Gentiana is a plant extract made from gentians, which are a group of perennial plants belonging to the Gentianaceae family. There are about 180 species of gentians worldwide. They have a long history of use in healing both in Asian and Western herbalism. In the West, the common gentian used in healing is Gentiana lutea, or yellow gentian. In China, two different gentians are used in healing, Gentiana macrophylla, known in Chinese as qin jiao; and Gentiana scabra, known in Chinese as long dan cao.
G. lutea grows wild or cultivated in many places from Europe to India. It is also cultivated in North America. It grows to a height of about 4 ft (1.2 m), primarily in temperate alpine and subalpine meadows. The plant produces a spike of showy yellow-orange flowers. G. macrophylla grows in China and Siberia, and G. scabra grows in China and Japan.
There are some differences in height, leaf size, and flower among these three gentians, but the roots and rhizomes (underground stems) used to make gentiana are very similar. Gentians have a single long, strong taproot that can extend as far as 3 ft (1 m) into the earth. The top of the taproot can be as thick as a child's arm and is surrounded by a cluster of rhizomes. The root has an extremely bitter taste. Other names for gentiana include bitter root, bitterwort, and gall weed.
Gentiana has been used for centuries. It gets its name from Gentius, King of Illyria (a part of Greece)
In Western herbalism, gentiana is used for digestive problems. It is an ingredient in aperitifs that are drunk a half-hour or so before eating to stimulate the appetite and digestion. Liqueurs made using fresh gentiana have been used for generations in Europe; in the eighteenth century gentian wine was served before eating as a stomachic, or aid to digestion.
In addition to stimulating digestion and appetite, gentiana is used to relieve heartburn and stomach ache, and to treat vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal fullness, and intestinal gas. Western herbalists also use gentiana for treating fever, sore throat, jaundice, and arthritis. It is used externally to treat wounds.
In traditional Chinese medicine, G. macrophylla, or qin jiao, is considered to have a neutral nature and a bitter, pungent taste. It is associated with the liver, stomach, and gallbladder. It is used as a tonic for the digestive system, and to treat arthritis; chronic low-grade fever; jaundice; hepatitis; and constipation. It is also an ingredient of several common formulas.
According to Chinese herbalists, another gentian, Gentiana scabra, or long dan cao, has a cold nature and a bitter taste. It is associated with the liver, stomach, gallbladder, and bladder. Long dan cao is used in formulas to treat pink eye (conjunctivitis); high blood pressure; acute urinary infections; testicular pain; leucorrhea (whitish vaginal discharge); vaginal pain; tantrums in children; fever; and balance problems.
A long history of folk use coupled with modern scientific investigation shows that gentiana works well as a stomach tonic and digestive stimulant. The German Federal Health Agency's Commission E, established in 1978 to independently review and evaluate scientific literature and case studies pertaining to herb and plant medications, has approved gentiana for use in Germany. It is considered safe and effective in treating such digestive complaints as loss of appetite, abdominal bloating, and gas.
In laboratory studies gentiana was found to contain a substance called amargogentin, which is possibly the bitterest compound ever found. It can be tasted at dilutions of 1:50,000. Its bitterness triggers the secretion of saliva, thus stimulating the production of gastric juice and bile and preparing the digestive system to process food. This reaction makes gentiana effective in treating almost all conditions related to sluggish digestion.
Other research shows that gentiana has selective antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and antispasmodic activity in laboratory experiments. There is much less scientific evidence to support such other traditional uses as treating pain and fever.
Gentian roots are harvested in the autumn. They are used fresh in the production of liqueurs, but are dried for medicinal use. The better roots are dried quickly and remain whitish for several months before they darken. Roots that are dried too slowly will ferment.
Gentiana is available in many forms including an extract, dried powdered rhizome, tea, tincture, and decoction. The liquid remedies are very bitter, and sweetening is often added to make them more palatable. Gentian tea can be made by adding 1 tsp of powdered dried rhizome to every 3 cups (750 ml) of water. One tablespoon of this tea is taken about half an hour before eating.
German health authorities recommend that gentiana not be used by people who have stomach (gastric) or intestinal (duodenal) ulcers. In a few sensitive people, gentiana can cause stomach irritation and headache. Chinese herbalists recommend that gentiana not be used when there is frequent urination and chronic pain with weight loss.
Overdoses of gentiana may cause nausea and vomiting.
A long history of use in both East and West suggests that there are no interactions with either herbs or modern pharmaceuticals. Few studies, however, have been done to verify these observations.
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PDR for Herbal Medicines. Montvale, NJ: Medical Economics Company, 1999.
Peirce, Andrea. The American Pharmaceutical Association Practical Guide to Natural Medicines. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1999.
American Association of Oriental Medicine (AAOM). 433 Front Street, Catasauqua, PA 18032. (610) 266-2433
Plants for a Future: Gentiana. http://www.pfaf.org.