Spring: Digestion, Bitters, Cleansing


It’s mud season here in the Mid-Atlantic. Maybe it’s not as long or as cold as the mud season might be in more famously mucky Vermont, but damp and muddy nonetheless. It’s enough to get a farmer down.

Mud Season

Most of the time, I feel fortunate to maintain a keen sense of the changing seasons. Hearing the spring calls of my returning red-winged blackbirds, seeing evidence of green plant life peeking up through the mucky brown soil and noting the increasing warmth of the sun with the lengthening days all contribute to the feeling of anticipation of what spring can bring.  

Lately, the sun is often warm enough to expose skin that has been hidden behind wool and fleece for the last few months. But the warm days alternate with days of snow, rain and sludge. The mud now daily catches a ride home on my pants, in my pockets, on my coat, on the soles of my shoes and even in the charging port of my phone–which was expensive! The weight of all this mud represents the heaviness I feel after a season of celebratory drink and lazy days by the fire.  

Understandably, I am not the only one who feels this way. It is common this time of year to start hearing about ways to engage in “cleanses” or “detoxes.” Sometimes this may involve measures as drastic as fasting, drinking bowel-stimulating teas and performing enemas or what are sometimes advertised as “colonics.” Most herbalists would generally consider this a very “heroic” approach and more aggressive than necessary. Because I believe our bodies will naturally metabolize wastes if given the right tools, I tend not to believe such drastic measures are needed. Instead, I choose herbs and foods that support my body’s natural elimination pathways, which include our kidneys and our digestive system.

Nowadays my taste buds are yearning for fresh foods that I have been lacking all winter. Even though they are from far away, the citrus fruits taste better than at any other time of year. I can’t get enough of the first greens brought to the farmer’s market. Simple, nutritious and fiber-rich mustard greens, arugula and spring lettuces grace my plates daily. I want to open the windows, air out the house and do the same for my body.  

Dandelion in spring

It was not always this way, but over the years I have trained my palate to meet the needs of the rest of my body. May favorite taste this time of year offers an antidote to a winter of sweet, fat and salt: Bitter.  The bitter flavor stimulates a chain reaction of metabolism in which the digestive system is mobilized to secrete enzymes, mucus, acids and bile to most effectively digest food and eliminate waste. To accomplish this task, the digestive organs will call on other parts of the body to provide the fluid needed.  In addition, some bitter foods and herbs serve to enhance elimination through the urinary tract, which pulls fluid into the kidneys and increases urine output, sometimes draining fluids from the “interstitial” spaces of our tissues (such as puffiness under the eyes or swelling of feet after a long day). This is why herbalists say that “bitterness drains dampness”.

In addition to enhancing digestion and elimination, many bitter foods also provide “food” for the good bacteria in our gut that ultimately supports the function of our whole body. This might explain why people who take up adding “bitters” to their seltzer water with meals or replacing their morning coffee with a roasted root tea report widespread benefits beyond digestion and elimination. Combine this with herbs that support lymphatic flow and what you have is magic.

My bitter herb of choice is dandelion root, which will soon be popping up all around us. Although I harvested my roots last fall, there is nothing stopping you for doing it now in your own backyard! To balance the cooling effect that dandelion will impart, I like to combine it with an aromatic bitter herb.  My favorite is angelica. Angelica supports the movement of blood, warming both the digestive and the female reproductive tracts. If you are pregnant, take blood thinners, already experience excessive bleeding due to fibroids or heavy menstruation, leave it out.

Angelica

If you’re not one to go out into the backyard wilds to supplement your diet, you can find each of these herbs available as tea or tinctures at your local herb shop or online. Dandelion or angelica alone or mixed 75%/25% make a nice spicy root decoction when you add 1 heaping tablespoon per cup and simmer for 30 minutes, covered. You can add cinnamon or ginger to enhance the warming effect or in place of the angelica. Alternatively, you can purchase a “bitters” tincture, available through many herbal companies these days and often in natural food stores.  

As always, herbs and foods can only go so far. Your body needs to move to maintain health. Take advantage of the warm days when the sky clears and get outside. Brisk walks (even for 15-20 minutes) in the sun give us much needed fresh air, move our blood, build our muscles, promote balance and bring us the gift of the sun--vitamin D. There’s no better mood elevator than that!

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Linda Shanahan is an organic farmer, herbalist and nurse. She believes that to achieve health, we need to find ways to re-establish our broken connections with our wild and beautiful planet.
Interested in learning more? Linda offers a once monthly on-farm class in Southeastern Pennsylvania, easily accessible by train from Philadelphia and by bus from New York.  
Class starts in April! Learn more here.

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