Gentian (Gentiana lutea) is a bitter herb that has been used in traditional systems of medicine practiced throughout Europe for over 2,000 years. As a liver tonic and digestive aid, it also has a long history of use in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
What is gentian root used for today? Many of this herb’s original applications still stand, such as treating indigestion, liver dysfunction and fatigue. Among its many active compounds are gentiopicroside and amarogentin, a characteristic bitter compound that binds to the bitter taste receptors in the mouth. (1)
Like other bitter herbs and foods, herbalists commonly use gentian’s taste and quality to support digestive health since it helps with stimulating bile, increasing the appeal of food, and detoxing the liver, gallbladder and other organs. Other benefits of gentian include fighting inflammation, supporting the nervous system, boosting endurance and aiding in heart health.
What Is Gentian?
Gentian root (Gentiana lutea L.) is a bitter herb in the Gentianaceae plant family that is native to the Alps and Himalayan Mountains regions. It has a very long history of use in herbal medicines, especially for treating stomach ailments, liver disease and helping with digestion. Today, it is most widely grown in Europe, China and parts of North America.
What does the name gentian mean? The herb is said to be named after the Illyrian king named Gentius (llyria was a region in the western part of the Balkan Peninsula that was conquered by the Romans around 160 B.C.). Records show that Gentius was one of the first to discover the plant’s medicinal properties and use it to make healing tonics.
There are over 400 different species of the Gentianaceae family, and at least several species of the genus Gentiana are used in herbal medicine, including Gentiana lutea, Gentiana manshurica Kitag, Gentiana scabra Bunge, Gentiana triflora pall and Gentiana rigescens Franch. There are also many alternative names that gentian is sold under depending on the formula and specific genus, including yellow gentian, Chinese gentian root, gentiana, bitter root, Pale gentian, felwort and radix gentianae.
What can you use gentian for? Historically, it’s been used to treat:
- Liver damage
- Stomach and digestive problems, such as loss of appetite, diarrhea, gas, bloating, heartburn and nausea
- Sinus infections
- Menstrual pains
- Chronic fatigue and weakness
- Scalp eczema
- High blood pressure
- Hair loss
- Food allergies and intolerances
- Poor infant growth and development
Gentian Root vs. Gentian Violet
- Gentian root is not related to gentian violet, a medicinal product and dye that is also called methylrosaniline chloride.
- Gentian violet is usually sold as a topical solution that has natural antibacterial, antifungal and anthelmintic properties. It is normally applied to the skin to treat infections, especially of the mucous membranes, that are associated with harmful bacteria, yeast and mold. (2) It’s an old natural remedy but has gained more attention recently for its dermatologic uses, since it fights bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections.
- While historically the violet has been used for its antibacterial and antifungal properties, recently it’s been shown to also have antiviral and anti-angiogenic abilities as well. (3) Gentian violet uses now include treating infections caused by Candida and Streptococcus and Staphylococcus species, trench mouth, oral thrush, impetigo, burns, pinworm, and a number of other cutaneous and systemic fungal infections.
5 Gentian Benefits
What are the benefits of gentian? While it has been used safely and effectively for thousands of years, clinical human studies involving this herb are lacking. The FDA does not regulate sales of this herb (or other herbal supplements), and few trials have been conducted to prove its effectiveness. That being said, there’s a large body of anecdotal evidence showing that it has real uses and benefits.
1. Helps Improve Digestive, Liver and Gallbladder Function
One of the most popular uses of this herb centuries ago and still today is improving a number of facets of digestive health. Gentian herb has traditionally used as “gastric stimulant” due to the effects that it has on saliva, bile and enzyme excretion. (4) There’s some evidence that it can stimulate the secretion of enzymes in the small intestines and increase gastric secretion, which makes breaking down foods and absorbing nutrients easier. Some of the supposed benefits of gentian for digestion include: (5, 6)
- Reducing loss of appetite
- Decreasing nausea, heartburn, diarrhea and general stomaches
- Improving saliva production by stimulating the membranes of the mouth and taste buds
- Helping with production of gastric juices and bile secretion
- Supporting liver and gallbladder functions
For centuries, gentian root has been known as a liver tonic and supporter of detoxification, as evidenced by its strong bitter flavor. Gout, jaundice, dyspepsia and dysentery are some other conditions that it is used to naturally help treat. According to tradition, gentian taken with rhubarb is most effective at improving digestive symptoms, such as loss of appetite and nausea. One study found that giving patients 600 milligrams of gentian root daily helped relieve symptoms, such as abdominal pain, nausea, heartburn, flatulence, constipation, appetite loss and vomiting. (7)
To support overall liver health, I recommend using it along with other liver-purifiers like dandelion root, also known as Taraxacum officinale. Dandelion root is often powdered and roasted for use as a coffee substitute or added raw to herbal teas. Both the root and leaves of dandelion have been shown to protect the liver, lower cholesterol and triglycerides, fight bacteria, and keep your eyes healthy.
