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Digestive Bitters Benefits

Posted by Deborah Graefer, L.Ac., MTOM on

Digestive bitters take a lot of getting used to. This is probably because among the five major tastes, bitter is most associated with negative experiences. It’s not a flavor that we instantly like. Rather, it’s something that we tolerate. Sometimes, we find ourselves craving for something sweet, salty, sour, or savory. But we don’t really naturally desire bitter foods, do we? In some ways, our aversion for bitters has also been naturally wired. Many bitter compounds are present in plants as an insect deterrent or to serve as warning for animals and humans that the plant is toxic or inedible. This innate dislike has been made worse over time with the rise of processed food and the rise of the sugar economy.

Despite the taste, we see great involvement of the bitter flavor in almost every culture, especially within the early medical systems. One ancient Oriental adage even says “Good medicine always tastes bitter.” As far as 2,000 years ago, bitter herbs and bitter foods have been integrated by early Mediterranean, Ayurvedic, and Chinese medical practitioners into their formulas. With the expansion of global trading and advancement of technology, these preparations have evolved and become more than just an herbal tonic and folk remedy. Science has backed up a lot of the classic beliefs about the potency of bitter herbs. Now, as people are getting more informed about the benefits of organic food and products, digestive bitters and herbs are slowly re-emerging and gaining popularity in the market.

But what do we really know about herbal bitters?

Bitter Taste and the Science behind It

Although we taste bitter in our mouth, it’s not the only place where we have bitter taste receptors (T2Rs). Studies show that we have a huge number of T2Rs all over our body. It is present in the tongue, in the gut within the lining of our intestinal mucous membrane, our lungs, brain, and testes. This associates the bitter taste with digestion, metabolism, respiration, circulation, cognition, immunity, and even sexual reproduction.

The moment bitter taste stimulates the receptors in our tongue, nerve impulses send messages to our brain which includes the vagus nerve in the hypothalamus . This wandering nerve starts from the brain stem and travels through multiple organs, making it one of the largest nerve systems in the body. The bitter taste helps stimulate the vagus nerve, and that in itself already has numerous benefits. The nerve sends a signal that prompts an increased secretion of gastric acid and pepsin. It also prepares the gallbladder and pancreas for the release of bile and insulin.

In the lungs, T2Rs (bitter taste receptors) contribute to the detection of bacterial excretions and the presence of toxins. The bitter taste receptors cause the release of neurotransmitters and substances that trigger an inflammatory response to block bacterial invasion. Also, when bitter receptors in the lungs are stimulated, a protective reflex is triggered to depress the respiratory rate, therefore avoiding further inhalation of irritating substances or toxins.

In cardiac and smooth muscles, T2R can either prompt relaxation or contraction, depending on the dosage and the site. This makes it a potent vasoconstrictor or bronchodilator. For the smooth muscles found in the gastrointestinal tract, bitter tastes induce contraction at low concentrations and relaxation at higher concentrations.

In the reproductive system, bitter tastes induce a rise in sperm count. The depletion of T2R may result in smaller testes and possible male infertility. In women, T2R receptors are found in the placenta. These bitter receptors also influence urination.

The bitter taste is a very crucial and beneficial to a lot of body systems so much so that any damage or depletion to the bitter receptors may cause a number of disorders. Examples of T2R-related diseases are chronic rhinitis, colorectal cancer, gingivitis, cardiovascular diseases, thyroid abnormalities, severe asthma, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer.

Bitter Foods

Since bitter foods are so good for the body, it is wise to incorporate them as much as you can to your daily diet. Below are some examples of bitter foods for your next grocery shopping.

