Bitter is the forgotten taste. For most of us, bitter is something we’d prefer to avoid. We use it to describe inclement weather (the “bitter cold”) or an unpleasant person (“That guy sure is bitter.”). So why is the flavor of bitter so important for us?
There are 5 flavors that we mainly talk about – sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. Many traditional cultures believe that all 5 of these flavors should be incorporated regularly in our diet and that each has a different effect on the body. Bitter is associated with our digestive system (although scientists are now finding that we also have “bitter receptor” or T2R cells in the liver, respiratory tissues, breast cells, and even the brain). T2R cells would be a fascinating topic, but let’s focus on digestion here. Bitters get the digestive system excited and ready for action. And that action is, of course, appropriately and efficiently dealing with the complex food coming its way. In response, secretions are stimulated – saliva, acids, enzymes including pancreatic enzymes, hormones, bile – which are all part of breaking down food for absorption. When we have all of these secretions active it helps to keep the valves between areas of the gut closed. As a result, food is completely digested. In other words, bitters improve your digestion. We recommend them to many patients and with the right combination of therapies have seen it help enormously with everything from slow digestion to heartburn.
A lovely little company that I’ve recently come to know called Urban Moonshine makes some really great bitters.
They have summed up the benefits of bitters very nicely in the following list:
- Curbs sugar cravings
- Soothes gas and bloating
- Relieves occasional heartburn
- Encourages digestive enzyme, bile & HCl production
- Calms upset stomach & nausea
- Helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels
- Balances appetite
- Supports liver function and healthy skin
Most, if not all of us, could use some digestive support. One of the easiest ways to do this is to incorporate bitters into our diets.
There are a variety of ways to do this.
There is a tradition of serving a salad or cocktail before a big meal. Well, these aren’t just for giggles (I’m thinking cocktail more than salad- though a good salad will put me in a pretty good mood). Salads should include some bitter greens like chicory, dandelion, arugula, radicchio or endive. If you are not used to bitter greens then slowly increase them in proportion to the sweeter lettuces. You could also just chew on a kale leaf or a dandelion green from your yard (as long as it has not been hit with herbicide/pesticide or a stray cat’s statement). A cocktail, or apértif, should have a bitter quality to it like Campari or Cynar.
As mentioned above, you can also find bitters in a bottle created by herbalists and found in herb stores or natural food markets. A few formulas that I like (no affiliation) are made by Wise Woman, Herb Pharm and Urban Moonshine. For a non-alcoholic aperitif add ¼ tsp bitters to ½ tsp sparkling water. You can also take bitter directly into the mouth or on the tongue. And if you forget to take your bitters before your meal then just take them in the same way during or after a meal.
You do need to be somewhat careful about what kind of bitters you use. For example, the common “Swedish bitters” contain herbs that we can become dependent on so use with caution if you have regular constipation (another good reason to schedule a visit to your Naturopathic Doctor). Also, pregnancy and lactation are contraindications to using (most) bitters because of some of the herbs used most commonly gentian and angelica. (By the way, appropriately prescribed Naturopathic treatments and/or acupuncture can help to relieve many pregnancy related conditions including heartburn – speaking from personal experience!)
I would feel remiss if I did not mention apple cider vinegar. While a sour rather than a bitter, apple cider vinegar also gives us that pucker and “primes the pump” in a way similar to bitters. Getting that pucker can be accomplished by eating pickled veges before a meal (my grandma always insisted on a relish tray with the Thanksgiving meal) or by drinking apple cider vinegar in some water about 15-20 minutes before eating. I prefer the kind with the “mother” or murky bits, in the bottom of the bottle. About 1 Tbl or so vinegar in a few oz of water will do. As with bitters, don’t dilute it too much – you want that pucker.
Yours in Health,