If I were to ask you what your favorite flavor is, my guess is that it wouldn’t be bitter. Most of us are accustomed to the soothing taste of something sweet, the satisfying taste of something salty, and the piquant effects of spice. In fact, the bitter taste is largely absent from the average American diet with the exception of coffee – which many of us love not only because of its bitter edge but because of how it stimulates our digestion. With or after a meal, you can feel it getting your digestive juices fired up, and caffeine gives us more than one kind of get up and go – its effects on elimination are not lost on those who rely on it to go to the bathroom. Unfortunately, too often coffee is simply used as a carrier for some form of sweetener, making it less healthy than it could be in moderation.
Bitter Herbs: The Ultimate Paleo Food
The bitter taste is one that has gradually seeped out of our diets. Our ancestors obtained bitter in the diet in the form of wild greens, plants rich in bitter principles, many of them plant constituents called alkaloids and lignins, that in extreme might have signaled the presence of poison if present in excess. Thus, due to protective evolutionary biology, it is a taste that gets our full attention, and naturally creates a strong reaction. It is also a taste that even in small amounts, triggers an awesome array of physiologic responses. As my colleague, Herb Pharm formulator David Bunting says, “Bitter plants may in fact be the ultimate Paleo food, ancient plant chemicals that trigger important biological responses while reminding us on some deep level of our innate primeval heritage.”
Unfortunately, as we became more agrarian, our natural aversion to bitterness and our predilection for the sweet taste, led to a greater emphasis on naturally sweet tasting carbohydrate-rich grains. They are sweet because complex carbohydrates are complex sugar molecules.
Bitters & Your Digestive System
Harnessed in the form of herbal medicines, the bitter principle in plants provides us with numerous health benefits that emanate from its action on the digestive system. The bitter principles affect networks in our nervous system that alert your body to their presence, and trigger the increased production and release of gastric (or stomach) acids that continue the process of digestion in your gut that began in your mouth with the process of chewing. Improved release of hydrochloric acid denatures proteins and triggers the gut's immune system to destroy bacteria and viruses. Bitters also stimulate peristalsis – the natural wavelike motion of your digestive system that stimulates the motility of food along your digestive passages. They aid in the production and release of digestive enzymes and mobilize your gall bladder to release bile and enzymes – all of which further the process of digestion of carbohydrates and fats at they moves through your intestines. Stimulation of the pancreas leads to the the release of hormones that reduce blood glucose and pancreatic juices that contain over a dozen enzymes that break down proteins, starch, and fats.
Among the many actions of bitters, they:
- Stimulate appetite
- Stimulate release of digestive juices from the pancreas, duodenum, and liver
- Aid the liver in detoxification work and increase the flow of bile
- Help regulate secretion of pancreatic hormones that regulate blood sugar, insulin, and glucagon
- Help the gut wall repair damage
Bitters, Your Brain & Beyond
The tonic effects of these remedies go beyond digestive activity. Because of the gut-brain connection, not only can bitters enhance digestion, but they can reduce depression and improve mood. They also support your liver’s natural detoxification processes, and thus can improve skin health.
While tasting bitters has an added advantage of stimulating receptors in the tongue that directly stimulate the brain, and also getting salivary action and thus the digestive process that begins in your mouth flowing, the good news is that if the taste is just too foreign to you, your digestive system has bitter receptors in our stomach, pancreatic duct, small intestine, liver and gall bladder, so even if you bypass the taste, you can still get the benefit.
Got to Get Them Into Your Life: Bitters in Your Diet
There are so many wonderful ways to bring bitters into your diet, particularly by eating greens like arugula, dandelion, endive, and radicchio.
So how can you get bitters into your life to boost your digestion and improve your health?
Great sources include leafy greens, particularly dandelion greens, endive, arugula, kale, and collards, and including the pith in your citrus if you eat it, particularly lemons if you include them in your green juice. A number of sour goods, for example, apple cider vinegar, lacto-fermented vegetables, and juice from lemons and limes also enhance the action of bitters in your digestive system, while improving the taste – thus some lemon on your dandelion greens or a lime vinaigrette on your endive and arugula salad can give you even greater digestive enhancement.
Exploring the Bitter Herbs
Example of herbal bitters include:
- Burdock root
- Artichoke leaf
The dose varies according to the herb – follow the instructions on the product you’re purchasing.
Because the nature of bitter herbs is considered cold, or cooling, they are commonly combined with herbs of a warming nature, including cinnamon, ginger, fennel, and cardamom, to prevent digestive discomfort and create energetic balance.
My personal favorite way to take them is squirting 2 dropperfuls of tincture into a 1/2 glass of sparkling water and enjoying an aperitif (a before-meal digestive beverage) or a digestif (an after-meal digestive beverage).
There are a number of contraindications to the use of bitters. Do not use bitters in the following conditions:
- Kidney stones
- Gallbladder disease
- Hiatal hernia
- Peptic ulcer
While it might be counterintuitive to use an herb that improves gastric acid secretion if you have reflux (heartburn), improved gastric acid secretion may actually improve the tone of the lower esophageal sprinter (LES), reducing the reflux of stomach acid into the esophagus. But check with your primary provider first if you have concerns or are on medications.
While bitter leafy greens can be eaten freely, many of the bitter herbs should not be supplemented in in pregnancy. Chamomile and dandelion are exceptions, and can be used while breastfeeding, too.
Enjoy making your food your medicine, and your medicine your food!