An ancient digestive aid and a popular ingredient in liqueurs, gentian is much more than a simple herb used for natural health support. Keep reading to learn more!
What is Gentian?
Gentian is a term that describes over 1,600 species of annual and perennial flowering plants, which grow worldwide but especially in central and southern Europe, Asia, the Americas, and New Zealand. It thrives in temperate and mountainous regions (such as the Alps), as well as in moist meadows and woods.
The most common gentians are in the genus Gentiana (gentian), Centaurium (centaury), Swertia (green gentian), Eustoma (prairie gentian), or Exacum (Persian violet). Gentians are closely related to the plant families that include coffee, periwinkle, and milkweed. Their flowers are usually attractive trumpet-shaped clusters in blue, purple, violet, mauve, yellow, white, or red, making them hardy and popular garden ornamentals. Depending on the species, they are pollinated by hummingbirds, moths, bees, butterflies, bats, and flies. (1, 2)
For the purpose of this article, we will refer to the yellow-flowered gentian (Gentiana lutea), in the family Gentianaceae and the genus Gentiana, which is native to southern Europe and parts of Asia. The tough fibrous roots, rhizome, and bark are cultivated from yellow gentian and used in herbal medicinal preparations, to flavor liqueurs, as a cooking ingredient on foods, and as the herb used in gentian bitters, an alcohol-infused botanical tonic. (3)
The root of the gentian plant is used for medicinal purposes because it contains triterpenoids (natural defensive compounds in plants that protect against various pathogens) and xanthones (compounds with antimicrobial properties). (4, 5) The gentian root is yellowish-brown in color, has a bitter taste, and can grow to be a foot long and an inch in diameter. The plant’s stem can grow up to 4 feet high with leaves and flowers. To grow properly, the plant prefers a moist, strong, and loamy soil in a region sheltered from direct sunlight and harsh frosts. (6)
Gentian roots are cultivated and dried slowly in the fall, usually before the plants have produced flowers. Most of the world’s gentian roots are collected, dried, and imported from Germany, Switzerland, France, or Spain. Gentian, when taken as an oral supplement, is believed to help support a healthy appetite, promote healthy digestion, help maintain blood pressure levels already in the normal range, promote sinus health, and may help to temporarily ease premenstrual symptoms. Some gentian plants are also used as an ingredient in cosmetics or perfumes.
Similar varieties of gentian that can be substituted medicinally with the root of Gentiana lutea are the European speciesGentiana purpurea, Gentiana pannonica , Gentiana punctata, and Gentiana acaulis, as well as the U.S.-derived species Gentiana puberula, Gentiana saponaria, and Gentiana andrewsii. (7) However, the gentian in this article is not related to blue gentian (Gentiana pneumonanthe). It is also not to be mistaken for gentian violet (Methylrosaniline chloride), a mutagen and poisonous violet dye, nor the similar-looking toxic white hellebore (Veratrum album) plant.
As an all-natural, herbal supplement, the edible yellow gentian root is available as a raw dried plant, in vegetable capsules, in liquid herbal extracts such as tinctures, and more.
How Does It Work?
The most common digestive ailments in the U.S. are reflux (heartburn), peptic ulcers (sores in the lining of the stomach or the small intestine), gallstones, lactose intolerance, diverticulitis (abdominal inflammation), inflammatory bowel diseases (such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), celiac disease (an autoimmune and digestive disorder that makes you sensitive to gluten), and constipation. (8) Proper hydration, regular exercise, and a diet high in fiber from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables may all help contribute to easing digestive discomfort, but sometimes dietary supplementation is also needed to carry the burden of the symptoms related to these conditions.
Gentian and other bitter-tasting plants have been used for centuries by herbalists in Europe and elsewhere as digestive aids to help support a healthy gastrointestinal tract, promote abdominal comfort, promote the digestion of fats and proteins, and support overall gut health.
