Bitter herbs: Is Bitter Better?

Pucker up: What are bitter herbs and how can they help?

Bitter: Is it actually better? Bitter is one of the five tastes mapped on our tongues, others include sweet, salty, sour, and umami (savory).  We’ve all experienced the taste of bitter—your eyes may start to water, your lips pucker and you run for the nearest glass of water!

Everyone will have a different tolerance to each taste due to the individual composition of taste buds we all have.

The more papillae on our tongues (the fancy word for the small bumps you see on the surface of your tongue), the more sensitive you are to all the flavours.

Each individual is different and a range of cultural, environmental, and genetic factors will contribute to each person’s perception of bitterness.

Why are plants bitter?

Bitterness in plants developed as a protective mechanism for evolving humans.  Many bitter plants were toxic thus, it was a protective mechanism for the nomadic groups that came into contact with the vast varieties of plants.  Over time, humans have acquired a selective tolerance for compounds found in bitter tasting, nutritional plant foods.

There are specific compounds in plants that contribute to the bitter property, thus triggering the bitter receptors at the back of our tongues.  These molecular compounds include monoterpenes, iridoids, sequiterpenes, and alkaloids (Hoffman, 2003).

Now, you may be surprised to hear that these compounds are actually beneficial to the body, specifically, the digestive and hepatic system.

The sensation of bitterness on the tongue is carried by the nerves to the central nervous system and the gut, giving rise to the release of a digestive hormone called gastrin.  This begins the cascade of favourable effects that add value to the digestive process (Hoffman, 2003).

What are the specific effects that bitters have on the body?

  • Stimulate appetite
  • Stimulate the release of saliva and digestive juices from the pancreas, duodenum, and liver to aid in optimal digestion
  • Aid in liver detoxification work and increase the flow of bile (Bile is necessary for the proper digestion of fat and for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins)
  • Help regulate secretion of pancreatic hormones which play a critical role in the regulation of insulin, blood sugar, and glucagon
  • The stimulation of bile helps to regulate bowel movements thus, bitters can aid in the relief of constipation when used routinely
  • Help repair and restore the gut wall and any existing damage by stimulating self-repair mechanisms (Hoffman, 2003)

Who should not take bitter herbs?

The following are general indications for bitter herbs.  A qualified Herbalist should first be consulted before engaging in any herbal medicine protocol.

The application of herbs is specific to each individual and any current health issues must first be taken into account before herbal prescription is deemed appropriate.

Similar to drugs, if used incorrectly herbs can evoke unpleasant side effects, and many herbs have the potential to interact with drugs.  Do not use bitters in the following conditions:

  • Pregnancy
  • Kidney stones
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Dysmenorrhea
  • GERD (Reflux)
  • Hiatus hernia
  • Gastritis
  • Peptic ulcer

How can I add bitters into my diet?  Do bitter foods have the same effect?

Bitter herbal tonic formulas can be prepared by a qualified Herbalist and clients are advised to take the assigned dose 10-15 minutes prior to heavy meals, especially meals rich in protein, as bitter herbs help to aid in the proper breakdown of protein in the body.

The best way to incorporate bitter foods into the diet is adding bitter, nutrient dense leafy greens to your salads.  These include chicory, dandelion greens, mustard greens, arugula, endive, and radicchio.

These colourfully wonderful additions can be commonly found at your local farmers’ market and also provide a vast array of vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium and vitamin C.

A great combination is fig, macadamia, feta and arugula salad, topped with a turmeric, tahini, lemon, and raw honey, homemade dressing—you can’t go wrong with this sensational salad!

Amanda Harasym

Naturopath, Nutritionist, Herbalist


Michael Hoffman: Medical Herbalism (2003).

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