2. Helps Fight Oxidative Stress and Chronic Disease
Like other nutrient-dense herbs, gentian has antioxidant properties that help to protect cells from free radical damage (also called oxidative stress). Its active compounds (more on these below) are also beneficial for protecting against infections and reducing damage to the arteries and smaller blood vessels. (8)
Gentian’s compounds have anti-inflammatory effects that seem to benefit the cardiovascular, respiratory and digestive systems. For example, isovitexin has been to be a natural anti-atherosclerotic agent that protects vascular smooth muscle tissue and increases cellular nitric oxide (NO) activity. (9) This is beneficial for prevention and treatment of arteriosclerosis, or hardening/thickening of the arteries. Gentian also has blood-pressure lowering effects.
There is also some preliminary evidence that constituents, including secoiridoidal, ridoid glycosides, gentiopicroside, xanthones, polyphenols and flavone, may help defend against cancer due to their anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor effects. (10)
3. Can Help Lower Inflammation and Pain
What are the benefits of gentian root if you have chronic pain? Active compounds found within this herb have been shown to fight inflammation and positively modulate pain pathways in the brain to decrease discomfort. It may also help reduce antibodies and autoimmune reactions that can lead to joint pain, fatigue and weakness. (11)
Gentian may also dilate blood vessels and help improve circulation, facilitating healing. This is why it is sometimes used to treat migraines, menstrual pains, stomach pains, muscle spasms and more. Additionally, a compound in gentian called erythricine has been shown to have sedative and muscle relaxant effects, reducing spasms and cramps. It may also help reduce high blood pressure and slow the heart rate in response to pain or stress. (12)
4. Helps Treat Wounds and Infections (Including Sinus Infections)
Gentian is applied to the skin for treating various types of wounds and fungal infections. It has been shown to kill harmful bacteria and improve blood flow to wounds or damaged tissue.
A number of studies have found that it has antimicrobiral and antifungal properties. Gentian is combined with other immune-boosting herbs (including elderberry/elderflower, verbena and sorrel) in a formula called Sinupret, which research studies have shown helps treat sinus infection symptoms (sinusitis). (13)
Compounds in this herb can also help inhibit bacteria that may cause other infections, such as leptospira, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, proteusbacillus vulgaris and Salmonella typhi. In addition to fighting bacteria, gentian has also been shown to help decrease fungal and yeast infections, such as those caused by Candida albicans. (14)
5. Supports the Nervous System
Gentian seems to benefit the central nervous system by helping relax muscle tension and acting as a natural sedative, yet at the same time it also helps fight fatigue. In animal studies, secoiridoid compounds found in gentian, including gentiopicroside, swertiamarine and sweroside, have been shown to lead to increased endurance and less muscular fatigue. (15)
Another herb that gentian can be used in combination with to support the nervous system is the adaptogen called licorice root, which has been used for centuries to treat fatigue, stress-related symptoms, coughs and colds, gastrointestional issues, and reproductive issues. Licorice root can actually help gentian be more effective. It’s often used in Chinese medicine as a “guide drug” since it helps enhance other herbs and remedies to make them most beneficial.
Gentian Nutrition Facts
One analysis found that the most active components found within gentian (G. lutea) include: (16)
- Gentiopicroside (the most dominant compound)
- Loganic acid
- Other xanthone glycosides, including gentisin, isogentisin, amarogentin and gentiopicrin
Gentiopicroside, one of the secoiridoid compounds isolated from Gentiana lutea that has been most widely researched, has been shown in animal studies to have benefits including fighting inflammation and reducing pain. (17) It’s believed to have analgesic effects because of how it affects pain-induced synaptic pathways in the brain. Gentiopicroside also has anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective and anti-parasite effects. Additionally, certain studies have found that gentianine has anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, sedative-hypnotic and diuretic effects. (18)
Amarogentin is a compound found in this herb that contributes to its bitter taste. Like other bitter herbs and foods (such as coffee or dandelion root), this has a strong gastric effect by stimulating production of digestive fluids. (19)
Isogentisin is another compound that has been associated with prevention of endothelial injury, such as from smoking. In one study, when 22 natural alpine plant extracts were tested for their potential to protect human vascular endothelial cells from cigarette smoke-induced cell damage, extracts from Gentiana lutea proved to be most effective. (20) Research suggests that isogentisin promotes cell survival by activating cellular repair functions.