It is believed that bitters such as gentian work by stimulating the mouth’s taste receptors. Once the bitters hit your tongue, your body secretes more saliva, which tells your digestive tract to release digestive enzymes to help break down food so you can absorb the nutrients. The gentian also informs your body to produce bile, which aids in the digestion and absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins in the small intestine, as well as in the elimination process of feces. (9, 10, 11) According to research, bitter tonic herbal formulas (“bitters”) – composed mainly of the glycosides gentiopicrin and amarogentin – may activate not only bile but also hydrochloric acid, the major component of gastric acid, which helps the body to digest food more efficiently. (12, 13, 14) The defensive compounds (triterpenoids and xanthones) within gentian may contribute to the plant’s mild sedative effects, antidepressant activity, antihypertensive qualities (reducing high blood pressure), and vasorelaxant properties (relaxing tension in blood vessel walls). (15, 16)
A Brief History of Gentian
Gentian root has been used by herbalists for over 2,000 years as an ancient herbal remedy used for digestive health issues and many other potential health benefits. The plant’s name comes from Gentius, the last ancient Illyrian king, who ruled until around the year 165 BC (when he was defeated by the Romans and brought back as a captive), who had also allegedly discovered the medicinal value of gentian. (17, 18, 19)
Gentian, however, has been especially popular in Europe, where herbal bitters – alcohol-based extracts from the roots, leaves, bark, or flowers of bitter-tasting plants such as gentian – were commonly prescribed as medicine in the 1800s to help with digestion and other stomach-related health issues. Typically, plants such as gentian, angelica root, bitter orange, cinchona bark, cascarilla bark, or wormwood were used as “bitters” or “stomachics” for this purpose. (20) However, the alcoholic content of these concoctions came under scrutiny, and in 1906, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pure Food and Drug Act required that all ingredients be labeled properly. (21)
Before the widespread use of hops, gentian and other bitter herbs were used in the brewing process, especially in Germany and Switzerland. “The roots were cut, macerated with water, fermented and distilled; the distillate contains alcohol and a trace of volatile oil, which imparts to it a characteristic odor and taste.” (22). Gentian has also been used in combination with European elder flower, verbena, cowslip flower, and sorrel, to treat sinusitis. Other uses have been as an antispasmodic, anthelmintic, and antiseptic for various health conditions. It has also been used to treat fever, hysteria, hypertension, diabetes, and stimulate menstrual flow. (23)
Today, gentian bitters and similar products are sold as herbal supplements, taken in much smaller doses by means of extract drops or mouth sprays. The herbs are still used in alcohols as flavorings and can be found in drinks such as Jägermeister, Amaro, and various artisanal bitters.
In other parts of the world such as Africa and South America, gentians are used to help treat malaria and snake bites. One species of gentian is used for its timber in Southeast Asia, while other gentian species are popular ingredients in perfumes, skin care products, and homeopathic formulas. In the European Alps, gentian and the flower Edelweiss are even found on artwork and local souvenirs. (24)
Potential Health Benefits of Gentian
There are many uses for gentian in foods and dietary supplements, according to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, which evaluates herbal and non-herbal supplements used in complementary and alternative medicine. (25) European herbalists have used gentian for sinusitis, skin ailments, fevers, poor appetite, and diarrhea. However, the consensus, according to research, is that gentian bitters are best used for digestive support. However, a word of warning: Gentian should not be used if you have heartburn, peptic ulcers, or gastritis. (26)
In Germany, the German Commission E, a scientific advisory board similar to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has approved the use of gentian and other bitters as digestive aids, helping to temporarily relieve gas and nausea. However, there is not much clinical data to back-up these claims – only a bit of animal research, traditional folklore, and the known properties of bitter substances. The FDA does not substantiate these claims, nor does it regulate any herbal supplements for safety or efficacy. (27)
Uses for Gentian
- May support healthy digestion
- May support liver health
- May help maintain healthy sinuses
- Flavors foods and beverages
- May support red blood cell production
- Helps maintain blood pressure levels already in the normal range
- May help temporarily ease premenstrual symptoms
- May be used in cosmetics and perfume
