Embrace the Bitter with the Sweet: Helping our Belly Through the Holidays
Bitters have been making a comeback. Hip restaurants and bars are making their own bitter blends, and herb shops, food co-ops and health food stores are stocking up on more bottles. Herbalists have been touting bitters for better health for years because they are so helpful for digestion, and for liver health. But just what exactly is a bitter and what does it do?
The concept is fairly simple at first – “digestive bitters” are herbs that taste bitter. When our taste buds register bitter, it creates a reflex stimulation that “primes the pump” by stimulating digestive secretions to better break down and digest our food. Taking some bitters before a meal increases our ability to assimilate our food, plain and simple. And with the holidays coming up, we can all use a dose of that.
The simplest way to take bitters is by taking a half squirt of an alcohol or vinegar extract directly in your mouth before a big meal. Some say it is actually more effective to taste them for longer, and Guido Mase suggests putting them in some water or soda water and sipping slowly. I still usually opt for the squirt on the tongue method.
Honestly, it’s not as bad as it sounds – the bitter flavor gets a bad rap and the more you taste it the more you get used to it, just like the more you eat vegetables (many of which have some bitter taste to them), the more you enjoy them. So if it’s a stretch at first, don’t worry – You’ll get used to it and even come to enjoy the flavor.
Bitters help prevent digest upset, gas and bloating from poor digestion, and can even prevent the “food coma” that some people get after a meal. They also tighten the sphincter between the stomach and esophagus, so they can help with reflux and GERD. They stimulate the liver to process toxins and cause the gall bladder to secrete more bile so that the bile doesn’t stick around and form gallstones. And besides all that, they are a good gentle laxative.
They can even help with peptic ulcers with low stomach acid, which is actually more common than ulcers with excess stomach acid. It’s true, many people with ulcers have deficient secretions, not excess acid, and antacids might make things worse for them. A healthy stomach lining secretes substances to protect itself because otherwise it would digest itself! So peptic ulcers can be either from excess stomach acid or from a deficiency of the substance that protects against stomach acid.
All these classical uses of bitters make them pretty amazing on their own, but there’s even more than I can discuss in this article. Bitters have an effect on our immune system, including acting as anti-inflammatories. They can also improve blood sugar regulation, helping prevent swings in blood sugar. They even have a balancing effect on cardio-vascular health.
Bitter herbs include classic European bitters like Gentian (Gentiana lutea), Blessed Thisle (Cnicus benedictus), and Angelica (Angelica archangelica), as well as commone North American weeds like Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Burdock (Arctium lappa), and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium).
In most energetic systems, bitters are considered to have a “cold” energy, meaning they might reduce fever and inflammation, but also they might inhibit our digestive fire when taken over time. Which is why they are usually combined with a warming aromatic digestive herbs like Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) or Ginger (Zingiber officinale) to balance things out.
There are a few magic plant remedies that are both bitter AND aromatic, and these are often an excellent addition to bitter formulas. Examples include Tangerine peel (Citrus reticulata), Angelica (Angelica archangelica) and Calamus (Acorus calamus), among a few others.
One of my favorites is Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), because it has a sweetness to it in addition to being mildy bitter and wonderfully aromatic. If you’re not familiar with this herb, it is one of the main spices in many “chai tea” recipes, and is frequently used in Indian cooking. It is also commonly added to coffee in the middle east, especially in that strong brew known as Turkish coffee. It seems to help mellow the acidity of the coffee and prevent the over-stimulating effect of too much caffeine.
I just reformulated our digestive bitter blend to include both Tangerine peel and cardamom because I love them so much. Check it out here, on sale this month.
So remember to bring bitters with you to Thanksgiving dinner, when you’re eating out, or just keep it on your kitchen table for when you need it. It will stimulate your appetite for food and help break it down when you do eat. Life has both bitter and sweet, and we need a little bitter sometimes to remember how to take in the sweetness.