Bitter Foods and Why We Need Them
The typical Western diet tends to shy away from bitter tasting foods. They’re often seen as an acquired taste that few people have. It’s a shame because the benefits of bitter substances are fundamental to our health. In eastern medical traditions, the taste of a food or botanical plays a role in its therapeutic effect. Each taste carries with it its own mind and body benefits. Bitter herbs and remedies have been used around the world for centuries to treat all kind of ailments, ranging from digestive upsets to inflammation.
The Bitter Reflex and its Significance
There are bitter receptors on the tongue, that when activated by a bitter substance, begin a cascade of neural and endocrine events. This process is known as our bitter reflex. Within 15 minutes of ingesting a bitter substance, digestive juices are flowing, multiple vital enzymes have begun secretion, your appetite noticeably increases, and your intestines begin to contract. These things need to happen in order for healthy digestion to take place. Knowing that food is your highest source of nourishment, if digestion is off, everything is off.
From a Chinese herbal medicine perspective, bitter tasting herbs clear heat from the organ systems, move stagnation, and drain downward, removing dampness from the body . When dealing with issues of indigestion, a common diagnosis is qi stagnation in the abdomen. Often when dealing with qi stagnation, the qi flow is reversed and moves upward, which results in belching, nausea, vomiting, and acid reflux. Bitter herbs move stagnant qi and restore the function of downward movement within the digestive tract.
Incorporating Bitterness into your Diet
An easy way to do this is to add bitter greens to your diet. Some great options are raddichio, endive, dandelion greens, frisee, and arugula. Fruits like bitter melon and grapefruit are also wonderful additions. Bitter tasting roots like burdock, dandelion, or turmeric can be added to cooking as well. Throw them in a soup or saute them with your favorite meats or veggies. You can also steep the roots in hot water to make a tea. Add some peppermint leaf, which makes a great tasting tea and also has some bitter properties.
You can also take a bitters tincture, which is made with bitter herbs and alcohol. It’s a super concentrated liquid form of bitter herbs, so you take a small amount before or after meals. You can find either the herbs to make your own or a ready-made tincture here.
Some other common bitter herbs:
Dang Gui/ Angelica Root
Chen Pi/ Orange Peel
Pu Gong Ying/ Dandelion Root
Chamomile/ Matricaria Chamomilia
Milk Thistle/ Silybum Marianum
Yarrow/ Achilles Millefolium
Keep in mind that a little bit goes a long way. It may take some time to grow accustomed to the flavor. You may never grow accustomed to it. In that case, you can think of it from a medicinal perspective. It serves a function well beyond it’s palatable characteristics. This might also offer some insight into why the herbal formulas and teas you get from acupuncturists often taste so bitter.