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Gentian is one of the great bitters which assists digestion. It is a prime remedy for loss of appetite and for the treatment of dyspepsia.

Gentian

Gentiana lutea Gentianaceae

Gentian is a primary bitter herb for the digestive system. Native to Europe, it is a long-standing medicine used by traditional Western herbalists for dyspepsia and to stimulate stomach, liver, and gallbladder function.

Sustainability status

At risk from overharvesting and habitat loss. Commonly sourced from the wild though may also be in cultivation. Only source cultivated supplies or from certified sustainable wild collection. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Potential replacement(s): Dandelion Andrographis Artichoke

Sustainability Status
Key benefits
  • Digestive
  • Choleretic
  • Appetite stimulant
  • Liver
  • How does it feel?

    Gentian has a distinct dusty, bittersweet aromatic taste. The classic sweet earthiness of root medicines paired with the richness of its bitter principles make this herb one of the most favoured bitter herbs.

  • What can I use it for?

    Gentian is a primary bitter cooling herb that can be applied for a number of conditions of the digestive system.

    Gentian is used to treat dyspepsia, and the discomfort or abdominal pain that comes with it. Symptoms often associated with dyspepsia can be pain or burning sensations and bloating and nausea after eating, although in some people the symptoms may be relieved by eating or may occur unrelated to eating patterns.

    As a digestive tonic gentian is also used to help improve appetite. This application is referenced in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia as a primary herb for those suffering with anorexia as it supports the function of the digestive tract (1).

    Gentian is a herb that enhances digestive function and the assimilation of dietary nutrients. It would be well applied to support through convalescence especially where there is inflammation in the digestive tract (2).

    Gentian is also a powerful anti-inflammatory (4). It may be useful where inflammations, such as those seen in inflammatory skin conditions, are linked with poor digestive or liver function.

  • Into the heart of Gentian

    Gentian is a primary cooling bitter tonic that, like all bitters, stimulates the appetite and digestive function. The compounds present in Gentian are some of the most bitter substances known.

    Energetically, gentian is “cold” (meaning it reduces circulatory and heat-generating activity and enhances digestion and detoxification). It may be taken in combination with “warm” herbs (such as ginger and horseradish) especially where it is being used to treat someone with a cold, debilitated constitution.

    Small doses of bitter herbs like Gentian are particularly useful for increasing the appetite in malnourished and debilitated patients. Bitters increase digestive fire, that is where digestive secretions are poor, gentian increases pepsin and stomach acid, enabling more efficient digestive processes. However, excess bitters weaken digestion and dry the system, so must be used with care.

  • Traditional uses

    Culpepper writes gentian ‘resists putrefaction, poison and a more sure remedy can be found to prevent the pestilence that it is; strengthens the stomach exceedingly, helps digestion, comforts the heart and preserves against fainting and swooning’.

    Culpepper also speaks of this herb for its action to assist a sluggish liver and restoring the appetite.

    Gentian was used traditionally by herbalists in Europe externally as a dried root powder to assist with venomous bites and dog bites. It was also used as a vermifuge in cases of parasitic worms.

  • Traditional actions

  • What practitioners say

    Digestive system

    Gentian is an excellent digestive medicine used for a wide range of conditions relating to the digestive system. It is used to stimulate digestive function, increasing saliva and digestive juices in the stomach and also the production of bile which assists with the assimilation of dietary fats. By the same mechanism, gentian is also indicated in gallstone disease, but must be used with caution for gall stones (3,4).

    As a primary bitter tonic, gentian can create better function of the portal circulation with its bitter, stimulating effect making it a herb that is also effective at supporting liver function (3).

    Gentian may also be used to support in recovery from gastrointestinal infection and as an anti-inflammatory for peptic ulcers (4).

    Immune system

    As a cooling bitter remedy, gentian is sometimes indicated in treatment of infectious diseases, fever and post fever recuperation (2,4). There have also been reports of selective antifungal activity of gentian root extracts (5).