Vegetables

  • Radicchio
  • Chicory
  • Arugula
  • Broccoli*
  • Kale*
  • Brussel Sprouts*
  • Jerusalem Artichokes
  • Bitter Melon
  • White asparagus

Fruits

  • Orange*
  • Lemon
  • Grapefruit*
  • Lime
  • Cranberries

Grain

  • Amaranth
  • Millet
Spices

  • Ginger
  • Pepper
  • Cardamom
  • Thyme
  • Sage

Fun Food

  • Dark Chocolate

Beverage

  • Coffee*
  • Tea*

* The food items above should be avoided or taken with caution if you are having gallbladder attacks or if you are suffering from any gallbladder conditions. For a list of gallbladder-friendly foods, click here.


6 BENEFITS OF DIGESTIVE BITTERS

Digestive bitters:

  • support overall digestion
  • stimulate the production of digestive enzymes
  • stimulate bile production and secretion
  • support weight management
  • support healthy blood sugar levels
  • provide gallbladder and liver support

Herbal Digestive Bitters:

1. support digestion

The discovery of bitter receptors within the gastrointestinal tract strongly suggests that the bitter taste can have a significant influence on the overall health of the digestive system. True enough, taking digestive bitters are known to alleviate common digestive symptoms like dyspepsia, bloating, gas, nausea, and upset stomach.

Stimulation of the bitter receptors is also known to enhance the body’s innate immunity. According to studies, tuft cells (also called brush cells) in the gut are able to initiate additional immune defenses against pathogens. Tuft cells also sense parasitic infection and consequently make the necessary signaling to increase the body’s protection. Tuft cells express TRPM5, a signaling molecule for the bitter and sweet taste. This mechanism and association implies that digestive bitters may help trigger receptors to work and, in effect, support the body’s natural ability to defend itself from possible invaders or toxins that may be causing the digestive problems.

2. stimulate the production of bile and digestive enzymes

Bitter herbs stimulate the upper gastrointestinal tract to increase digestive secretions. This is how a few drops of digestive bitters after meals can facilitate better digestion.

But what about individuals who are suffering from hyperacidity or excessive production of stomach acid or pancreatic juices? No need to worry. According to experiments, bitters only increase digestive power when it is below par. This is one reason why a lot of alternative medicine practitioners suggest digestive bitters along with enzyme supplementation. Bitter herbs support your body’s natural ability and function to produce the digestive enzymes, bile and other secretions it needs to digest meals.

3. support weight management

Bitter herbs are generally known to increase appetite. However, it is important to note that it only does so when the body is in a malnourished or debilitated state. It is a good supplement to treat loss of appetite and support for individuals recovering from a prolonged illness and for those suffering from eating disorders.

For those who are trying to lose weight, digestive bitters are effective in creating a sense of satiety or fullness. Some herbs like the dandelion, also help slow the digestion process, making you feel full longer.

Other bitter herbs may be thermogenic. This means that these digestive bitters stimulate the body’s ability to burn fat (thermogenesis), therefore promoting weight loss.

4. support healthy blood sugar levels

Aside from helping with the control of appetite and arresting sweet cravings, digestive bitters work in numerous ways to help manage blood sugar levels. For example, silymarin from milk thistle has a significant effect on insulin resistance. Bitter melon also contains charantin, vicine, and polypeptide-p, active substances with anti-diabetic properties. Burdock root is also believed to combat diabetes.

Individual studies of various herbs have proved different mechanisms by which the bitter herbs are able to lower blood sugar levels.

5. support healthy gallbladder and liver function

Most herbal bitters are known for their abilities to regulate elimination, increase circulation, and fight off toxins (including heavy metals), thus enhancing the body’s natural cleansing process. That in itself makes bitter herbs very helpful to the gallbladder and liver. Aside from that, a lot of bitter herbs have liver-protecting and bile-boosting properties.

Milk thistle, for example, has been used as a liver strengthener for centuries. The silymarin flavonoid in this herb is able to maintain the health of liver cells and neutralize the harmful effects of toxins. Dandelion also help the liver by supporting bile production and boosting the immune system. Wormwood and yellow dock are other bitter herbs that contain compounds supporting the liver.

