Bitter herbs are woven through our cultural heritage, from the Passover Seder to the modern cocktail bar. Their flavor, although exotic nowadays, is an echo of a long story of connection between plants and people, from the days when our foraging lives required daily exposure to bitters, through the centuries when these herbs were considered essential tonics and antidotes to poison.
Many plants, especially those from outside the garden gate, taste somewhat bitter. People may use gentle bitters like dandelions (Taraxacum officinale); the docks (burdock, Arctium lappa, and yellowdock, Rumex crispus); parsley family plants (the Apiaceae); or any of the infinite varieties of mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). Over the years, herbalists also have identified the plants that are consistently the strongest and most effective—the nasty tasting stuff! These include gentian (Gentiana lutea), with its pure bitter, lingering taste; wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), which is overlayed with a camphorous quality; bitter melon (Momordica charantia), added to sweet chutneys to round out a meal; the cold, devastatingly bitter and sooty kalmegh (Andrographis paniculata); quinine (the alkaloid obtained from Cinchona officinalis); and even the leaves of artichoke (Cynara scolymus) which, at full strength, would make anyone’s face pucker.
Bitters really tell two tales. The first is a story steeped in alchemy, spirit and the kitchen table; the second is the fascinating account of how bitters work in our bodies through ubiquitous bitter taste receptors. Herbalists turn to bitters to stimulate digestion and expel worms and parasites, and bitters have been very successful for these purposes. Most are blended into formulas that marry the bitter flavor with the right mix of warming, aromatic plants and just a trace of sweetness to improve their taste and enhance their medicinal effects.
In the Western world, perhaps the first bitters formula on record came over two thousand years ago from King Mithridates VI of Pontus (now northern Turkey). Blending strong bitter herbs with spices and resins from Persia and Egypt, he developed a fabled remedy thought to have the power to cure any poisoning.1,2 Modern research, having traced the remedy back through the works of Celsus and Galen, shows that many of its herbs improve digestion, protect the gut’s mucous membrane and enhance the liver’s detoxification powers. The king consumed his potion daily; worried about conspiracies against his crown, he wanted to make sure he could handle any poison slipped into his meal by a traitorous servant.
Over the centuries, variations on the remedy became part of daily culture around the Mediterranean basin, where they are still used around mealtime (though, one hopes, for health and wellbeing rather than suspected poisoning). The basic template has remained the same: one or more strongly bitter herbs; a resin or gel-forming plant to protect the gut lining; pungent, aromatic herbs for flavor, character and relaxation; and just a trace of sweetness.
BITTERS AND DIGESTION
Flavor and mouth feel define herbal bitters, but they also frame the chemistry that explains bitters’ effects. Why, for example, are bitters preparations always used around mealtimes, either before or after food? It turns out that the bitter note at the root of these formulas has the ability to activate digestive secretions powerfully—from saliva and digestive enzymes to bile from the liver—by engaging a network of nerves that connect the tongue to the stomach, pancreas, liver and gallbladder. These same nerves also contract the valves between the “compartments” of the gut. The valves between esophagus and stomach, and between stomach and small intestine, close up in just the same way as one’s face puckers when tasting artichoke leaves—and at the same time. The closing of the valves helps keep food where it belongs, addressing reflux and heartburn issues beautifully. Together, the improved secretions and longer digestion time ensure that the food we eat is broken down completely, rather than fermented in our intestines or causing irritation and inflammation. It is no wonder that the oldtimers, sitting at small round tables in the late afternoon light, sip their bitters while cursing at the soccer scores: they’re priming their digestion for the meal ahead.
The ancient and vast record of digestive bitters use relies on a specific template and focuses on optimizing digestion, soothing and healing the lining of the gut and banishing feelings of pressure and discomfort around mealtime. Many swear by bitters as a way to stay regular while traveling, because bitters stimulate the release of bile (our own natural laxative). Others use them to indulge in large, extravagant meals without experiencing bloating, indigestion and heartburn, or simply enjoy them as a taste of a forgotten but important flavor.
