We were made for bitter herbs
FOR MILLENIA our ancestors subsisted on diets high in bitters and of course in this predominantly bitter environment, the sweet taste was rare and highly desirable.
Our taste buds have not yet evolved for the current day convenient availability - if not excess - of sweet taste.
In our modern culture, and certainly in Australia, it is commonplace to limit our taste palette to salty and sweet foods, now and then we might throw in a sour taste to zest things up.
This flavour choice is typically lacking the bitter taste and sadly denies us all the fascinating benefits that bitter herbs and foods offer.
While sugars might satisfy our taste buds, bitters stimulate digestive juices, soothe gut inflammation and increase nutrient absorption.
Bitter tastes repulse some people and indeed this may be a survival protective reaction as there are many bitter toxins that we should not eat.
However, there are important and healthy bitter foods and herbs that can be beneficial when added to the diet to help disperse excess gas, bloating and abdominal distension.
Lose the stigma of being bitter
Too often the bitter taste is shunned and artfully avoided, being deemed an unpleasant experience.
This is illustrated by how bitter herbs play an important role in the Jewish Passover celebration. They serve as a reminder of the bitter suffering of the Israelites while enslaved by the Egyptians and are an enduring symbol of the suffering of the Jewish people.
Not all traditional cultures, however, perceived the bitter taste as unpleasant. Many ethnic cultures, especially in parts of Europe, embrace the bitter taste, daily incorporating it into their diet with aperitifs and alcoholic beverages made from bitter herbs taken before and after meals.
In France, the salad is served before the main course and consists of bitter tasting green leaves such as endives, dandelion and chicory or arugula doused in vinaigrette.
Bitter digestives typically contain carminative herbs, which aid digestion in multiple ways.
They work by retraining the body to do what it intrinsically does when it is functioning optimally, - to efficiently digest and assimilate food from ingestion to excretion.
The Ayurveda system proposes that a healthy gut will eliminate food six hours after eating it.
The ideal concept of the six-hour elimination exists today in indigenous societies with higher consumption of bitters, but not for our society saturated in refined flours and sugars.
So what are bitters?
Bitters, as the name implies, is an infusion created from predominantly bitter-tasting ingredients that are mostly botanicals and aromatics that can include any combination of herbs, roots, bark, fruit, seeds or flowers.
Today in trendy city bars you will find herbal bitters employed as interesting components in artisanal cocktails; however herbal bitters have featured historically as an apothecary staple in all traditional herbal materia medica.
Medicinal herbs and botanicals were preserved in alcohol and prescribed for many ailments, especially digestion irregularities.
Bitters are best consumed in the form of tinctures or teas, because the active ingredients are more readily absorbed via oral mucosa.
It is the actual taste of bitter that is most important and the intensity of the bitter effect is directly proportional to the strength of the taste.
The bitterness tasted in plants is due to the presence of a variety of chemical constituents including volatile oils and alkaloids; sesquiterpenes, lactones that are termed bitter principles.
The taste of bitterness is an extremely common feature of many herbal remedies because the bitter taste has significant physiological actions within the body.
Essentially the action of bitter substances is mediated by the bitter-sensitive taste buds in the mouth, which do far more than just signify the taste of food or medicine and are actually connected neurally in such a way that when stimulated, the gut wall releases a hormone called gastrin into the bloodstream.
Why herbalists always have bitter herbs at hand
The taste of bitter catalyses a whole host of other different actions within the body, mostly the digestive system.
The action of bitters enhances the whole upper digestive function and improves assimilation of nutrients into the system.
Bitters stimulate the appetite when it is below par, which is helpful in convalescence or anorexic cases and they also increase the flow of digestive juices, which are thus indicated in sluggish dyspepsia, to reduce enteric infections.
Bitters reduce fermentation of gut contents and reduce the antigenicity of proteins in the foods that cause food allergies.
They generally improve the micro-environment of the gut biome, even in problems of the lower intestines.
