I’ve always been a fan of bitters; my taste-buds appreciate the wake-up call, my belly the appetite stimulation. I have taken them from time to time, and felt they were effective. Until this morning, I never gave them my undying support much thought…until I read in Simon Mills’ The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine that bitters may not be indicated in cold conditions or people. I am a cold person (just listen to my screaming boyfriend when I crawl into bed at night and lay my icy paws on his back), and here I have been using bitters the whole while! After some investigation, I have found that aromatic digestives (sometimes simply referred to as aromatics) are indicated for cold people and conditions like myself. Aromatics will be discussed in the next post.
Mills (226) states that bitters are indicated for hot conditions, such as liver conditions like jaundice and food/drug toxicity, gall-bladder disease, poor digestion, food intolerances, “chronic inflammatory diseases of the skin, joints, vascular system and bowel, migrainous headaches and fevers”, and blood-sugar regulation.
Bitters work quickly through stimulation of the taste buds that seconds later trigger gastrin secretion, which is why they are effective as in cooling hot conditions (430). Since bitters stimulate bile, and bile your body’s natural laxative, some bitters are gently stimulating laxatives. Here is Mills’ description of the bitter action (321):
“Comprised chemically of the most diverse array of molecular structures, the bitter principles have in common the ability to stimulate the bitter receptors inside the mouth, and thus evoke the taste of bitterness. Unlike other taste effects that of bitter stimulation seems to involve no electrical event on the surface of the cells: the conclusion is that each bitter molecule acts on cell membrane receptors to produce intercellular biochemical change. The immediate result is a rise in the concentration of calcium within the cell: this is likely to initiate the signal to the gustatory nerve.”
For the chemistry geeks out there, a group of terpenoids include most of the bitters. They are iridoids (gentian, dandelion, wild lettuce, valerian), sesquiterpenes (Artemisias, blessed thistle, gingko), diterpene (white horehound, Curcubitacea), and some alkaloids (coffee, goldenseal, quinine) (321-2).
Just a few bitters:
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a digestive and hepatic (liver) tonic. The leaves are nature’s perfect diuretic as it contains a large amount of potassium and well suited for edema but will not strain the heart, and the root is a mild laxative and detoxifier (434).
Gentian (Gentaina lutea) is an important bitter as it stimulates digestion and has an anti-inflammatory action. It is used “as a foundation for any prescription seeking to use the cooling, drying, and digestive stimulant effects” that may be present in inflammatory conditions (435).
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is a bitter with a warm temperament. When I first purchased wormwood and brewed a cup on an chilly Minnesota spring day, I took two extremely bitter sips and felt a welcomed long-lasting warmth spread through my body and last the rest of the day. It is so bitter as well as astringent that its acrid constituents actually raises the temperature. As it name implies, it is useful for purging parasites, but let’s focus on wormwood as a bitter. Used for gastrointestinal infections, inadequate stomach acid, colic, and spasmodic dsymenarrhea, wormwood has been quite effective (438).
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is one of the most healing and astringent remedies to the gut wall and other irritated mucosal linings, and is a bitter digestive stimulant and cholagogue (liver stimulant) (440). “Dyspepsia with hepatic symptoms [is seen as] the main indication for using goldenseal”, as it is a strong bitter (441).
Anyone who has tried a tripled-hopped beer can attest to hops’ (Humulus luplus) bitterness…and also to its relaxing qualities. Hops has a relaxing effect on the nervous system similar to chamomile, as well as tension-related indigestion (it’s tannins lend their astringency quite nicely here) and headaches (Hoffmann, New Holistic Herbal 206). Hops can be useful in upper-digestive infections, irritable bowl syndrome, Crohn’s or diverticulitis, nervous coughs, palpitations, nervous dyspepsia or “whenever there are signs of visceral tension in the body” (460), so long as it is indicated. Would one use hops with watery loose, stools? I would say not.
A gentle and sometimes forgotten bitter is cold chamomile (Matricaria recutita) tea. Another visceral relaxant with bitter properties. Chamomile is great for children–indeed some of it’s best uses are for anxiety, teething pain, colic, and sleeplessness. Chamomile beautifully and subtly combines its calming and bitter qualities; it both calms the gut wall (useful for nervous digestion) and stimulates digestion, bile flow and pancreatic action (454-5).
Rue (Ruta graveolens) combines anti-spasmodic and bitter properties like chamomile, but not so sweetly. Don’t get me wrong, rue is a very nice plant, it is just very bitter in the cup. Hoffmann suggests using it for relaxing smooth muscles “especially in the digestive system where it will ease griping and bowl tension” (229). It is known to bring on suppressed menstruation. I have no experience of using is as a woman herb…have any of you used it as such?
That is just the beginning to bitter herbs. Try them where indicated, enjoy the peace in the belly that may follow.