    Gentian root extract was also reported to stimulate phagocytic activity of human leukocytes, indicating possible immuno-stimulatory activity, making it a possible choice herb for supporting those with reduced immune function (5).

  • Research

    Digestive system

    Inflammatory disease: In a human study, healthy patients and patients with inflammatory conditions of the gastrointestinal tract, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and non-specific inflammatory disorders, who had elevated secretory immunoglobulin (sIgA) levels (20-200 mg/dL) in their saliva, were treated with a gentian root tincture (3 × 20 drops/ day) for 8 days. There was a total of 19 patients with inflammatory conditions and 8 health participants. Apart from two patients who were found to have increased sIgA levels after the trial, the remaining participants’ sIgA levels steadily declined in both groups (5).

    Dyspepsia: In an open study, 205 patients with various dyspeptic symptoms (heartburn, vomiting, stomach aches, nausea, loss of appetite, flatulence, constipation) were treated with a dry hydroethanolic extract (5:1). A dosage of 240mg was given twice or three times daily (average daily dose 576 mg of extract, equivalent to 2.9 g of dried root) over a period of around 15 days. Within 5 days improvements were noticed in most cases and by the end of the study the average level of improvement was 68%. Efficacy was assessed by Doctors, with an excellent rating – with symptoms completely eliminated in 31% of patients, good in 55%, moderate in 9% and inadequate in 5% of cases (5).

    Skin

    A study was conducted to see if gentian extract can help with epidermal barrier protein synthesis as this could then help with skin disorders where an impaired epidermal barrier is involved. Results showed that gentian extract significantly increased lipid synthesis in keratinocytes, as well as increased the amount of trigylcerides. Keratinocytes are cells which make up around 90% of the outer layer of skin.

    As well as investigating things on a cellular level, an investigation was conducted on the volar forearms of 33 volunteers. In comparison to placebo, gentian extract significantly increased the lipid content of the treated skin areas. This is helpful for skin conditions such as very dry skin and atopic eczema as keratinocytes and lipid synthesis are essential for building an intact epidermal barrier, and healthy skin (6).

    Radioprotective

    A study investigating the radioprotective/sensitising actions of Gentian aqueous-ethanol extract on radiation-induced effects on different types of cells was carried out. There was a focus on the decreasing survival of normal human immunocompetent cells, the survival of the malignant cells in vitro, and the survival of ex vivo irradiated cells before and after consumption of the extract by healthy volunteers.

    Gentian extract consumed orally demonstrated a strong potential to reduce the damage effect of x-ray irradiation on normal healthy cells (which were peripheral blood mononuclear cells), in some healthy people, without changing the susceptibility of malignant cells to be destroyed by irradiation. Essentially it protected healthy human cells from radiation but did not protect malignant cells from being destroyed, and so potentially gentian could be a useful complementary therapy for cancer treatment. However, since the radioprotective effect was individually dependent, further clinical studies are needed to understand the effectiveness of this treatment combination (7).

  • Did you know?

    Dioscorides wrote that Gentiana lutea was introduced into herbal medicine by King Gentius of Illyria, thus giving its name Gentian. Great yellow gentian is found in Europe and Western Asia and is the source of a flavouring in liqueurs.

Additional information

  • Safety

    Unsafe for use in pregnancy and lactation.

  • Interactions

    None known

  • Contraindications

    • Gastric or duodenal ulcers
    • Hyperacidity
  • Preparation

    • Dried root powder
    • Dried root (decoction)
    • Tincture
  • Dosage

    Tincture (1:5 40%): 1- 2ml three times a day.

    Dried herb: 0.5 – 2g of dried herb three times a day, taken 15- 30 minutes before a meal, or anytime that acute stomach pain is associated with feeling of fullness.