Bitter herbs work like prebiotics in the gut, being packed with fibre, both soluble and insoluble, which stimulates the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
The bitter type of herb also stimulates repair of the gut wall lining, which gives them value in peptic ulcers and other inflammatory or erosive conditions.
Bitters are light, cooling, clearing and drying
In traditional medicine, the bitters property is held in high esteem and is used as a real tonic to enhance overall health even in the most debilitated circumstances. In fact the term tonic usually denotes a bitter medicine.
In traditional Chinese medicine, bitters are frequently used to help circulate the liver Qi and to clear heat and damp from the liver and gallbladder.
Bitters are seen to be cooling, reducing heat of fever by switching blood flow to the assimilation of food and reducing toxin reabsorption. In such conditions they work in a more general way, improving nourishment at the expense of circulatory heat.
In this way, bitters are prescribed for ‘hot’ conditions where there is thirst, the tongue is dry and its coating tends to be yellow and the complexion is dark or flushed, often accompanied by nervous agitation restlessness and tension.
According to Indian Ayurvedic medicine, bitters are light, cooling, clearing and drying.
They alleviate excess Pitta and Kapha, cleanse the body of toxicity and alleviate dizziness and fainting from fevers.
Bitters are used to treat fever because they also clear the blood plasma of impurities (ama) and sweet taste (kledaka Kapha). Bitter taste clears wounds and purifies the skin and muscle tissue.
Many cooling bitter tonics have general draining, downward moving and drying effects that benefit certain people.
When the liver becomes toxic, it radiates out into the blood, lymphatics, kidneys and ultimately the skin.
The right bitter herbs correct this pattern by cleansing the body from the inside out.
Bitters embody an emotionally uplifting quality, especially around the heart and they raise the vital force upwards, equalising the distribution of vital force by relaxing tension in the liver.
Bitters are a liver’s best friend
Most notably, bitter action influences the liver.
The liver is one of the largest organs of the human body and has the characteristic that we can still survive even if we remove three quarters of it, because it is tissue that is able to regenerate.
It is responsible for multiple functions, participates in digestion, in the composition of blood, produces and stores energy and acts as a detoxifier.
The cause behind many of our persistent ailments is often the result of weakened or compromised liver function.
Bitter substances work to stimulate the liver’s metabolic function to restore our body’s powerful detoxifying organ. Regular use of bitter herbs is indicated for a wide range of liver health issues.
Bitters increase the bile flow and dilution, which reduces the chance of gall bladder problems by enhancing the self-cleansing reparative ability of the liver.
Bitters regulate the secretion of insulin and glucagon by the endocrine pancreas (those cells within the pancreas that synthesise and secrete hormones) with important application for hypoglycaemia and late-onset diabetes.
Bitters improve assimilation
Bitter herbs increase bile, which is important for the emulsification and absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K.
Bitters also stimulate hydrochloric acid secretions in the stomach and pancreatic enzyme secretions in the small intestines.
All of these actions assist with the anabolic side of metabolism, by enhancing digestion and the catabolic side by supporting elimination.
The latter action of bitters is reflected in alterative herbs, which open the channels of elimination and detoxification. This is the essential action used for damp/stagnant tissue states.
Through both sympathy and antipathy, bitters enhance anabolism and nutrition and they decrease excess by enhancing catabolism, or detoxification.
Not condoning animal studies, but a study revealed that giving a bitter compound (hops-based) to animals resulted in: “weight and fat mass loss, increased energy expenditure, enhanced glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, normalised plasma lipids and induced broad suppression of inflammatory markers.”
Of course we might ask how this applies to humans and research is being undertaken to understand how bitters affect fat cells, regulate hunger and quell cravings for sweets.
Bitters can create a sense of fullness or satiety, which can certainly affect weight loss.
Yes, bitters calm the nerves!
Our gut health has a major impact on our overall well being and bitter tasting herbs directly affect the nervous system and the gut, which we know are intertwined neurally.