For those with gallbladder or liver diseases caused by chronic inflammation, bai shao, fennel seeds, and yellow dock have anti-inflammatory properties that may help address the root of the problem.

Popular Herbal Bitters

If you can’t always enjoy a healthy home-cooked meal, there are other ways to infuse bitter taste to your daily diet and routine – take herbal digestive bitters in tincture form. Here are some of the most popular bitter herbs that serve as ingredients in many digestive bitters in the market today:

Dandelion (Taraxacum genus)

Dandelion (often referred to as a backyard weed) is most famous for its bright yellow flower. The roots, leaves, and flowers may be used as coffee substitute, poultice, tea, or salad greens. Dandelion is known for its cleansing benefits for the liver and the digestive system. It is also used to address bloating and cramping often experienced before menstruation.

Milk Thistle (Silybum marianun)

Milk thistle is a flowering herb native to southern Europe, southern Russia, Asia Minor, and northern Africa. Its active ingredient is a flavonoid called silymarin known for numerous benefits for the endocrine, biliary, and digestive systems. Traditional medicine practitioners have used for hundreds of years to support the liver.

Fennel Seed (Foeniculum vulgare)

Fennel is a food plant that can be taken as a vegetable or flavoring in various liquors. Its seed is considered a support for stomach gas, congestion, asthma, and diabetes. It contains estragole, fenchone and anethole, components that contribute to the plant’s ability to fight inflammation and spasms. Fennel seeds can be steeped or chewed directly to facilitate digestion. In olden times, fennel seeds were also used to manage weight.

Yellow Dock Root (Rumex crispus)

Yellow dock root is a common bitter used as a detoxifier, diuretic, and digestive herb which has been used to support both diarrhea and constipation. It supports inflammation, bacterial infections, and the respiratory tract. The roots and fruits are often used for medicinal purposes but the leaf and stalks may also be used in salads.

Yellow Gentian (Gentiana lutea)

The gentian herb is known by many names – yellow gentian, bitter root, gall weed, bitterwort, and feltwort. It is famous for its intense bitterness has been historically used as an herbal tonic and stomachic. As a digestive bitter, it increases the secretion of gastric juice and bile by stimulating gustatory nerves upon ingestion. It also may support the management of heartburn, nausea, and stomach pain.

Chinese Peony Root or Bai Shao (Paeonia lactiflora)

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners value bai shao for its support of the blood, the mind, and the liver. It is one of the oldest herbs recorded to be used for medicinal purposes. It is believed to nourish the blood, comfort the liver, alleviate pain, boost the immune system, stabilize emotions, and increase focus.

Burdock Root (Arctium lappa)

This bitter herb is traditionally used for skin eruptions, gout, rheumatism, and diabetes. It is thought to benefit the circulatory, lymphatic, and digestive system. The burdock root may be eaten as a vegetable but similar benefits can be reaped by steeping it in boiling water to make tea.


Bitter Herbs Dosage and Safety

Because of the vast variety of plants available and the magnitude of options in the market, it is difficult to identify a minimum or maximum dosage for digestive bitters. The greatest thing about it however, is that bitter herbs are natural and organic.

For tinctures, usages usually range from 5 to 10 drops each time it is administered. Some alternative medicine practitioners encourage a single dose daily. Example is 1000 mg of wormwood or 1000 mg of gentian before or after a meal.

The timing of ingestion also differs depending on the need and the purpose of intake. Some research studies show that it takes about 15-30 minutes for bitters to take effect. Other references say it only take 5 minutes. Experiment to see what works best for you.

The Best Bitters Supplement for the Gallbladder and the Bile

Not all bitter formulas are the same. Some have herbs added to them which stimulate the movement of the bowel rather strongly. However, bitter herbs in general stimulate bile which, in itself, stimulates the bowel. For some people, both can just be too much. Therefore, for gallbladder problems, sluggish bile or any digestive issues, we recommend gallbladder bitters which are herbal digestive bitters without the emphasis on moving the bowel. 


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