    Decoction: decoct half a teaspoon of shredded root in a cup of water for 10 minutes on a gentle heat. Drink warm 15- 30 minutes before a meal

  • Plant parts used

    • Roots
    • Rhizome
  • Constituents

    • Bitter glycosides (gentiopicrin, gentiopicroside, amaopanin. Amarogentin, amaroswerin, gentiin and gentiamarin are formed from gentiopicrin on drying)
    • Alkaloids (gentianine)
    • Iridoids
    • Phenolic acids (gentisic, caffein)
    • Sugars
    • Volatile oils
  • Habitat

    Gentian is native to the calcareous alpine meadows, moist grasslands, and open pastures of the central and southern European mountain ranges.

  • Sustainability

    According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants Status is classed under least concern as it is widespread with stable populations in parts of its range and therefore the risk of the species going completely extinct in Europe is relatively low. However, IUCN also states that’it is concerning that the species is classed as threatened on various national red lists and the main threat is still over-harvesting of this medicinal plant. Adequate measures to prevent this are needed and the populations should be continuously monitored’ (8). As it is endangered, one must be very careful where gentian is sourced from.

  • Quality control

    Herbal Medicines are often extremely safe to take, however it is important to supply herbal medicines from a reputed supplier. Sometimes herbs bought from unreputable sources are contaminated, adulterated or substituted with incorrect plant matter.

    Some important markers for quality to look for would be to look for certified organic labelling, ensuring that the correct scientific/botanical name is used and that suppliers can tell you clearly the source of ingredients used in the product.

    A supplier should also be able to tell you where the herbs have come from. There is more space for contamination and adulteration where supply chain is unknown.

  • How to grow

    Gentian grows in reliably moist but well-drained, humus-rich soil in sun or part shade. It thrives in locations with cool, damp summers, such as in the Western or Central Europe. It will not tolerate drought or water-logging.

    Gentian can be planted in the garden in spring or autumn. Put great yellow gentian in small groups with a planting distance of about 50 centimetres (20 in).

    For young plants, the use of weed fleece is recommended to prevent the slow-growing plants from overgrowing.

    Water sparingly and always keep the soil a little bit moist. Gentian plants are easy to grow in the correct conditions.

  • References

    1. A Guide to Traditional Herbal Medicines: A Sourcebook of accepted traditional uses of medicinal plants within Europe. (n.d.). British Herbal Medicine Association.
    2. Mills, S.Y. (1993). The essential book of herbal medicine. Editorial: Penguin.
    3. Hoffman, D. (2003). Medical Herbalism: The Science Principles and Practices Of Herbal Medicine. Hardback (1st Edition). Independently published
    4. Bone, K. and Mills, S. (2013). Principles and practice of phytotherapy modern herbal medicine. 2nd ed. Edinburgh Churchill Livingstone, Elsevier.
    5. Root Monographs, G. (2014). Gentianae radix. [online] Available at: https://escop.com/wp-content/uploads/edd/2015/09/Gentian.pdf [Accessed 4 Oct. 2022].
    6. Wölfle, U., Haarhaus, B., Seiwerth, J., Cawelius, A., Schwabe, K., Quirin, K.-W. and Schempp, C. (2017). The Herbal Bitter Drug Gentiana lutea Modulates Lipid Synthesis in Human Keratinocytes In Vitro and In Vivo. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, [online] 18(8), p.1814. doi:10.3390/ijms18081814.
    7. Menkovic, N., Juranic, Z., Stanojkovic, T., Raonic-Stevanovic, T., Šavikin, K., Zdunić, G. and Borojevic, N. (2010). Radioprotective activity of Gentiana lutea extract and mangiferin. Phytotherapy Research, 24(11), pp.1693–1696. doi:10.1002/ptr.3225.
    8. V., Melnyk, V., Guillaume, Chiara, Jogan, N. and Gygax, A. (2010). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Gentiana lutea. [online] IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Available at: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/162067/5546174 [Accessed 11 Oct. 2022].
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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