When taste buds on our tongue detect the bitter taste, a signal is sent via the vagus nerve to prepare the body for digestion. This means that the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and digestive secretions increase.
In this way, bitters not only increase the digestibility of food but also calm the nervous system, emotionally preparing us to eat.
Any plant that tastes bitter will have this effect, we just have to experience the bitter taste of it.
Bitters are best taken taken 15-20 minutes before meals so that the digestive system has time to prepare for the food we will eat.
Interestingly, research has revealed that even the lungs have bitter taste receptors that relax the airways and help breathing that contributes to the calming action of bitters.
It all starts with the tongue - the gatekeeper
When we consume food, it all starts in the tongue.
The tongue acts as a ‘gatekeeper’ by helping us distinguish between good and noxious substances and consequently guiding our food choices.
The body may perceive some bitters as a poison, stimulating various organs for protection. In the case of edible bitters, this has a beneficial, stimulating effect on our body.
Although simple in appearance, the tongue is an intricate organ with thousands of taste buds: small structures that mostly reside on papillae (or raised bumps) on the upper surface of the tongue and on the palate.
Each taste bud harbours a set of 50 to 100 specialised cells known as taste receptor cells responsible for either sensing different tastes or mediating biological processes following taste detection.
Flavour is the combined sensory impression of food and it is determined by the five basic qualities of taste: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami the ‘Johnny-come-lately’ to the Western taste group that is recognised in Japan and other Eastern cultures.
Umami is a ‘savoury’ mushroom-like taste that was unfortunately associated with monosodium glutamate or MSG.
This is because people taste umami through taste receptors that typically respond to glutamates and nucleotides, which are widely present in meat broths and fermented products.
Perception of the five taste qualities entails the interaction of a substance from our food, or ‘tastant’, with specific taste receptor proteins residing in the taste buds of the tongue.
It used to be thought that the taste buds that specialise in specific flavours are detected in different zones on the tongue; however research has since changed our understanding of how taste information is carried from the tongue to the brain.
It shows that individual taste qualities are not restricted to a single region of the tongue. In this case it was believed that bitter taste was detected at the back of the tongue, however now we know that each receptor type is found across all taste areas in the mouth. This could be illustrated by the fact that injury to one specific tongue region doesn’t deny us of any taste sensation.
We are biologically programmed for bitters
More than a decade ago it was a major milestone in taste research to discover that taste receptors reside in parts of the body other than the oral cavity, which only validates what traditional herbalism has always espoused.
The bitter taste receptors (T2 receptors) are located in almost every organ of digestion.
T2 bitter taste receptors are found in the oesophagus, stomach, pancreas, bile duct and small and large intestines.
When we taste something bitter on our tongue, our bitter taste receptors are activated. In turn, they begin to trigger all of the other bitter taste receptors all the way down our digestive tract, stimulating our organs of digestion.
The oesophagus undulates, the pancreas produces enzymes and our own blend of probiotics, the gall bladder dispenses bile to break down fats and the intestines get primed and ready to digest the food that’s about to come.
Stimulating the mouth with bitters increases the production of IgA (a surface antigen that protects the mucous membranes from bacteria and viruses that try to invade the organism).
These taste receptor proteins sense nutrients in the gut and in the regulation of metabolic processes; which implies that taste receptor dysfunction might contribute to the development of metabolic disorders.
The link between sweet and bitter taste receptors and the development of these diseases has become an area of growing scientific and medical interest over the past decade.
The herbalist Guido Masé advocates that the people of cultures that eat bitter foods regularly, have “hearty, vigorous and plentiful” bitter taste receptors.
He also states that the people of cultures that avoid bitter tastes have far fewer and less sensitive bitter taste receptors that are “weak, puny and paltry”.
He also emphasises how the more we stimulate the bitter taste receptors, the more they reproduce and the heartier they become.
