Bitters are a flavour and phytochemical component in foods and herbs that exert a very specific action on the digestive system. It is a taste that is very much lacking in the diet of many in our society today. We have overloaded our taste buds with so many synthetic additives, preservatives and sweeteners that no one likes to taste that bitter flavour anymore, when it’s so crucial to the efficiency of our digestion. Our Digestive systems are at the centre of how we absorb and transform our food into energy and health, so it might be wise to start awakening that side of your taste buds, and here’s why!
On stimulation of the bitter receptors in our tongue, a message is sent to the brain to release a myriad of digestive enzymes from the mouth to the stomach and liver. There is a great affinity to the liver in fact, and bitters have a cooling effect on this organ.
Bitters stimulate the secretion of the hormone gastrin, which regulates the production of gastric acid. Inadequate stomach acid will prevent the uptake of minerals, which will in turn rob the body of essential nutrition needed for wellness, even if those nutrients are being consumed as foods or supplements. Low acid also weakens stomach tissues, and is often the foundational cause of oesophageal reflux, though most people mistakenly believe they have too much acid. As we age and due to stress and eating on the run we have a tendency to produce less stomach acid. This is sometimes remedied by taking supplemental hydrochloric acid or digestive enzymes, but we can also restore bitters to the diet, which will allow the body to produce its own acid, rather than relying on a supplement and allowing bitter deficiency to continue.
Bitters act on both the pancreas and liver/gall bladder, helping to normalize blood sugar and promote the production and release of pancreatic enzymes and bile, which ensure good digestion of fats and oils. From a traditional energetic perspective, the out of balance Liver can be associated with anger and frustration, and bitter herbs are often part of a prescription to help balance this.
So now to the food sources. Chicory, endive, mustard greens, wild dandelion leaves and chickweed are all good bitter foods. One can start with small portions, but an addition of these greens to your meal will get your juices flowing and also provide you with a host of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Just chop them up and add some lemon juice as a small side to your meal. And don’t forget to chew! The receptors in your tongue need to be activated!
Herbal bitters deserve another piece all to themselves, and you can visit your Herbalist to get advice on the right type of bitter for you. There are cooling and warming bitters and they are best prescribed by your Herbalist.