Once upon a time, humans ate a diverse array of bitter leaves and roots from the wild plants surrounding us. We enjoyed the benefits of their vitamin and mineral content, fiber, antioxidants, prebiotics-- and also their bitter constituents. In fact, our gastrointestinal system (and several other systems) developed a complex relationship with bitterness over time, and came to depend on this flavor for healthy functioning.
As humans are wont to do, we believed we could "improve" upon these wild plants. Agriculture now produces greens that have lost most or all of their bitter flavor, and are more tender and juicy (i.e. watery). As sometimes happens with human "advancements," research now suggests that we would have been better off leaving the bitterness in those greens alone.
Ask any herbalist to describe the effects of bitterness on the body, and s/he will offer a laundry list of gastrointestinal benefits. Simply tasting bitterness on our tongue gears our bodies up for effective digestion. It triggers salivation, important for digesting carbohydrates. In the stomach, the secretion of pepsin and HCl are stimulated, ensuring that our "digestive fire" is stoked, and that we have adequate stomach acid to break down proteins and kill pathogens. Digestive secretions from the pancreas, and bile from the gallbladder, are also revved. Bile works like detergent on dietary fats; it breaks lipids into smaller, more manageable particles for the gastrointestinal tract to handle, and allows fats to be better absorbed and metabolized. Finally, bitters stimulate peristalsis in the small intestines, encouraging healthy movement and excretion of waste. Improved breakdown and absorption of nutrients means we are getting more out of our food.
New research is demonstrating that the benefits of bitters go deeper. In this excellent article, Clinical herbalist Guido Mase, Director of the Vermont School for Integrative Herbalism, reports bitters' role in healthy blood glucose levels, appetite regulation, weight management, cardiovascular health and more.
The receptors in our body that respond to bitterness are called T2R receptors. T2R stimulation has been shown to slow down the movement of digested material through the GI tract. This slower delivery of carbohydrates to the intestines results in feeling full longer, and helps to moderate blood sugar spikes after meals.
"Unlike most stimulus/receptor pairs in human physiology, the expression of T2Rs increases (to a point) the more stimulus is presented: that is, the more we taste bitter, the more we are able to experience its effects" and grow more sensitive to its flavor (Mase). Research shows that women and kids have significantly lower rates of obesity when they perceive higher levels of bitterness. Individuals with greater bitter sensitivity also have improved blood sugar control. Interestingly, those who have systemic inflammation are more likely to detest the taste of bitters-- but would often greatly benefit from their effects (Mase).
Bitters are typically taken just before meals. This may mean adding bitter dandelion or arugula greens to salad, drinking dandelion or chicory root tea in the morning, etc. According to clinical herbalist Thomas Easley, Director of the Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine, a taste of alcohol can have a stimulating effect on digestion as well. For this reason, he likes digestive bitters in the form of alcohol-based tinctures. A good bitters formula generally contains a strong bitter or two (ex. gentian, wormwood, motherwort), plus nutritive bitters rich in prebiotics (ex. dandelion root and/or leaf, burdock root, chicory root). I like adding aromatic digestive aids like orange peel, angelica (a bitter aromatic), ginger and/or fennel.
Did you know that you can easily make quality herbal tinctures in your kitchen? Check out the tincture making class coming up at beHealthy next month if you'd like to learn more.
Bitters are good for nearly everyone. Our bodies are "designed" for them.
The beautiful thing about bitters is that a very small dose will do the job. 15 drops of a bitters tincture on the tongue isn't enough to be a concern as far as herb-drug interactions, for the vast majority of folks. (Talk to a practitioner to confirm this.) Individuals who might be advised against bitters include those with extremely dry constitutions, or those with serious liver diseases who are working on nourishing (not stimulating) the liver, and regenerating liver cells.
Mase, Guido. "Herbal bitters: their role in appetite regulation, blood glucose management, and obesity." 2015. www.americanherbalistsguild.com/sites/default/files/bitters-mase-2015_1.pdf