For decades most people have believed that eating low fat was the healthy choice. Now, finally this myth is being overturned. We now know that certain fats can make a contribution to a healthy diet. People are changing their food habits and are adding back foods with healthy fats. Yet for some, when changing to a higher fat diet, such as the GAPS diet, they find they can’t tolerate eating more fat. Their fat digestion needs some help after years of fat avoidance. In this post I talk about the herbal medicines that improve fat digestion. And why.
Symptoms of poor fat digestion
So how do you know if you don’t digest fats well? There are several symptoms of poor fat digestion or fat malabsorption. A main symptom is diarrhoea. The sort of diarrhoea where there is a lot of fat in the stool. The stool can even look oily. Other symptoms can include abdominal bloating, with nausea and a poor appetite. Another common symptom of poor fat digestion is dry skin.
Also, with poor fat digestion there can be problem with absorbing certain vitamins. Meaning the vitamins, A, D, E and K. These are fat soluble vitamins. Deficiencies in these vitamins could be a sign of fat malabsorption.
How is fat digested?
Knowing how the body digest fats can help to see how to improve fat digestion. The process of fat digestion actually begins in the mouth. An enzyme called lipase in saliva starts to emulsify fat as we chew our food. The process continues when food reaches the small intestine. This stimulates release of lipase and other enzymes from the pancreas. As well as bile from the liver and gallbladder. These digestive secretions mix with food and break down the fats for absorption.
The liver produces bile and the gallbladder concentrates and stores bile. People without a gallbladder can struggle to digest fats. Often the answer is a slow and steady increase in the amount of fat eaten. This helps the digestive organs to adjust to a higher intake of fat.
Supplements to improve fat digestion
If the slow and steady approach is not enough, it is possible to take a supplement to help the digestive process. One option is to take a digestive enzyme supplement that includes lipase. Another option, especially for people without a gallbladder is an ox bile supplement.
Herbal medicines to improve fat digestion
Another approach uses herbal remedies to stimulate the body’s own production of bile and digestive enzymes. Bitter herbs have long been used for his purpose. Bitter herbs include gentian, hops, barberry, dandelion root, artichoke leaf and vervain. Many herbalists consider the bitter herbs to be tonics because of their effect on the digestion and gut health.
Drop doses of bitter tinctures, 15 to 30 minutes before a meal, are often enough to stimulate digestion. Particularly of the stronger bitter herbs like gentian.
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale). The root of this well known weed is an important herbal remedy in every tradition. Long ago, herbalists described it’s use for stimulating bile production and flow. It also stimulates the pancreas to secrete more digestive juices. Dandelion is generally a mild and well tolerated medicinal herb for improving digestion.
Artichoke leaf (Cynara scolymus). This plant produces edible flower buds that may be better known as globe artichokes. Yet herbalists use the leaves as a valuable bitter herbal remedy. An extract of the leaf increase bile production and flow. It also lowers high cholesterol levels. It may also help to regenerate liver cells and protect the liver from damage. Yet the health benefits of this plant are not limited to the leaves. The globe artichoke eaten as a vegetable is considered a functional food. These are foods that have positive health effects beyond their nutritional value. They can generally affect how well the body functions. They may also help in the management of specific health conditions.
Gentian root (Gentiana lutea). This is another bitter herbal remedy used traditionally to stimulate the appetite. In fact it is an ingredient in many aperitifs and liqueurs. As a medicinal bitter tonic gentian improves the appetite while recovering from illness. Gentian stimulates stomach secretions. As well as the release of bile from the gallbladder and bile production in the liver.
There are many more herbs with a similar bitter action on digestion. Usually a herbalist would combine several bitter herbs to create a balanced formula. Such as formula can be helpful to improve digestion in general. As well as supporting gut health and a balanced intestinal environment.
There are some instances where bitter herbs should not be used. Or, used only under the guidance of a professional herbalist. For example: during pregnancy, or with a history of GERD or reflux, hiatus hernia, peptic ulcers or kidney or gallbladder stones.