Bitters have been used throughout the history of the world to help with digestion and are simply plants that possess a bitter taste. Plant bitters provide a crucial missing element to the Western diet.
To receive their medicinal virtues, you must taste bitters. It is the bitter principles of the herbs that stimulate the bitter receptors and evoke the taste of bitterness in the mouth. Bitter herbs from the time they are placed in your mouth and held there for a few seconds, begin to prepare the body for digestion. They stimulate stomach acid, pancreatic enzymes, liver function and bile production improving the digestion of food in the stomach and small intestines.
The actions of bitters work by way of the vagus nerve (which is a cranial nerve that contains motor and sensory fibres and passes through the neck and thorax to the abdomen) as a result of stimulation of the taste receptors in the mouth.
If you are fascinated by plant chemistry, continue, if not jump to the next paragraph ツ The most common plant constituents with bitter properties are often the alkaloids, terpenes, flavonoids and volatile oils. Some but not all plants that contain aromatic volatile oils have bitter properties.
What is it that bitters do? These valuable herbs provide the following actions in regards to healthy digestion.
- Stimulates the release of gastrin which regulates the production of acid in the stomach during the digestive process.
- Stimulates the production of stomach acid (HCl) and pepsin, promoting better digestion of protein. Some herbs can balance the production of stomach acid (HCl) if it is too high.
- Stimulates the production of digestive enzymes from the pancreas (and a few from the small intestine) to help digest sugars, proteins, fats and lipids.
- Promotes bile flow from the gallbladder helping to improve the digestion of fats and oils.
- Protects the gut lining due to proper absorption of your food thereby avoiding fermentation damaging the gut lining.
- Helps in the regulation of blood sugar hormones insulin and glucagon.
- Supports the liver in bile production and detoxification.
- Encourages the intrinsic factor, which is essential for the later absorption of B12.
The most common signs of low digestive secretion can range from food allergies, infections, bloating, constipation, extremely smelly poop, belching, wind, heartburn/acid reflux, feeling full shortly after eating, poor appetite, loss of taste for meat, indigestion, floating stools, always feeling hungry no matter how much you.
Good digestion is one of the foundations of good health and without digestive enzymes and gastric juices, proper digestion cannot occur, and your cells would not receive adequate nutrition. Vitamins, minerals, proteins and hormones need the help of your enzymes to work. It is not only what you eat but what you absorb that keeps you healthy, hormonally balanced and full of energy.
Most bitters are very cooling energetically. Therefore, it is sometimes beneficial to combine with warming herbs such as Ginger or Angelica. Most bitters also have a drying effect which short term will moisten the local tissues, but over the long term, they become dry. This can be corrected with the use of moistening and soothing type herbs such as Marshmallow or Licorice.
You can also obtain bitters through dietary sources such as bitter leafy greens, dandelion greens, watercress, rocket, mustard greens which can be made into a salad or chicory root and dandelion root which can be made into a vinegar dressing.
Bitters help to tonify and strengthen weakness in the sphincter from the oesophagus to the stomach, and bring more tone to the mucosal membrane. However, caution must be exercised when using these bitters if you have such conditions as acid reflux/heartburn (GERD) due to elevated stomach acid, ulcers or Inflammatory Bowel Diseases like Crohn’s or Ulcerative colitis as an excess can lead to more burning pains. In which case use the more specific bitters such as acid reflux/heartburn, or ulcer bitters.
If you are unsure whether your reflux is caused by high or low stomach acid try this simple test to assess. Take a teaspoonful of apple cider vinegar in 30ml of water before your meal. Does it help? If it does, then this suggests the need for more acid. Therefore, you are low on stomach acid. Does it aggravate? If so, then this suggests possible excess acid, therefore, you have excess stomach acid.
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Bitters make life happen ツ