Bitters are some of the simplest, oldest, and most effective of herbal remedies. Bitters are simply herbs with a strongly bitter taste. Once upon a time, much of our food was on the bitter side. Wild greens, wild berries, wild vegetables usually range in taste from slightly bitter to very bitter indeed. We developed an ability to handle those foods and our digestive responses have not yet adapted to changes that agriculture favoring plants with a sweeter taste has brought about. Today our foods usually range in taste from slightly sweet to very sweet, and most of us need bitters more than ever before to balance all the sweetness in our diet.
We also often live in the midst of emotional stress that affects our digestion. In stress, we do not secrete the saliva that contains carbohydrate-digesting enzymes. We do not secrete stomach acid, bile or pancreatic enzymes. Instead blood is diverted from the intestinal tract to our muscles. We are ready for physical exertion and are not prepared to digest food. Nonetheless, many of us cope with our anger, anxiety, and fear by eating. For obvious reasons, we do a poor job of digesting our food under those circumstances. This leads to many digestive issues ranging from simple indigestion (with burping and farting the most usual expressions), to dyspepsia, heart burn, and a variety of intestinal disorders.
Our bodies respond immediately to the taste of food. If we taste sweet we begin to secrete insulin. A bitter taste triggers a more complex chain reaction. First, by reflex, we begin to secrete saliva and salivary enzymes. This reflex overrides the effect of adrenalin. Digestive secretions begin flowing. If you take some bitters 10-15 minutes before eating, you will have more stomach acid to greet the food you eat. The bitter taste nudges the liver into action and gets bile flowing. Suddenly, you are more able to properly digest your food.
And the effect of bitters goes beyond improving digestion. Over time, bitter formulas can improve heart function, strengthen nerves, and stimulate appetite. Bitters are useful in many, varied digestive disorders. They can provide substantial relief to those who do not digest fats or proteins well, who get nauseous after eating, or who have lost their appetite. Of course, bitters are not for everyone. People with red, pointy tongues usually will not benefit from them. In contrast, those with whitish coated tongues often benefit greatly. Because bitters stimulate the secretion of stomach acid they may be the wrong remedy for those with hyperacidity. However, frequently people who are eating improperly (that is eating under stress or not eating many bitter greens) actually do not secrete enough stomach acid when they eat and oversecrete in between meals. Those individuals can be greatly helped by bitters despite appearing to have too much stomach acid.
Bitters come in three forms: Simple bitters, aromatic bitters, and pungent bitters. The best known bitter is gentian (Gentiana spp.). This plant has a lovely blue flower and contains a very bitter chemical. Wires are coated with a synthetic version of that chemical to discourage rats from gnawing on them.
Aromatic bitters have volatile oils that help relieve intestinal spasms, flatulence, and more strongly stimulate the liver. They tend to provide greater digestive relief but lack the tonic effect of the simple bitters. An example is angelica (Angelica archangelica) root, a common ingredient in many liqueurs. Wild candytuft (Iberis amara) is an aromatic bitter that in formulas has research showing it to help irritable bowel syndrome symptoms.
Finally, there are the pungent or warming bitters such as ginger (Zingiber officinale). Ginger is often used when nausea is a dominant symptom.
For many individuals, simply working more leafy greens (with their moderate bitterness) and spices like ginger and turmeric into the diet will suffice to maintain proper digestion. But in others, herbal bitters provide a remarkable, simple, and safe remedy. They are fabulous for those who tend to have dry skin, are slightly constipated, tend to maintain their blood sugar levels by eating simple sweet foods (as opposed to fatty sweet foods), often have a coated tongue, and tend not to especially like meals heavy in fats and proteins. As we age, digestive problems often appear and bitters are usually a safe, inexpensive, and useful way to help us digest and absorb nutrients in our food.
Recently I have been making bitters to add some flavor to my mineral water. My latest mixture combines rhubarb stalks, orange peel, and fresh ginger steeped in alcohol for a few weeks. There are many interesting recipes on the internet to explore but, if you do, be sure to skip the ones that add sugar, honey, or agave nectar. These are to be bitter extracts not liqueurs.
Photograph: Chinese kid by oenvoyage
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