Gentian has nutritional value that is potentially beneficial for the human body. It is a good source of minerals, such as zinc, manganese, niacin, iron, and sulphur, as well as B vitamins and vitamin F. These nutrients are believed to have a positive effect on digestive function, liver health, red blood cell production, and other purposes. (28)
According to one study, gentian is similar to wormwood (used in Absinthe) in that they are both considered eupeptics (digestive aids), also helping to increase vascular tone and blood flow. The study suggests, “although encapsulated gentian and wormwood did not elicit responses during the gastric phase of digestion, they may elicit responses during the intestines-phase of digestion. Gentian and wormwood may be used, both to prevent dyspepsia and to relieve dyspepsia, in fluid doses containing circa 1,000 mg of the dried drug.” However, these bitters should be taken 15–30 minutes prior to eating for the most benefit. (29)
More on Gentian
Possible Side Effects
While gentian is generally recognized as safe for use in foods or certain supplements, its oral use may also have some adverse side effects for some people. If you have acid reflux, ulcers, or other gastric conditions, do not use gentian, as it may irritate the gut by stimulating stomach acids. In addition, gentian may cause some allergic skin reactions or may affect blood pressure levels. (30) Be careful when using gentian with other herbal supplements or prescriptions, as it may interfere with some medications and trigger adverse effects such as hypotension. Do not take gentian if you are also taking andrographis, casein peptides, cat's claw, coenzyme Q-10, fish oil, L-arginine, lycium, stinging nettle, or theanine. Avoid taking gentian if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Always consult with your healthcare provider before adding herbal supplements to your health regimen. (31) Warning: Be sure to identify gentian correctly. “The highly toxic white hellebore (Veratrum album) can be misidentified as gentian and has caused accidental poisoning when used in homemade preparations.” (32)
Although there is no standard recommended dosage of gentian, an oral supplementation of 12 mg of gentian root and 36 mg each of European elder flower, verbena, sorrel, and cowslip flower has been used up three times daily for upper respiratory symptoms related to chronic sinusitis. (33)
When taken as a fluid tincture or stomachic tonic to restore appetite and promote digestion, 2 oz of gentian root extract, 1 oz of fried orange peel, and 1/2 oz. bruised cardamom seeds are mixed in a quart of brandy and taken 1/2 to 1 tsp in water up to three times daily. Other research suggests taking a ¼ tsp tincture of gentian 20 minutes before each meal up to three times daily. A typical dosage of a liquid herbal extract of gentian rhizome and root is 1 squeeze of the dropper bulb to 2 oz of water or juice up to 3 times per day before meals. For a capsule dosage, take approximately one 500 mg gentian root capsule daily. For the raw powdered root form of gentian, 2-4 grams (about ½ tsp) can be ingested daily. (34)
Other doses should be followed according to the instructional label on the supplement being used.
Cooking with Gentian
When cooking with bitters such as gentian, fennel, and dandelion root, the rule of thumb is that you can substitute bitters for almost anything you’d use an extract (such as vanilla or almond extract) in. Bitters are concentrated herbs made from clear alcohol infused with plants, as well as other ingredients like flower petals, tea leaves, or citrus peels. You can add bitters to cocktails, vinaigrettes, baked goods, vegetable sautés, and roasts for a unique flavor that is not as bitter as it sounds. (35) There is very little evidence suggesting that gentian bitters relieve gas and bloating after a large meal. It is better to use these types of products as a flavor additive to alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks. (36)
Homemade Gentian Root Liqueur Recipe: As an alternative to gentian tea is gentian root liqueur, which you can distill and make yourself at home. Here is a wonderful recipe for gentian root liqueur from Artimondo magazine. (37)
Ingredients: 4 liters of dry white wine; 140 grams of dried gentian roots; 800 grams of sugar; 1 liter pure ethanol alcohol; and orange peels from 3 oranges.
Directions: Soak the gentian roots and orange peel to soak in wine for one month. Be sure to cover the container with a clean cloth and store it in a cool, dry place. Then, after the recommended month, filter the liquid and melt its sugars down in a pan on low heat. The sugar will dissolve, and you can then pour in the alcohol and blend the mixture. Again, leave the liquid to rest for at least one week. Then you can drink it.
You can find garden species of gentian at flower shops and garden supply stores. However, gentian supplements should be purchased from trusted brands from health food suppliers online (such as Natural Healthy Concepts, which only sells products vetted for high quality manufacturing standards and ingredients), as well as select health-focused retail stores. (38) Try gentian today and see if it makes a difference to your health!