Jun 062008

Up until this point, I’ve kept my terms of the trade series very short and to the point. I’m afraid that this post breaks that trend a bit, leaning more towards the long-winded. The thing is, bitters are some of our most effective and widely applicable medicines. They are also easy to come buy and simple to integrate into our lives. The longstanding popularity of proprietary bitter formulas bespeaks the usefulness of such preparations.

Very simply, a bitter is an herb with a predominantly bitter taste, and the activation of that taste in the mouth stimulates the secretion of digestive juices throughout the body. By necessity then, bitters must be tasted in order work their magic.

Bitters stimulate the activity of the digestive organs, triggering or increasing the flow of acids and juices, releasing enzymes and generally improving both appetite and digestion. Many bitters are especially efficient at increasing the metabolism of fats and proteins. However, bitters do not just stimulate digestion, they also tighten/tone the mucosa.

It is overwhelmingly common in our culture to suffer from insufficient amounts of digestive fluids (including acids, biles and enzymes) resulting in nutrient malapsorbtion, chronic digestive infections and syndromes such as heartburn and reflux that many people associate with too much stomach acid. Lowered gastric secretion also significantly contributes to gut inflammation and thus food intolerances and allergies.

Many schools of traditional medicine view the stomach and digestive functions as the center of health and vitality. If the digestive fire is low, then the whole organism will suffer and there will be a cascade effect throughout the body. For the immune system to work properly, our digestive system must be working properly. All parts and functions of the body are connected and interdependent but the digestion, and thus the metabolism, are the core from which all wellness flows.

In Traditional Western Herbalism, bitters are especially associated with the liver. Indeed, the bitter taste can both stimulate and cool the liver (and gallbladder), often significantly improving poor digestion directly related to a sluggish or damp liver by increasing hepatic tone and bile flow. Chronic hepatitis is almost always benefited by the use of appropriate bitters as both herbs and food. And on another level, certain kinds of anger (usually outbursts of reactionary anger) can be cooled by a good dose of bitters.

The pancreas is also directly effected by bitters, and they help regulate the secretion of pancreatic hormones. Additionally, they can be very helpful in the modulation of blood sugar and insulin. In close relationship to the effects on both the liver and pancreas, bitter herbs and foods can often dramatically help the irritability, bloating, moodiness and digestive upset of PMS.

Where there is depression with feelings of sluggishness bitters can help by clearing removing and stagnation in the tissues. Bitters also clear heat (inflammation) and infection from the tissues. Strong bitters such as Oregon Grape Root and Rue have a long reputation for eradicating bacterial infection and general inflammation in the body.

In general, bitters move energy in the body, usually in a downwards motion. It is especially efficient at releasing heat, dampness and phlegm down and out of the organism. Bitters have long been broadly classified as cooling (likely because of their anti-inflammatory action) but in actuality they range all the way cold to hot.Regarding humidity, they tend towards a drying and reducing action, although there are mucilaginous bitters such as Fenugreek. The downward movement can help facilitate a sense of groundedness as long as the drying properties are not excessive for the individual. Where there is constitutional dryness I would recommend either formulating a blend that also nourishes the vital fluids or picking a single bitter herb that also has demulcent properties.

As with all herbs, not all bitters are appropriate for all people, but food-like mild bitters are beneficial to just about everyone. Traditional diets of wild foods usually, if not always, included significant portions of bitter greens, roots and seeds.

Therapeutically and practically, I would suggest that most people use bitters before meals either as salad greens or as an elixir or tincture of some kind. Bitter roots like Calamus or Angelica can also be chewed before and after eating. Many people even find that when they’re craving sweets, a hit of bitterness will help them move through that, and fulfill whatever bodily need was causing it.

We Westerners don’t usually care much for the taste of bitter foods likely because of the utter dearth of it in modern diets . I used to HATE bitter tastes, I wouldn’t even eat Dandelion or Mustard greens, they literally made me gag. I had SUCH a thing for sweets and couldn’t abide the bitter. Turns out bitter was just what I needed. I can’t even begin to emphasize what an important part of my digestive and emotional recovery it has been and continues to be. You should have seen me trying to get them down in the beginning, I made some awful faces. Now I actually love them, and think salad is really weird without some bitter greens. It really can be a learned taste, especially once the body recognizes that, wow, this is exactly what it’s been looking for.

6-7-08 Addendum: Some bitters (like Dandelion) are diuretic enough to trigger low blood pressure in sensitive individuals, in which case something like Oregon Grape Root may be more appropriate.

Bitter (and Alterative) differentials coming soon!



The Earthwise Herbal Vol. 1 by Matthew Wood
The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood
Medical Herbalism by David Hoffmann
Combining Western Herbs and Chinese Medicine by Jeremy Ross
Personal and forum correspondence with jim mcdonald
Bitters thread on the Herbwifery Forum

  12 Responses to “Terms of the Trade 4: Bitters”

  1. There is one bitter herb that is widely used in mainstream western culture: coffee. I would love for you to expound a bit on the digestive effects of coffee.

