On cold, frosty mornings nothing starts my day better than a rich decoction of dandelion and burdock with maybe a little something warming, like ginger or cinnamon. It’s a time of roots and seeds, of deeper energies and heavier foods. It’s a time of cooler winds and frost in the air and a time to prepare for the long, dark and introspective months ahead. Roots are said to have the ability to get to the root of a problem. How true this is I can’t say but they do often make superb tonics and they can help connect one to the colder seasons. They often work on the liver and as such can help with many systemic problems such as arthritis, excess estrogens, underproduction of bile, digestive malabsorption, etc.
As I mentioned in my last post, now is a good time for gentle cleansing. The season’s many roots and seeds, which often have gentle tonic cleansing effects, can be included in the diet as both food and beverage. They help prepare your body for the seasonally appropriate heavier foods that one needs for a cold, dark winter (and I’m not just talking cookies here, folks!). As we switch from eating lighter raw foods, fish and lighter meats and we begin to incorporate more starchy tubers, roots and heavier, darker meats into our diet it can be beneficial to include some bitter tonics. Bitters are traditional for prepping and improving digestion, especially fat digestion. When the bitter flavor hits corresponding taste buds on the tongue a myriad of reactions is set off by the body. First, your mouth begins to secrete more amylase, an enzyme essential for carbohydrate digestion. Soon after your stomach secretes HCL, your pancreas releases yet more digestive enzymes and your gallbladder releases stored and concentrated bile. These actions work together to prepare your GI tract for food. Combined, they help nutrients to be better assimilated, peristalsis to be more rhythmic and can tonify overall digestion. Bitters also stimulate bile production in the liver as well as increasing the livers detoxification abilities.
Especially seasonally appropriate are two of my favorite gentle liver tonics: dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and burdock (Arctium lappa and sp.) sometimes called gobo. Both of these herbs are gentle enough and tonic enough that they rarely cause any side effects and can be safely used by most constitutions. On the scale of food vs. medicine, both dandelion and burdock sit just right of food. In fact, burdock is commonly consumed in Japan, usually as a part of a stir-fry.
Dandelion is perhaps the archetypal liver remedy. Cooling and nourishing with a slightly bitter burnt caramel flavor, it is wonderful for chronically inflamed livers or just as a tonic for those wanting to gently increase digestive power. Dandelion takes well to being roasted; the heat caramelizes the sugars and adds a silky malt flavor compounding its already complex earthy flavor, but it’s equally good unroasted. It is indicated in weak digestion, liver stagnation and constipation. In TCM, the liver is said to control the smooth flow of Qi. What does this beautiful and accurate metaphor mean? Essentially, when the liver is congested, emotions get ‘stuck’ and build up resulting in feelings of irritability, lack of joy and quick anger. Regular use of dandelion root, whether as tea or food, can improve the flow of bile, improve digestion and help emotional rollercoasters to be, well, less of a rollercoaster. Dandelion is also a rich source of inulin, a pre-biotic or food source, for the myriad bacteria in your gut. By feeding your gut flora you allow them to better perform their many jobs such as converting B12 into usable forms, manufacturing vitamin K and boosting your immune system.
Burdock is another favorite liver remedy and as mentioned above is almost closer to food than medicine. It is delicious in soups, stews and stir-fries as well as just a simple decoction, alone or combined with dandelion and other ‘rooty’ herbs. Like dandelion, Burdock is rich in inulin, perhaps even more so and makes a great tonic not only for the liver but for feeding one’s gut flora as well. It is a gentle diuretic (meaning you won’t have to pee every other minute, just a notch more than normal) and consequently can help the kidneys to more effectively flush out the waste they so want to be rid of. Burdock is also said to have an affinity for the skin, helping to clear up eczema, acne and various rashes and even playing a role in the more complex psoriasis. Remember, it’s more tonic than overt medicine and results with burdock may take time.
Daily use of these wonderful, gentle cleansing herbs can tune-up our systems and prepare us for the long and often too cold winter ahead. As you cook your fragrant stews, rich with root vegetables and silky meats and as you consume more healthful fats (grass-fed butter, pastured lard, coconut oil) try drinking a nourishing root decoction a couple times a week. Your body will better handle the increased caloric load and you won’t feel heavy and lethargic; rather you will feel energized as your body uses the essential nutrients needed at this time for the thousands of functions it performs on a daily basis. Below is a recipe I love this time of year. It’s rooty with notes of bitter, slightly sweet and aromatic which combine to not only get my digestion going but to reduce post-meal bloating and gas as well. The base is Chaga, a delicious medicinal mushroom with no overtly strong flavor. Instead, it gives good body and color to the decoction. The recipe is in parts so you can easily adapt it to make a lot or a little as needed.
Nourishing Root Decoction:
3 pt. Chaga
1 pt. Dandelion root
1/2 pt. Licorice root
1/2 pt. Ginger root
1/2 pt. Cinnamon bark
¼ pt. each Black pepper, Cardamom, Allspice and Clove
1-2 good Tb. per cup of water. Add herbs to cold water, bring to a boil and simmer 20-45 minutes. Serve warm with fresh cream, if desired.