The subtle effects of bitter herbs
Metaphysically, the liver represents anger and it is believed to be stored there when the causation has not been identified or resolved.
The liver symbolically, is the “pantry” of the body, conserving all foods, so that when we are hungry, the liver functions more than usual to utilise the stored energy source.
One whose liver is diseased, feels a deep fear of lacking the fundamental essentials of survival (manifesting in fear of not having what is necessary in family, affection, recognition, time etc.)
Liver problems sometimes come from an archaic biological fear of starvation, by not receiving food (or even just a snack).
This is an ingrained conflict of loss, lack or hunger that cannot be assuaged. Cirrhosis can arise from a fear of not having enough. A good bitter liver tonic full of bitter herbs can ultimately restore trust in the abundance of the Universe.
Excesses in food, alcohol or drugs can also trigger serious pathologies in the liver, and mental fixations such as delusions of grandeur etc.
When there are excesses there is often difficulties to value what is beneficial and what is harmful.
Tensions in the liver can also mean that it is very difficult for us to accept our feelings, our own or those offered to us.
Rudolf Steiner points out that the sense of taste is actually present throughout the entire organism, but it is conscious in the mouth and then submerged deeper in the body.
Taste connects the life body (the etheric body) with the physical and strengthens it.
Bitters stimulate the will (especially myrrh) and are essential to the metabolism, digestion, detoxification and elimination.
Returning us to our innate native state
Often for people with digestive problems it is prescribed to supplement their diet with extraneous supplements that contain digestive enzymes and bile acid.
While both can certainly improve digestion by making up for a physiological lack of gut enzymes and bile acids, they are only a temporary solution and neither will stimulate our gut to re-establish healthy digestion.
Supplemental digestive enzymes can create a dependent state for the body to properly digest food, whereas by incorporating gentle and beneficial herbal bitters into our diet we are telling our gut and brain to gradually produce more digestive juices.
In the long-term, the goal of herbalism is to bring us back into homeostasis that is our native state of health and balance.
We can conclude that if we begin to include bitter tastes in our meals, we can actually improve our entire digestive tract function and benefit from the myriad other bodily functions that cascade from the foundation of a healthy, happy gut.
Overall, their ability to activate the body’s healing forces cannot be overstated.
The taste receptors are located around the small structures (known as papillae) found on the upper surface of the tongue, soft palate, upper oesophagus, cheek and epiglottis.
Indeed this is a hale and hearty affirmation about the simple and effective act of cleansing the mouth and gargling with myrrh tincture every morning.
Even after spitting it out, we have set the taste buds to transmit their healing trajectory throughout the body.
• Regulate stomach acid
• Balance blood sugar levels
• Boost bile flow for fat absorption and detoxification (bile is basically a natural laxative and poor bile is a huge cause of constipation)
• Aid liver function
• Boost the immune system
• Increase nutrient assimilation
• They can even help with stress and anxiety
• Encourage digestive enzyme production (recommended ahead of most regular enzyme supplements)
• Calm heartburn, gas, and bloating
BITTERS are indicated for sluggish or improper digestion when there are indications of poor digestive activity or enzymatic activity.
This would include undigested food in the stool, gastrointestinal pain not due to more serious conditions, spasms, belching, and gas.
Bitters are commonly used to stimulate appetite, to relieve constipation, gas, heartburn, and nausea.
They are also helpful in gastro paresis, for anorexics, people not producing enough hydrochloric acid, or people needing their general digestion stimulated. Often the elderly benefit from bitters.
What if you can’t taste bitters?
LESS ability to taste bitter may be associated with Parkinson’s disease and with risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Perhaps more zinc is required in the diet; a study with type 2 diabetics, showed bitter taste was significantly associated with serum zinc concentrations. Zinc has also been associated with the sense of smell and smell is important in the process of tasting food.
Also maybe thyroid function may be sluggish, as subclinical hypothyroidism was shown to be associated with decreased smell and decreased sense of bitter taste.