Gentian Root in Ayurveda and TCM
What is gentian used for in traditional systems of medicine?
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), gentian root is called Long Dan Cao. Its most common use is treating liver-related diseases and supporting detoxification. (21) It is one of China’s three major natural flowers (the other two are azaleas and primulas). TCM views it as having a cold and bitter essence (heat-clearing and damp-drying), which supports the liver and gallbladder. Some of the top uses of gentian in TCM include treating jaundice, vaginal swelling and itching, vaginal discharge, persistent erection, itching due to eczema, red eyes, deafness, and hypochondriac pain.
In TCM, it is commonly taken with other healing herbs, such as skullcap. Skullcap also helps with reducing inflammation, provides relief from spasms, stimulates blood flow in the digestive and pelvic region, encourages menstruation, and helps eliminate headaches, fatigue and fevers. Skullcap can be found in the form of a tea, liquid extract, tincture, capsule or crude root extract. It may be used to make tonics in combination with gentian, valerian root and passion flower.
Gentian “medicine” is also revered in Ayurveda, as are many other bitter herbs. In Ayurveda, it is viewed as being “cleansing” due to its very bitter taste, helping clean the liver and stimulate digestive secretions. It’s also used for its anti-inflammatory effects and as natural fever remedy for treating sinus infections. (22) Ayurveda often substitutes bitter gentian with other comparable bitters, such as chiretta or kutki. These bitter herbs are said to clear the mind and prepare the body to eat. Ayurvedic practitioners typically recommend using about one to two grams per meal and really paying attention to the bitter taste for the best effects.
Gentian Side Effects
Gentian root can sometimes be irritating to the digestive system in people with gastrointestinal conditions, including ulcers. Taking the root might also decrease blood pressure and affect blood sugar (glucose), potentially leading to weakness and fainting, so it’s recommended you speak with a doctor first if you take medications to control blood and blood pressure. (23)
This herb is generally considered safe, however there have been cases of gentian poisoning reported when people have used the herb to make their own wines/liqueurs and tonics. Possible side effects that might occur include stomach irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, skin irritation and increased acidity in the stomach. If you experience gentian side effects, stop using the product right away and speak with a doctor if you don’t feel better in one to two days.
Where to Find and How to Use Gentian
Where to buy gentian root:
- Gentian root is used to make concentrated extract (bitters), teas, tonics, liqueurs, powders, capsules and tinctures. It’s most commonly taken in capsule form but is also used in herbal teas and as an alcoholic extract called Angostura bitters.
- The part of the plant normally used for its medicinal purposes is the plant’s dried, matured roots. Some supplements, teas and tonics may also include other parts of the herb, such as the stem or leaves.
- Gentian supplements are available in some health food stores, online and through working with a trained herbalist.
- Always read product labels carefully and look for a reputable supplement brand that lists the active ingredients on the label. The most widely available type of gentian supplement is the root of the gentiana lutea species.
- To boost digestion and liver health, look for combination products that include gentian in addition to other beneficial herbs, such as licorice root or rhubarb extract.
How to use gentian:
- Take it about 20 minutes before each meal for help with digestion.
- While it’s likely safe when used for several months, most herbalists recommend taking this herb for about two to three weeks at a time before taking a break (especially if taking high doses).
- If you are preparing your own formula, you must clean, dry and cut the root first (or purchase dried powder). Be very careful not to use the highly toxic white hellebore (Veratrum album), which can be misidentified as gentian and be poisonous.
Does gentian violet work in the same way as gentian root?
Gentiana lutea, the most widely sold species of gentian root, is different than gentian violet — which is a solution and dye that is used to treat fungal infections of the skin and mouth. Gentian violet benefits skin health as well but works in a different way. The violet is a natural antifungal that’s topical uses include treating certain types of fungus infections, such as those that affect the inside the mouth (oral thrush).