    Personally, I have progressed from caffeine addiction into a digestive addiction to coffee. Although I can tolerate caffeine withdrawal, my gut feels “off” for a long time without coffee.

  2. Hi Matt… yes, you’re right, coffee is likely western culture’s most popular (and abused) bitter. For some people, especially those without pre-existing adrenal burnout, coffee can actually be a very helpful beverage for digestion and new evidence even indicates that it may be useful in the treatment of insulin resistance.

    Have you tried substituting some bitter herb, food or beverage for your normal coffee to see if that, in itself, would normalize your digestion? If so, you have a simple fix if you’d like to get away from coffee.

    Coffee is specifically an aromatic bitter with warming energy… Hoptree (Ptelea) while tasting nothing like coffee (besides being an aromatic bitter) and lacking any stimulant qualities can help the digestion in a potentially similar way.

  3. I’ll disagree with you on the “dandelion leaf or burdock root is a good bitter for anybody”.

    1) both are too diuretic for anybody with low blood pressure:
    Low blood pressure + dandelion or burdock = fainting spells … not my idea of a Good Thing.

    Especially as the leaf of dandelion (and burdock) is even MORE diuretic than the root of either, which makes it very diuretic indeed.

    2) burdock root isn’t bitter, it’s very very sweet. It’s one of my fav roots (although difficult to dig) – but of course, it will pull that low blood pressure even lower.

  4. Hmm, you think that dandy leaf even in food is too diuretic? I’d have definitely thought so in medicine or beverage, but didn’t think anyone could reasonably consume enough to actually lower the blood pressure.

    With burdock, I have noted that burdock root of commerce tends to be fairly sweet with a bitter aftertaste, but much wild burdock i’ve tasted (at least in the SW) is pretty bitter (but so are lots of things in the SW that aren’t other places). The blood pressure thing still applies of course.

    Hmm, I’ll edit accordingly…. Thanks for the note.

    Glad to know you’re still reading. πŸ™‚

  5. Aye, dandy leaf is the most diuretic herb you’ll find, hands-down – except perhaps for burdock leaf, which is a bitter, too, and which is just about as diuretic as dandy leaf.

    So make a dandy leaf salad and count how many of those you serve it to have to excuse themselves within the next 1.5 hours. That’s your diuretic index, and dandy’ll beat them all.

    (Of course I’m still reading. I’m too busy to write to my own blog, though, and my current setup isn’t all that blog-update-friendly, and I feel I’ve said quite a lot already so finding new things to blog about isn’t easy anymore — you, however, should pretty please keep writing!)

  6. LOL, I guess I pee so much from my normal kidney deficiency issues (mostly when I fail to take my nettle seeds and oregon grape root) that I hardly notice the dandelion leaf effect when eating them (in infusion though? that’s a whole ‘nother story, peeing every ten minutes for the next two hours is downright annoying). That great though, the Salad Diuretic Index… you should do a post about that.

    Phooey though, I like my dandy leaf, but I DON’T enjoy the low blood pressure whatsoever (half a lifetime of periodic passing has left me with little tolerance for it either). All of this must be added to the ongoing bitter/alterative differentials I’m working on.

    I DO miss your posts though I know you’re very busy. I’m glad you’re around on the herblist and herbwifery forum though!

    And thank you, that does mean an awful lot coming from you!

  7. Do you have any tips for helping my picky eaters enjoy bitters? My husband believes that healthy = bad tasting. My four-year-old used to eat a varied diet, but over the past year she has developed a sensitivity to certain flavors and textures. She’ll eat the occasional raw leaf, but if I cook up a mess of greens, she won’t even look at them.

  8. […] already discussed some of the benefits and actions of bitters in a previous post, and here I want to provide some hints on telling when a particular plant might […]

  9. Germany and I immagine much of Europe has bitters in bottles. My mother-in-law had over 40 bottles (many of them large) of different types of bitters from the German speaking areas of Europe, including north Italy, that she never used. I don’t know why she bought them and never used them. There is a large supply of health bitters on hand, if you feel the need, and are willing to search. If you do, get bath oils too.
    This has been a very good article. I can now find my elbow with both hands. Thanks.

  10. Glad you enjoyed it Bill!

    I tend to think the homemade bitters will be better than the pre-packaged ones (and cheaper too) but I’m glad they’re available to the general public.

  11. […] I understand that we would do well to eat more bitters. I wonder if it could help us spiritually, as […]

  12. Hi Kiva,

    Great article, as always. πŸ™‚ I have a really bad constitutional dryness (high vata constitution) and so even though I actually enjoy bitters (as food), I am not able to incorporate them in my diet. You mention fenugreek as an example of a demulcent bitter. Are there any others that I could potentially use?

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