Humans are capable of discerning 5 tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami.
As we all know, the modern day diet is lavishly laden with sweet and salty foods – we seem to be forgetting about one of our fundamental (and functional) tastes: Bitter. Many of us regard the taste of bitter as …yuk! We scrunch up our faces and reach for something to wash it down with. But bitter foods have a rich history, especially in the healing arts.
They are extremely useful medicinally and many cultures still revere bitter foods, wines and elixirs as an effective remedy for a range of ailments, as well as an essential part of a healthy diet.
It all centres around digestive health:
In a nutshell, the benefits of bitters are due to one main action: Their the ability to ‘kickstart’ digestion.
By stimulating digestive secretions the functioning of the entire gastrointestinal tract becomes more efficient. Starting right from the mouth – bitter constituents stimulate taste receptors and the vagus nerve which increases saliva production (think about what happens in your mouth when you taste something bitter). This has a knock-on effect throughout the digestive tract; stimulating the release of the acids, enzymes and hormones from the stomach, pancreas, liver, as well as bile from the gall bladder. These digestive juices are needed for the breakdown and absorption of nutrients from our food. Just 1tsp of bitters, or a lovely bowl of bitter green leaves before a meal has the ability to prime and prepare your body for the process of digestion.
You may find bitters beneficial if you suffer from some of the following symptoms:
1. Constipation, pain and bloating: If you feel full and bloated shortly after eating you may have issues with not digesting properly. Getting your digestive juices working properly before a meal makes for more efficient digestion; and therefore less chance for fermentation of food in the bowel (and painful bloating!).
2. Occasional heartburn/reflux: Bitters my help to alleviate symptoms of reflux by improving lower oesophageal sphincter tone and stimulation of gastric emptying.
3. Support healthy liver function: Most bitter tasting herbs are also great for liver. The liver is the unsung hero of the body – performing so many vital functions. Bitters stimulate production of bile from the liver. Bile is stored and released from the gall bladder, and carries the toxic load from liver to be excreted. Bile salts are an essential step in the emulsification, breakdown, and absorption of fats (including essential fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, K). This may be significantly beneficial for people who have difficulty digesting a fatty meal, and help to lower high cholesterol.
5. Skin irritation: Due to the liver action, bitters have the ability to ease inflammatory conditions on the skin (eczema/psoriasis) caused by digestive problems.
6. Gut dysbiosis: The extremely acidic environment of the stomach is an important line of defence for the body. Bitters help to maintain the hydrochloric acid secretions in the stomach, which kill off many potentially harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi we may be ingesting – helping out our friendly gut flora further down the intestine and colon.
7. Hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid): We need this acid in order to absorb many nutrients. If you are seeing undigested food in your stool, have bloating or reflux after a meal, you may be suffering from hypochlorhydria. Bitters help to increase these acidic gastric secretions.
Fantastic! How do I take them?
Firstly …. you’ve got to taste the bitter:
**When considering herbal medicine, the synergistic actions of the herbs and interactions with medications should be carefully considered. Always consult a Naturopath.
Karen is a Yoga Teacher and a student of Naturopathy. You can currently find her teaching Yoga at The Yoga Social.
The Yoga Social Team