Today’s post is all about the BITTER… OK not the emo bitter kind – the therapeutic kind 😉 Yes there is such a thing, in herbal terms anyway. This post was actually inspired when I passed a little shop/cocktail bar in Manhattan specializing in Bitters only (photo above) tucked away in this urban jungle! So without further ado, here is a little intro into this well known class of herbal medicines…
So what are bitters?
Well apart from being a key ingredient in some cocktails (notably the Manhattan, Singapore Sling, the Rum Swizzle – Bermuda’s national drink), they have impressive therapeutic effects and are prescribed frequently by herbalists, nutritionists and naturopaths. Bitters are nothing new really, they have been around for a long long time. In much of Europe, taking bitters and eating bitter foods before meals was once commonplace. Sadly, most people today don’t even know about them, which is a shame because they have so many benefits. Time to bring back those good old habits I say…
Broken down, bitters are blended alcoholic extracts of…. unsurprisingly… bitter tasting plants. These can include Bitter Orange peel, Wormwood (the same plant used to flavour Absinthe), Gentian (the key ingredient in Swedish Bitters and Angostura Bitters) and others. The blend of plants used depends on the brand – any other flavourings can be added from peppermint to ginger to citrus peel and other aromatic herbs/plants. These blends are often called ‘Apperitifs’ or ‘Digestifs’ and this gives you a big clue as to their most common use. However, their effects span much more than initially meets the eye.
Why Bitters? How can they improve health?
Leading on from the clues in the names ‘Digestifs’ and ‘Apperitifs’, bitters are digestive stimulants. Meaning they prime the body for food by enhancing the production/release of saliva, stomach acid, bile and digestive enzymes. Bitters do this via our Vagus Nerve, which innervates the digestive system, as well as many other organs. Low stomach acid is very common and results in incompletely digested food – leading to nutritional deficiencies, gastrointestinal symptoms and more… see next. Some people simply take Betain HCL tablets (stomach acid in capsule form) however this is a short term fix. What you really want to do in the long term is encourage your body to naturally produce more stomach acid and this is where bitters com5 e up trumps. Bitter tasting foods/herbs stimulate the body, rather than taking over the job.
Digestive Health is the KEY to whole body health
Firstly, according to Naturopathic teachings, a healthy and well functioning digestive system is the very basis of good health. Poor digestive function (such as low stomach acid/bile/digestive enzymes) can be a factor in many health conditions (see examples below) and therefore bitter supplementation can be a mighty helpful addition to the treatment plan. In fact ,virtually any health condition will be exacerbated if your digestive system is not working optimally. The following conditions/symptoms have been linked to poor digestive function – especially low stomach acid
Autoimmune diseases and allergies
Reflux – ironically
Anaemia or other nutritional deficiencies
Bitters have also shown be be beneficial in cases of the following…. backed by some good scientific research
Diabetes and reactive hypoglycaemia
Weight loss regimes
Poor appetite/debilitated (the elderly often benefit a lot from bitters)
Indigestion after heavy meals
Sluggish liver/gallbladder function
Side note// In the ancient art of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) bitter tasting herbs/foods have long been said to dispel ‘damp heat’ in the body – which applies to hot inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis. Ancient Wisdom.
Now, these conditions are complicated and I’m not saying that bitters are a ‘cure all’ however they are no doubt a valuable addition to any treatment plan or just a good lifestyle habit to pick up over the long term.
More on Bitters & the Vagus Nerve….
This needs an extra mention. Bitters stimulate the Vagus nerve and this direct stimulation is likely another reason why bitters are so good for us. The vagus nerve is a major nerve in the body and it not only links from the mouth to the digestive organs but it also links to other parts of the body, such as the brain, heart, lungs, gastrointestinal tract and most abdominal organs. It sends information from the organs to the brain and from the brain to the organs. This gut-brain relationship has far reaching effects. So with these intricate connections, you can understand that anything capable of stimulating vagus nerve function is therefore also capable of altering function in any of these distal organs. It’s no magic, just physiology! So if there is one herbal remedy you are going to take – make it a bitters! But remember… you need to taste the bitterness on your tongue in order to get maximum vagus nerve stimulation – consider this if you are thinking about simply swallowing a pill! Also, for your information, there are other things aside from herbs/foods that improve the tone of this nerve, interesting stuff, so read up if you get the chance.
How/When to take Bitters
As I said above, bitters have to be tasted to get the most benefits – sorry! So yes, they will taste strong/medicinal but you only need the smallest amount and the taste goes away quickly (plus the benefits are worth it). Many people actually grow to like the taste of bitters (I’m one of those people!) I suspect this is because the body intuitively knows what is good for it. Take a dose 5-15 minutes before a meal. The swallowing, initial salivating… this means that your vagus nerve has woken up and is prepping your digestive organs for work! Alcoholic extracts are the norm but there are some companies which do glycerine extracts too… if you want to avoid alcohol and still get your tastebuds going. You can also take a herbal bitters after a meal as a digestive.
The good thing about bitters is that a little goes a long way, you only need a few drops to get an effect and a dropper bottle lasts a while. Just put a few drops directly on your tongue or diluted in a spoon of water. Here in the UK, you can get herbal bitters from a herbalist or herb retailer. Napiers do a good bitters range https://napiers.net/blended-tinctures.html
Please share this bitter-sweet truth