BITTER TASTE RECEPTORS
Modern research, through the work of Catia Sternini (professor of medicine at UCLA) and others,3 has characterized just how deeply linked to the bitter taste humans really are. Cells all along our digestive tract, from the tongue to the colon, are tuned to bitter-tasting molecules (such as lactones and iridoids) from the plant world. Most researchers agree that these bitter taste receptors (known as T2Rs) are a way for us to detect poison and to activate strategies of detoxification and protection.4 (Maybe old King Mithridates knew what he was doing!) This enhanced detoxification begins in the gut and continues in the liver, where the clearing of potentially harmful chemicals is improved and we see less harmful material escaping into the bloodstream. The result is a decreased inflammatory burden across the body, which can help with everything from acne to arthritis. This is a remarkable and important benefit for those living in modern Western culture, where the presence of pro-inflammatory irritants is widespread.
Cells that carry T2Rs on the gut side are also connected to the bloodstream on the other side, and here they have the ability to secrete powerful hormones that affect our whole system. Slavo Komarnytsky, at North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute, has documented how T2R-bearing cells secrete hormones like cholecystokinin, polypeptide YY, or glucagon-like-protein 1 (GLP-1) when stimulated by a bitter taste.5 The first substance helps to increase the secretion of bile, but the second and third play a deeper and perhaps more important role: they help to increase feelings of fullness and satisfaction, reduce appetite and make us more sensitive to the hormone insulin. In short, consuming herbal bitters makes us feel full more quickly, reduces overeating and counteracts insulin resistance.
This is precisely what a new clinical trial by a group of physicians in Naples, Italy has documented.6 Participants consumed 20 percent fewer calories at an all-you-can-eat meal when they had been exposed to a strong bitter taste before eating.6 Beyond our historical linkage to bitter plants, we may in fact need them to function properly, eat in a balanced way and metabolize our food effectively.
Recently, T2R research has uncovered the ability of bitter flavors to activate a powerful innate immune response. Scientists have known that bitter taste receptors are found in weird places, like the sinuses, bronchial passages and even immune cells, but why this is the case has remained somewhat of a mystery. Researchers like Noam Cohen at the University of Pennsylvania are converging on an answer.7,8 T2Rs in the sinuses, for example, are waiting for the bitter-tasting secretions of infection-causing bacteria. When they sense them, they activate immunity, open the airway and release powerful antibacterial and antiviral molecules known as defensins. This new understanding gives us a broader picture of the benefits of regularly consuming bitter-tasting plants: they can protect us not only from the effects of poor digestion, irritating food, poison and toxicity, but perhaps also from infection and harmful bacteria.
THE NEED FOR BITTERS
Overall, bitter taste receptors and their associated digestive, metabolic, hormonal and detoxification functions direct our response to substances that might be harmful or challenging as we come across them in our daily lives. Without the bitter taste, this crucial directive function is missing and our gut becomes disengaged; we experience indigestion, irregularity and discomfort when we eat; our detoxification processes suffer; and we become more sensitive to environmental triggers, harmful chemicals and the general pollution of modern life. In turn, our off-balance metabolism leads to struggles with weight gain and wildly fluctuating blood sugar levels. Diabetes, obesity, poor digestion and other metabolic problems—at epidemic levels in the Western world—might indeed be expressions of what herbalist James Green calls “bitter deficiency syndrome.”9 Bringing herbal bitters back to the table may help promote a correction in these symptoms.
In the end, the powers of herbal bitters aren’t really a mystery. We evolved in an environment rich in bitter plants and our physiologies are stacked with sensitive detectors for all that bitter chemistry. With today’s lifestyles, where information overwhelms us at light-speed, our brains are always “on” and our bodies often seem incidental, it is essential that we care for our physiology by restoring a more biodiverse, wild and bitter operating environment. Fortunately, the answer lies in herbal remedies—classic bitter preparations that are simple to make, rich in history and effective medicine. Homemade bitters at meals can lead to better digestion, reduced inflammation and enhanced immunity. Herbal bitters also can help with sugar cravings, turning off that insistent desire and supporting healthier choices. Embracing the bitters habit can help us restore our ecological connections, rediscover true tonic herbalism and develop a mature relationship with the forgotten bitter flavor.
