Updated: Jan 26
You're probably thinking - what is she talking about - let's get bitter?! It truly isn't as ominous as it sounds. In this case bitters can be the key to a happy, healthy New Year. Each year we have people come into Tilia telling us about their plans to do a detox; a juice cleanse; a radical diet plan; ... we're sure you get the idea. While most of these plans aren't inherently bad they tend to be quick fixes that people find hard to maintain. If you want good health you have to focus on your digestion by doing one thing - getting bitter.
You often hear people say that they love sweet foods or salty foods but rarely do you hear people claiming affection for bitter foods. More's the pity because bitter tasting foods and herbs are so important to our overall health. If you have anxiety issues, menopause symptoms, digestive problems or a host of other health concerns…then you need to consider getting bitter!
Bitters are a diverse group of chemical compounds that share the common characteristic of a bitter taste. Bitters can be used to strengthen and improve the whole digestive system in the body as well as the nervous system. They also act to increase the vital energy centres in the body. Because they have such a broad effect on the entire physiology, tone, and function of the body, bitters can be used to treat the body as a whole and the beneficial effects of bitters go beyond digestive hormone activity. Bitter stimulation can often shift a condition or illness that does not appear to have anything to do with the digestive process. The bitter principal acts to increase self-healing and resistance in many ways.
To be effective bitters must come in direct contact with the taste buds of the tongue where they stimulate the part of the tongue that recognizes their properties and as a result increases salivation. This stimulates the gastric reflex to cause digestive juices to be secreted. There is increased flow of digestive juices from the pancreas, duodenum, and liver that results in better assimilation of nutrients and less undigested food being passed through the digestive tract. This is of benefit to problems that have their basis in inefficient or allergy distorted digestion.
What Bitters Can Do for You
Bitters act to increase or stabilize the appetite. In general, there is a stimulation of the appetite which is important in conditions of convalescence and where there is otherwise a reduction of appetite. Bitters do not seem to increase appetite in a person with a healthy digestion, rather a more healthful balance in the appetite develops. The body acquires more taste for healthy foods and less taste for unhealthy foods.
When bitters activate the gastric secretion of hydrochloric acid and other digestive enzymes, the nerve tone of the muscles of the entire digestive tract improves. Blood circulation improves and the body can assimilate foods, absorb nutrients, and eliminate wastes more efficiently. In a broader way, this improvement in blood circulation affects the healthy activity of the heart and circulation in general.
When an individual's digestion is not working properly the common symptoms are constipation, gas, bloating, aches and pains in the digestive area and diarrhea. But it can go beyond these “first-line” symptoms. When our digestion is not at optimum potential, our energy suffers, and we feel really tired; also, we may have aches or pains because of metabolic byproducts that are not being properly eliminated. We might experience symptoms of allergy, such as diarrhea or fatigue because of undigested proteins that can become allergens to us. Also, when our assimilation of nutrients is not good, especially if this goes on for more than a few months or even years, our immune system can suffer drastically. We may be more open to a variety of viral and other diseases, such as chronic fatigue syndrome or candidiasis.
Some of the Health Benefits of Bitters
Bitters stimulate the liver to do a more effective cleansing and detoxifying job and prompt the gallbladder to make bile. The production of bile helps metabolize fats and keeps elimination moving smoothly. Bitters also stimulate a diuretic and hepatic effect in the body. This has value when working with any condition that has origins in a sluggish or overworked liver. Gentle but effective herbs such as burdock and chicory are very effective in cleansing the body and improving liver and gallbladder function.
left: Burdock (Arctium lappa) right: Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
Bitters produce a regulatory effect on the secretion of the pancreas of the hormones that regulate blood sugar: insulin and glucagon. This can be of benefit in stabilizing insulin levels and modulating blood sugar swings. Herbs such as dandelion root and bitter melon can be very useful in supporting healthy pancreatic function.
left: Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) right: Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia)
Bitters can also be supportive in reducing stress and anxiety and regenerating the nervous system. When bitters work to strengthen digestion this activates the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system and induces a more relaxed state in the body. Bitters can be useful with those who are overextended and stressed out. Bitters produce subtle, beneficial psychological effects. In some cases they can produce a marked antidepressant effect and a “general tonic effect upon consciousness.” Mild bitters such as chamomile and strong bitters such as gentian root are great choices for helping with relaxing the digestive component of stress issues.
Chamomile (Chamaemelum spp.) Gentian (Gentiana lutea)
Bitters can be useful during menopause as the liver is working overtime to process all the extra hormones the body must deal with during this time. If you are taking any kind of external hormone products, this is even more true. Sometimes this is so much extra work that the liver isn’t able to break down all the hormones and utilize them effectively. Bitter herbs such as motherwort and mugwort are especially useful during this time as they support both the liver and hormonal function.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
Bitter herbs can modulate the gut associated immune responses. In some therapeutic circles bitters are indicated for treatment of those recovering from infectious diseases including viral conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome. Some clinical tests have shown that bitters can decrease levels of sIgA antibodies and reduce or eliminate symptoms in those with inflammatory bowel disease. Bitters may help repair gut wall damage through stimulating self-repair mechanisms. Herbs such as echinacea and calendula are bitters that help with the immune response and heal tissue.
left: Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) right: Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
So, Which Herbs Are Bitters Exactly?
We've named a few, but you might be surprised at just how many herbs obtain a bitter component. Bitters range in effect from mild bitters like chamomile to intense bitters like wormwood or gentian. Many, many herbs have a bitter principal in them but some important bitter herbs include: peppermint, calendula, dandelion, artichoke leaf, blessed thistle, angelica, motherwort, wormwood, bitter orange peel, lemon peel, gentian root, centaury root, mugwort, goldenseal, ginger, cascara, devil’s claw, tarragon, hops, boneset, barberry, echinacea, chamomile, yarrow, horehound, wild lettuce, yellow dock, ginkgo, Oregon grape root and tansy. If you're not sure where to start we are happy to help find the perfect combination for your body's composition.
With the holidays just ending an a new year upon us, now is an important time to consider using bitters for optimum health. At Tilia we have a range of digestive bitter formulations to choose from, so stop by and talk with use about how we can help you “get bitter” this year!
All material contained herein is provided for general information purposes only and should not be considered medical advice or consultation. Contact a reputable healthcare practitioner if you are in need of medical care.