspeptic complaints, pancreatic dysfunction and much more.
The bitter substances are responsible for the effectiveness of the yellow gentian.
The bitter substances in the gentian stimulate the taste buds on the tongue and cause more saliva and gastric acid to be formed. In addition, special cells in the stomach – due to this stimulus – secrete the digestive hormone gastrin. It also increases the release of gastric juice and bile. These mechanisms regulate appetite control and activate digestion.
Preparations of gentian roots can therefore help with complaints such as appetite control and digestion, mitigate sugar cravings, bloating, flatulence, biliary disorders, and to improve overall skin health. Gentian is available in the form of tea, powder or tinctures. It is often used in combination with other bitter herbs – such as wormwood, centaury or dandelion.
Tip: If you are taking bitter herbs because you want to regulate your appetite, use them at least half an hour before eating!
On-going gentian uses from traditional healing practices
In addition to the benefits of bitters for digestive health, research shows that gentian ingredients can loosen blocked mucus from the airways. For this reason, root extracts are also used to treat inflammation of the nose, throat and bronchi, such as sinusitis.
In monastic medicine and klosterheilkunde, yellow gentian is mainly used to treat mild cases of fatigue, weight, anaemia and lack of appetite in convalescence, fever, gout, malaria, intestinal parasites and alcoholism.
Importance of bitter substances in modern nutrition
Shared mealtimes used to play an important role in the daily routine. In addition to the regular intake of food, these rituals also served to cultivate social lives, and as a welcomed intermission from work.
With changing social structures and demands of contemporary modern life, our daily routine has also changed considerably. Our eating patterns have become irregular, including lots of calories, salt and fat. As a result, we experience symptoms such as a sudden hunger attacks and sugar cravings. Ultimately, our metabolism takes the hit, resulting in abdominal pressure, flatulence, nausea, and even longer-term consequences.
Bitter substances help to stimulate digestive juices and activate the digestive system. Bitter substances are of particular importance in naturopathy. Paracelsus wrote “the sicker the patient, the more bitter the medicine.” There is a whole range of natural bitter substances in medicinal plants, for example in wormwood or dandelion. Read more about the importance of bitters in our post Bitters for Health, the Lost Taste.
Gentian Root Uses
According to the monograph of Commission E in Germany, an infusion of this bitter-tasting crushed medicinal herb helps to balance appetite and resolve mild digestive disorders, such as flatulence and bloating. European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy (ESCOP) has a similar view of the applications. The Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC) has classified the gentian root as a traditional herbal medicinal.
Preparation and Recipe for Gentian Tea
Combine half a teaspoon (1 gram) of dried gentian root with 150 millilitres of boiling water and allow 5 to 10 minutes to steep. To prepare cold: add half a teaspoon of gentian root (1 gram) to 2 glasses of water, allow 8 hours to steep, and drink the extract 30 minutes before meals.
To balance the appetite, drink a cup of cold or moderately warm tea half an hour before meals, if you have digestive problems after meals. Daily dose should not exceed 2 to 4 grams of gentian root. Only dried gentian should be used as the fresh gentian can cause nausea.
Preparing a yellow gentian root (Gentiana lutea) tincture
Combine chopped gentian root (Gentiana lutea) with alcohol (more than 35% alcohol) in a sealable container. Allow two to six weeks for the combination to fully infuse. Once strained, take the tincture three times a day before meals, 10 to 20 drops.
Side effects and important information on the use of gentian root
Do not use gentian root if an increased production of gastric acid is generally not desired. As an alternative, consider medicinal plants such as fennel, chamomile, and lemon balm. People suffering from stomach ulcers or duodenum should not use gentian. For gallstones, consult a doctor before use. If a person suffers blocked bile tracts, avoid the use of gentian root.
As a precaution, pregnant women should not take gentian at all. This applies not only during pregnancy, but also during breastfeeding. Yellow gentian should also not be used for children and adolescents under 18 years of age.
Those who take gentian root in high concentrations can get stomach or headaches.
How to Grow Gentian in the Garden
The decorative gentian plant grows best in open, sunny locations with as much limestone as possible, similar to its homeland in mountain meadows. Climate should not be too warm and, above all, avoid excess water resulting in waterlogged conditions. The medicinal plant has thick, fleshy roots that grow best undisturbed. For best results, place seedlings in nutrient-rich soil, starting the first days of Spring.
If planting several gentian plants in close proximity, preserve a distance of 20 to 40 centimeters between plants. During the winter months some protective measures should be taken against strong cold and freezing. Although gentian it is a mountain plant, it does not like frost. A gentian plant takes about eight to ten years to flower, and can reach an age of up to 60 years.