We live in a time in which it is increasingly difficult to find naturally bitter foods. There is the occasional treat for those who seek it – black coffee, dark chocolate, green tea, raw leafy greens, Campari spritzers – but on the whole they are few and far between.
Why should we be seeking bitter tastes, you might ask? This article attempts to illustrate why ‘bitter’ is the new ‘sweet’, and gives you a few examples of common bitter herbs you can use to improve your health right away.
Bitters aid digestion
When we consume something bitter, it triggers a reflex reaction from our taste buds all the way down the digestive tract, stimulating the secretion of digestive juices in the mouth, stomach, liver and pancreas. This helps prevent things like indigestion, constipation and gallstones.
In low doses they also tone the lower oesophageal sphincter, which prevents reflux of acidic stomach contents into the oesophagus otherwise known as ‘heartburn’.
Bitters improve metabolism
Bitters encourage sugar metabolism, prompting the pancreas to secrete the hormones insulin and glucagon. The bitter herb fumitory below is used to treat Type 2 diabetes due to its regulatory action on the pancreas.
Bitters also stimulate iron and vitamin B12 absorption in the stomach, which can be very useful for those with iron-deficiency anaemia.
Bitters disperse heat
Bitter herbs are traditionally seen as ‘cooling’ in conditions related to digestive dysfunction or ‘excessive heat’ – headaches, skin conditions, allergic or hypersensitivity disorders, and menstrual complaints.
They bring down fever, fight inflammation and promote circulation in the body, helping to disperse central heat. People with cold hands and feet generally benefit from a good dose of yarrow, a common spring herb found on roadsides everywhere.
Bitters fight bacteria
You’re probably aware by now that we have “good” and “bad” bacteria living in our intestines, fluctuating levels of which contribute to a whole host of conditions: food intolerances, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), asthma and autoimmune conditions such as psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Bacterial populations in the gut are affected by age, lifestyle habits, genetics, pharmaceutical drugs and, most importantly, diet. Bitter compounds in herbs & foods act as anti-microbials, or natural antibiotics, helping to control the “bad” guys and protecting against the ravages of leaky gut syndrome, stomach ulcers and gastrointestinal infections.
Incorporate some bitterness into your diet, and you will feel the difference. Start by cutting out sugar, honey and sweeteners from your tea and coffee – with time, you get used to the taste and start to enjoy it! When you’ve done that, you’ll be ready to experiment with the following spring herbs.
Centaury / Centaurium erythraea
Centaury gets its name from the legend of the Centaur who used the plant to treat inflammations of the skin. This extremely bitter herb has been used for over 2000 years – the Romans thought it kept snakes away and used it as an antidote to their venom.
Collect the tops of centuary (the stems and flowering heads) and simmer in hot water for 10 minutes before straining and drinking. Drink three times a day for skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
Dandelion / Taraxacum officinalis
Dandelion was considered one of the most important plants for liver & urinary health by the great medieval Arab medics. Its name comes from the shape of its leaves – like a lion’s tooth. In French it is known as ‘piss-en-lit’, referring to its diuretic properties.
Add dandelion leaves & flowers to salad for extra nutrition. Dig up dandelion root, wash thoroughly, cut into small pieces and simmer in water for 10-15 minutes. Drink three times a day for liver or gallbladder problems, endometriosis, fibroids and constipation.
Fumitory / Fumaria officinalis
The ancient Greeks and Arabs used this plant for much the same reasons as we do today – problems of the liver and gallbladder, and to regulate pancreatic function. Its name comes from the smoky colour of the flowers.
Make a tea from the whole plant by infusing a handful of the plant matter in just-boiled water for 5-10 minutes. Drink three times a day for Type 2 diabetes or low pancreatic function.