What Are Bitters?
Bitters have been part of traditional cultures for thousands of years as evidenced by the consumption of an aperitif, a bitter drink enjoyed just before a meal. It was thought that these strong-tasting cocktails would stimulate digestion, specifically in the stomach, helping to reduce any after-meal discomfort. In western cultures, we have largely ignored this age-old practice and our digestive systems have suffered as a result. But recent research has shown that our primitive ancestors had the right idea!
How Do They Work?
We now know that bitters not only have a significant impact on how food is broken down in the stomach but have a profound effect on blood sugar regulation and gall bladder function. When stomach digestion isn’t working optimally, the pancreas and gall bladder are often functioning at a less-than-optimal level and can be co-conspirators in the overall digestive mess. Not only do we need adequate digestive enzymes and insulin from our pancreas but we also need bile from the gall bladder to help with detoxification and the breakdown of dietary fats. Without these, we aren’t able to fully utilize and absorb the nutrients from the food we eat. So bitter foods have an even greater impact on digestion than we originally thought!
Whole Body Benefit
But there’s even more! When we consume these bitter-tasting foods or herbs, we are actually providing benefit to a number of other tissues in the body. Bitter receptors have been found in a large number of other locations including the thyroid, kidney, heart, smooth muscle, urinary tract, and lungs. So we might consider things that are bitter as being good for the whole body!
How to Incorporate Bitters
If possible, try to make bitter herbs part of your daily routine. Here are a few of my best tips on how to incorporate them into your diet:
- Arugula or rocket
- Dandelion greens
- Bitter melon
- Foods from the cruciferous family including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage
- Unsweetened cocoa
- Uncured olives
- If traveling or eating out, instead of ordering a glass of wine or a mixed drink, ask for bitters and soda. This will stimulate digestion and provide a whole-body benefit to help offset the negative effects of less-than-optimal food options when not at home.
- Turmeric also contains some bitter properties although not necessarily bitter to the taste.
- Herbs such as gentian, feverfew and wormwood are excellent bitters, gentian being king. The herbal product Digest Forte contains all three of these herbs and can be taken at the beginning of the meal to obtain the systemic benefit of powerful, pharmaceutic-grade herbal bitters.
As much as you can, try to incorporate some kind of bitter herb or food in your diet every day. Your digestion will thank you for it as well as all the other remote locations in the body!