BASIC FORMULA FOR HERBAL BITTERS
1 tablespoon strong bittering agent (such as gentian root or wormwood)
1 tablespoon soothing herb (such as burdock or calendula)
2 tablespoons citrus notes (lemon balm and orange peel)
1-2 teaspoons warm spice, if desired (allspice or ginger)
1-2 teaspoons sweetness (honey or maple syrup)
12 fluid ounces alcohol solvent (one-hundred-proof vodka)
Take all the herbal ingredients, which should be in dry and chopped form, and place them in a pint-sized mason jar. Add the sweetener and vodka, then cover, seal and steep for at least two weeks. Strain through a muslin cloth, squeezing the herbs well to extract all the fluid possible. Bottle and store in amber dropper bottles to make for easy dosing.
The formula can be modified to suit specific tastes (see “Other Bitters Ingredients”). For example, use a cooling spice like peppermint instead of ginger for a more refreshing feeling, or replace the citrus with vanilla for a rich, warm blend. Herbs like fennel seed or anise (instead of, or alongside, citrus) can help dispel gas and bloating. A light, fragrant floral blend can be made by replacing the citrus with herbs like linden or chamomile.
Bitters are best taken regularly, especially if there are digestive concerns present, at a dose of about thirty drops once or twice a day. In a cocktail, use fifteen to thirty drops, add thirty to sixty drops to sparkling water before meals as an aperitif or add up to two teaspoons to an equal volume of water as an after-meal digestive aid. Bitters mix well with almost any cocktail but are featured mostly in classics like the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan, the Sazerac and the Negroni. Bitters work well in sour cocktails, too—though one may want to keep the citrus and decrease the strong bittering agents a bit.
OTHER BITTERS INGREDIENTS
A number of other ingredients can support bitters’ digestive mission, including soothing herbs to help heal damage along the digestive tract while the bitter herbs restore optimal function. In addition, aromatic notes serve to relax away spasm and cramping, relieving gas and bloating; these can be pungent, strongly aromatic, floral, citrusy or minty.
SOOTHING: aloe (Aloe spp.), burdock (Arctium lappa), calendula (Calendula officinalis), meadowsweet (Filipendula
ulmaria), myrrh (Commiphora spp.).
PUNGENT: ginger (Zingiber officinalis), turmeric (Curcuma longa).
STRONGLY AROMATIC: allspice (Pimenta dioica), clove (Syzygium aromaticum), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).
FLORAL: lavender (Lavandula officinalis), linden (Tilia spp.).
CITRUSY: lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), lemongrass (Cymbopogon spp.), orange peel (Citrus sinensis).
MINTY: basil (Ocimum basilicum), peppermint (Mentha x piperita).
1. Mithridatum. http://apotheca.myspecies.info/simpletaxonomy/term/425.
2. Jarcho S. Medical numismatic notes. VII. Mithrodates IV. Bull N Y Acad Med 1972;48(8):1059-1064.
3. Rozengurt E, Sternini C. Taste receptor signaling in the mammalian gut. Curr Opin Pharmacol 2007;7(6):557-562.
4. Ekstrand B, Young JF, Rasmussen MK. Taste receptors in the gut—a new target for health promoting properties in diet. Food Res Int 2017;100(Pt 2):1-8.
5. Palatini KM, Durand PJ, Rathinasabapathy T, Esposito D, Komarnytsky S. Bitter receptors and glucose transporters interact to control carbohydrate and immune responses in the gut. FASEB J 2016;30(1 Suppl): No. 682.6.
6. Andreozzi P, Sarnelli G, Pesce M et al. The bitter taste receptor agonist quinine reduces calorie intake and increases the postprandial release of cholecystokinin in healthy subjects. J Neurogastroenterol Motil 2015;21(4):511-519.
7. Lee RJ, Cohen NA. Bitter and sweet taste receptors in the respiratory epithelium in health and disease. J Mol Med (Berl) 2014;92(12):1235-1244.
8. Cohen NA. The genetics of the bitter taste receptor T2R38 in upper airway innate immunity and implications for chronic rhinosinusitis. Laryngoscope 2017;127(1):44-51.
9. Green J. The Male Herbal: Health Care for Men and Boys. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press; 1991.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2018.