To use the violet to treat infections, apply the recommended dose to a cotton swab and cover only the affected area of your skin/mouth. Avoid swallowing any of the medicine. Do not apply a dressing over this medicine once applied to your skin, since this can cause a negative reaction. Use this medicine for the full time of treatment that your doctor recommends, even if you see improvements earlier than expected.
Gentian Dosage and Gentian Recipes
Recommended doses for gentian supplements and products differ depending on the brand and concentration, so always read directions and follow guidelines for the best results. Below is a general idea of how to use these products:
- The standard recommended dose of the root is 500 milligrams (in capsule form) taken two to three times per day, usually with meals. Some people may take higher doses of around 1,000–1,500 milligrams several times per day, depending on what condition they are treating. Up to one to four grams of powdered gentian root have been taken daily as a digestive tonic.
- To make a gentian tea or tonic, you’ll need to purchase dried root and stems. Use about a half gram to two grams at a time, boiling the stems/root in water and then letting it cool before drinking. If you have dried gentian root powder, use about one teaspoon of powder per two pints of water.
- In extract form, gentian bitters can be used in doses of about 0.3–0.6 grams, or five to 30 drops (0.3–2 milliliters). Angostura bitters is a concentrated bitters, or botanically infused alcoholic mixture, made of water, about 44.7 percent ethanol (alcohol), gentian, herbs and spices.
- Gentian dissolved in alcohol can be taken in doses of about a quarter to half a teaspoon before a meal.
- In tincture form, use about 40 milliliters (of a 2 percent concentrated tincture) daily or every other day.
- If you’re using this herb to treat sinus infections, it’s recommended you look for a combination formula containing 12 milligrams of the root and 36 milligrams each of European elder flower, verbena, sorrel and cowslip flower. Take this formula (sold under names SinuComp and Sinupret) three times daily for the best results.
Historical Use of Gentian
According to Richard Whelan, a medical herbalist, “The ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Arab physicians of the middle ages all used Gentian as a digestive tonic. They widely used Gentian for liver disorders, an antiseptic wound wash, and as a treatment for intestinal worms.” (24)
The root has been used for over 2,000 years as a digestive stimulant and stomach healer. Records show in the Middle Ages it was taken to boost the appetite and reduce indigestion due to illnesses.
In the 1890s it started being used to make a strongly flavored soft drink available in New England called “Moxie.” Moxie was promoted as a tonic that boosted digestive health and helped to treat sugar cravings, saliva and acid deficiency, and food allergies and intolerances.
Today the root is still commonly used in alcoholic aperitifs and digestives. The gentian species that is most widely used for flavoring drinks, especially in Europe, is Gentiana lutea. For example, gentian extract can be found in: Amaro Lucano, angostura bitters, aperol, campari and many others.
Because many herbal remedies have not been thoroughly tested in humans in clinical trials, their safety and effectiveness have not necessarily been proven. This means you should take precaution when using herbal formulas. You might also choose to work with a knowledgeable herbalist who can guide you and help monitor your symptoms.
Women who are pregnant and nursing should not use gentian root without speaking with their doctors first. Is gentian violet safe for babies? Thee hasn’t been much research showing that infants or young children can safely use it, so I recommend avoiding this unless you’re working with a medical professional. To be safe, you should always discuss using any new herbal medicine with your doctor if you take medications for chronic health conditions.
Definitely get guidance from your doctor when using this herb if you deal with any of the following health conditions, since there may be interactions: diabetes, hypoglycemia, taking medications that affect blood sugar, high blood pressure, alcoholism, liver disease, stomach or intestinal abnormalities, or if you’re taking antidepressants or monoamine oxidase inhibitors.
- Gentian root (Gentiana lutea L.) is a bitter herb in the Gentianaceae plant family that is native to Europe and North America.
- It has a very long history of use in herbal medicines, especially for treating stomach ailments, liver disease and helping with digestion. Benefits include improving digestion, supporting the liver and gallbladder, treating fungal and bacterial infections, supporting the nervous system, reducing inflammation, and fighting pain.
- The root is used to make concentrated extract (bitters), teas, tonics, liqueurs, powders, capsules and tinctures. It’s most commonly taken in capsule form but is also used in herbal teas and and in alcoholic extracts, including the type called Angostura bitters.
- Gentiana lutea, the most widely sold species of gentian root among over 400 different types, is different than the source of the violet. Gentian violet is a solution and dye that is used topically or inside the mouth to treat fungal infections of the skin/mucous membranes.