Sometime a Little Bitter Helps

April 27, 2017



The belief that herbal medicine has to taste bad to be effective is not always true.  The spirited flavour of peppermint (Mentha piperita) or the sweetness of liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is both tasty and effective medicine.  However, in the case of a class of herbs called bitters, it is true.

When the bitter flavour mingles with the taste buds on the tongue, it sets in motion a series of physiological responses that enhance the appetite, improves digestion and aids in absorption of nutrients from food. The bitter flavour on the tongue causes the stomach to release gastric juices, opens bile flow from the bile flow and the pancreas to secrete insulin. The bitter flavour does all this stimulating on the part of the nervous system that is responsible for digestion and assimilation of food, the parasympathetic system.

In old herbal terms, bitters are used when the digestion is sluggish. Or in other words, bitters get things flowing.  

Bitter herbs are useful when food sits like a lump in the stomach, causing bloating and constipation. Bitters are effective for those who have no appetite and continue to gain weight. Older folks who have lost their appetite find their appetite with the help of bitter herbs.  At the other end of life’s spectrum, when a baby suffers with colic, mild bitters such as catnip (Cataria nepeta) or chamomile (Matricaria recutita) ease griping pain.

For those recovering from a chronic illness that has depleted the body’s resources, bitter herbs improve the absorption of nutrients from food. This in turn, enhances energy levels and shortens recovery time.

When offering iron rich herbs to those drained by anaemia, a bitter herb in the formula will help the body absorbed iron.

To benefit from all that bitter herbs can do for the digestive system, one does not need to take a large amount of herbs.  All that is necessary is to taste the bitter flavour. Remember the medicine is in the taste. To use bitters to improve digestion, whether 3 months or 90 years old, take a couple of sips of bitter tea 20 minutes before each meal. This primes the digestive system and prepares your body for incoming meal.

Another way to take advantage of the bitter flavour is to have a salad of bitter greens before each meal. This method is particularly effective for those who suffer with bloating and constipation or have no appetite but continue to gain weight. Romaine lettuce is considered a bitter green as are dandelion leaves and endive. Try the salad without a dressing, or use little vinegar and olive oil. Don’t mask the bitter flavour with sweet store bought salad dressings.  

Bitter herbs also have a long history of easing depression which accompanies anxiety. This is because the part of the nervous system that primes the digestive tract, the parasympathetic system, also relaxes the mind. Nature is economical. To digest food well, one needs to be relaxed. The mnemonic

 for the parasympathetic system is “rest and digest”. Bitters, by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, relaxes the mind and improves digestion. A two for one deal, all for a little bit of bitter.

The bitter herbs used to relieve depression and anxiety, are very bitter. Herbalist, actually have a scale which measures a herb’s bitter flavour. The two herbs considered the most bitter are gentian (Gentiana lutea) and wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Wormwood, although other bitters can be used, is the choice herb to relieve depression with anxiety. It is in my opinion that wormwood is the most unpleasant tasting herb. One of my clients complained bitterly about the taste of his medicine that contained wormwood.

“It tastes so bad,” he griped, “it has to work.”  

Fortunately, wormwood is considered a very powerful herb, and one only needs small amount to be effective. Please note, I do not recommend using Wormwood without a herbalist advice, as it has narrow therapeutic range. This means that is has the potential of becoming toxic to the body when overused.

A note of caution, bitters as useful as they are, are not for everyone. If you suffer with a peptic ulcer, bitters can increase the burning sensation and prolong the healing process. Because bitters are used to relieve constipation, avoid them if the bowels are loose.  In pregnancy, avoid herbs that have a strong bitter flavour, like wormwood and gentian.

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