Terms of the Trade 4: Bitters
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