Imagine yourself at the beach soaking in the sunshine and occasionally dipping your toes in the ocean. For some this would be paradise that we would never want to end. But for many of us we would get…well…bored. Humans love to climb mountains, push ourselves in an exercise class, travel to challenging environments and spend additional energy working hard on something we are interested in. Without challenges most of us would get a little soft and complacent. We need some stressors to build more resiliency, to gain skills, deepen our experience and to grow as humans.
I think of this as I explore the subject of bitters. This is the taste found in certain plants such as
dandelion, chicory and coffee. When we ask for a cocktail, we are drinking a mix of alcohol, a simple syrup and some bitters. Its those bitters that give the drink its complexity and challenges our palate. Without the bitters the drink would be a cloyingly sweet beverage- tasty, but somehow lacking in character.
We are in love with the sweet flavor in modern society. Everything is flavored with sugar or highfructose corn syrup. This makes sense. Evolutionarily humans didn’t have a lot of access to calories and any source of sweet food signified that there were extra calories available. But because so little was available to pre-modern humans, that desire was understandable. Today with the advent of readily available sweeteners, we have gorged ourselves on this flavor and have become more unhealthy in the process. We have also lost the taste for the bitter principle and save it mostly for when we drink coffee or eat that chunk of extra dark chocolate. This is unfortunate because bitters are one of the keys to helping us feel stronger, healthier and more resilient. Lets take a look why.
Walk through your backyard, or through that funky weed patch just down the way and you may be surprised at how many bitter plants are available to our fingertips. Weeds like dandelion, dock, yarrow and chicory sprout up ubiquitously throughout the US and all carry important medicinal bitter virtues. If we think of how we co-evolved with bitter plants, we developed receptors that signaled when we consumed something that might be poisonous such as extremely bitter plants. The body then used a variety of protective mechanisms to manage the bitter poisonous effect. In essence bitters jumps starts our entire physiology to be able to manage, absorb and eliminate what we just consumed. Though our bodies can’t handle concentrated poisonous plants, some bitterness will actually act as a positive stressor that will induce healthy adaptations. In essence bitters are teaching us to manage stressors better and to become more resilient.
Today we understand more of the science behind bitters and why they improve our health on so many levels.
The effect of bitters on our body begins with the tongue where receptors pick up on the bitter taste and send chemical and hormonal signals to the rest of the body. These bitter taste receptors, known as T2Rs, signal the vagus nerve to increase intercellular calcium concentrations which then signals the hormone cholecystokinin to promote the release of bile and digestive enzymes.
Bitter principles induce increased blood flow to the digestive tract to improve the flow and function of this system. The increased blood flow helps in the process of gut motility, absorption of nutrients and elimination. There are bitter receptors throughout the digestive system and they all contribute to helping improve digestion, absorption, reduce heartburn, gas and bloating as well as improve elimination.
On a deeper note, bitters also serve to tone up tissues throughout the digestive system, healing damaged membranes in conditions such as leaky gut syndrome and ulcers.
As I wrote above, bitters can appear to us as a threat and as a potential poison. The body reacts to the bitter by mounting an immune system response. From the production of bactericidal nitric oxide to immunoglobulins to antimicrobial peptide secretions, bitter induces an immune system response to protect the body from infection and sickness.
Bitter receptors are found throughout the body and one of the most interesting places they are found is in the heart. I have already explored the relationship of cardiac health to stress and trauma in this article here. Cardiac T2R receptors improve heart strength, steady the heart rate, reduce high blood pressure and are cardio-protective and reduce chance of stroke.
Blood Sugar Balancer
Bitter receptors are instrumental in helping us regulate and manage our blood sugar levels.These receptors are found in the intestinal mucosal membrane where they help suppress appetite and are instrumental in insulin sensitivity. In essence they help reduce the spikes of sugar that can lead to insulin production and eventually type 2 diabetes if unchecked. On a deeper level, bitters seem to act as a nice antidote to our cravings for sweetness. Try consuming bitter herbs to reduce that need for sweets.
In western herbalism, the old school term for bitter herbs that improve metabolic function is alterative. In traditional practice, alteratives would be offered to clear “bad blood”, reduce heat in the system and improve overall vitality and wellbeing. Alteratives such as Oregon Grape, dandelion and burdock were often offered to help people with skin eruptions such as eczema. On a side note, I once drank a simple decoction of Oregon Grape, burdock, dandelion and a pinch of licorice for 10 days and cleared up a half dollar sized patch of eczema that appeared on my neck.
Nervous system support
We also now know that bitter principles attach to smooth muscle bitter receptors that help reduce tension and contraction. In essence bitters can act as smooth muscle antispasmodics to relax tension. This is key for those who hold tension due to stress or previous experiences of trauma. Consider Kava, crampbark, blue vervain or motherwort- all bitter “nervines” or herbs that both relax nervous tension and are antispasmodic. We also know that bitter receptors signal the vagus to cause a calming effect on the nervous system and improve parasympathetic tone. Truly bitters are grounding.
