Bitterness. The very word conjures up an emotional response. We use the word bitter or bitterness to describe pain, harshness, or things that are difficult to bear. Bitter is our least favorite flavour, so much so that it has all but disappeared from our North American dinner tables. All over the world however, bitterness is an essential part of eating and digestion. Bitter drinks and herbs are used to strengthen digestion, increase vitality, and cleanse the body. Why is it that we find bitterness to hard to swallow?
Many diseases that are prevalent today—from simple indigestion and gastric reflux (GERD) to metabolic disorders ranging from elevated cholesterol to type 2 diabetes – can benefit from the addition of bitters into the diet.
When the bitter taste is detected on the tongue, it starts a whole cascade of events in the body, all supporting digestion. This bitter reflex strengthens all digestive organs – the liver, stomach, pancreas, gall bladder, etc. Over time with the consumption of bitter foods, the whole digestive process can improve. When the liver is working more efficiently, cholesterol does not accumulate in the gall bladder, carbohydrate metabolism is improved, and toxins are eliminated more readily (as well as a thousand other benefits).
Within 15-30 minutes of tasting a bitter substance, your digestive juices are flowing, your appetite has been stimulated, and your small intestines are already contracting in anticipation of a meal. In your mouth, enzyme rich saliva is produced – the first step in digesting carbohydrates. Gastrin is produced in the stomach, which stimulates the production of hydrochloric acid (stomach acid, or HCl). Sufficient HCl is critical to successful digestion – it facilitates absorption of your minerals, helps to keep us safe from harmful pathogens, and it stimulates the secretion of bile, critical for fat digestion. Interestingly, our stomach acid production diminishes after the age of 40. The symptoms of high stomach acid are similar to the symptoms of low stomach acid, and many people with low stomach acid are prescribed medications that cut down further on acid production, causing major digestive woes. Not only does low stomach acid make for uncomfortable digestion, it also makes it impossible to assimilate the nutrients from our foods efficiently, and opens us up to harmful bacteria taking up residence in our GI tract.
The bitter reflex also stimulates the smooth muscle of the stomach which increases the rate of gastric emptying, meaning that food doesn’t sit and ferment in the gut (leading to bloating and belching). It also contracts the esophageal sphincter, preventing the movement of acidic stomach contents upwards into the esophagus. People with GERD can really be helped by bitters for this reason (though they are often nervous to partake because of a possible increase of stomach acidity). Bitters are also considered to be cooling to the body, meaning that they can help with alleviating inflammatory conditions.
Pretty well all of the clients that I see have digestive difficulties. Good digestion is critical to overall well being. Most “symptoms” can be alleviated by helping a person digest better – headaches, acne, pain, gas and bloating, constipation, etc. I have not yet consulted with a person that does not see significant improvement to digestion simply by taking a digestive bitter prior to eating a meal. That is a big claim, but it is true. Several clients feel that the bitters are “magic”.
Bitter greens like dandelion, endive, kale, radicchio, and mustard greens can be easily added to salads. For many these are new introductions to their meals, however just like adding lettuce to a salad, these bitter components add to the overall nutrient profile and enjoyability of any meal. My Beet, Orange and Radicchio salad is a great way to start enjoying bitter greens!
When introducing the concept of bitters to clients, nine times out of ten I will get the question “does it come in a capsule?”. The answer is a resounding NO. In order for bitters to work, you MUST TASTE them. It is important to hold the bitter liquid in your mouth for 5 seconds in order to stimulate the bitter reflex.
My favorite bitter is Gallexier by Salus. While the first taste can be scary, most report that they enjoy the bitter taste of the tonic, and that the benefits far outweigh any concerns about taste. Another good bitter is Canadian Bitters by St. Francis Herb Farm. Bitters are taken between 15 and 30 minutes prior to starting a meal.
If you have digestive discomforts or digestive disorders that you are struggling to deal with, I would love to help. I have been successful in helping a lot of people with these issues and I can help you. In the meantime, get yourself to a health food store and pick up some bitters. I can almost guarantee that bitters will have an impact for the better on your digestion.