Bitters help stabilize our nervous system through their actions on the digestive system. They help heal leaky guts that allow for inflammatory particles to be absorbed into the blood stream that are correlative with worsening mental health symptoms. Bitters also promote healthy absorption of nutrients that strengthen nervous system resiliency. Finally, because bitters improve gut health, they strengthen healthy bacterial strains that are correlated with improved mental health. See this article here for a greater understanding of this relationship.
Finally, many traditions offer bitter herbs to people who appear frustrated, angry, hot and wired. In Chinese medicine the term for this type of condition would be known as liver qi stagnation. In Chinese medicine theory, the liver is responsible for the free flow of qi, or energy, throughout the body. When that free flow gets bottled up, one becomes anxious, angry and tight. Herbal formulas rich in bitter and aromatic herbs such as “Free and Easy Wanderer” help to improve the flow of blood and bile in the liver and digestive system as well as reduce tension and improve overall mood and wellbeing.
Types of Bitter Herbs
There are a variety of types of bitter herbs, each with different types of bitter constituents as well as other constituents that can affect the overall taste of bitter. Think of having a cup of coffee with milk. That milk softens the overall bitter flavor of the coffee.
With herbs we can start with gently bitter herbs like burdock and dandelion root and go all the way to extremely bitter plants like wormwood and yellow dock. Very bitter plants can actually promote a laxative or emetic effect. One classic example is the blending of multiple herbs to make a decoction of ayahuasca, an extremely bitter hallucinogenic preparation in South America that often causes vomiting.
So lets look at some different examples of bitter herbs:
Angelica Angelica archangelica
Black Tea Camelia sinensis
Boneset Eupatorium perfoliatum
Burdock Arctium lappa
Chamomile Matricaria chamomila
Cramp bark Viburnum opulus
Coffee Coffea arabica
Black Cottonwood bark Populus trichocarpa
Dandelion Taraxacum officinale
Devil’s Club Oplopanax horridus
Dong Quai Angelica sinensis
Gentian Gentiana lutea
Hops Humulus lupulus
Kava Piper methysticum
Mate Ilex paraguariensis
Motherwort Leonorus cardiaca
Mugwort Artemisia vulgaris
Oregon Grape Berberis aquifolium
Red Belted Conk Fomitopsis pinicola
Reishi Ganoderma lucidum
Skullcap Scutellaria laterifolia
Vervain Verbena officinale
Willow Salix sp.
Yarrow Achillea millefolium
Yellow Dock Rumex crispus
Aromatic warming bitters: These are great for folks who appear cold, stagnant: Angelica, fennel, fenugreek
Nervine bitters: Herbs that not only are bitter but have a marked relaxant effect on the nervous system: Crampbark, kava, hops, chamomile, motherwort
Stimulant bitters: Coffee, mate, black tea.
Antimicrobial bitters: Oregon Grape, Coptis
Strong bitters (to be used in small amounts for a short duration): Mugwort, wormwood, yarrow
Nutritive bitters: Dandelion, burdock. These herbs carry inulin that act as a prebiotic to improve gut microbiome health. They also carry a wide variety of minerals and vitamins.
Contraindications: Pregnant women would be cautious of taking in bitter herbs and especially stronger bitter herbs. Those with severe liver and gallbladder diseases should be cautious in the use of strong bitters as well.
Bitter herbs are common and we can easily found a few by just looking for some weeds in the backyard. For tens of thousands of years humans have needed to understand what plants are poisonous and what are health giving. When we detect bitter in plants our body mounts a comprehensive response to make sure that the substance doesn’t harm us.
That response touches all parts of our body- from our heart to our digestion to our immune and nervous systems. Bitter is a challenging stressor that helps to improve the metabolic function of a variety of organ systems. Just like climbing a mountain is a challenging stressor that improves our stamina, athletic ability and strength, bitters do the same for our bodies. If we just stayed at the beach and ate sweets all day we wouldn’t challenge ourselves enough to get stronger and more resilient. Instead we would grow lax and stagnant. Bitters are a positive stressor that we will help us to heal and grow stronger when we take them in more regularly.
This article written by Jon Keyes, Licensed Professional Counselor and herbalist. For more articles like this, please go to www.Hearthsidehealing.com. You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.
Bitter Compounds Decrease Gastric Emptying and Influence Intestinal Nutrient Transport Mani, Hollis and Gabler
BITTERS AND HEART HEALTH: EMERGING RESEARCH Guido Mase
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Bitter Digestive Pastilles: A Convenient Bitters Recipe Rosalee de la Foret
Bitters: A Primal Primer Mark Sisson
The Bitter Truth Eclectic Institute
Blessed Bitters Jim McDonaldFollow me on Instagram