The Benefits of Bitters

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It’s been a long cold winter in this part of the world – apparently the coldest on record for many parts of Ontario and Quebec! As much as I love all of our seasons, winter included, it’s great that things have finally warmed up to seasonal temperatures since mid-April.

The lengthening of the days and increasing temperature have a significant effect on our body, mind, and spirit. As children of the Earth, our lives are intimately connected to the seasonal cycles of the region where we live. No matter how much our modern lifestyle cuts us off from these cycles, that connection will always be. That’s why it’s so important that we spend as much time as we can outdoors, and especially in natural environments. Even a decent park in the city can satisfy this need to some degree. Getting out into the country is better, but it’s more important to get the most out of what we can easily integrate into our lives than to do without because we can’t easily incorporate the ideal.

Connecting with Nature is a fundamental human need. The disconnect of our modern lifestyle is directly or indirectly responsible for most of what ails us. It’s also important to recognize that we seriously hinder our ability to connect with natural environments if we bring our modern distractions with us, so leave the cellphone behind!

During the winter we have a tendency to spend more time indoors, be less active, and eat a heavier diet. This results in an increase in fatty tissue and accumulation of toxicity in our bodies. In the spring, our natural tendency is to shed the extra fat and detoxify. The primary organ responsible for metabolizing both fat and toxins is our liver. Traditionally, we have supported this process with herbs and foods that support liver function.

One of the most important ways that we can support the function of the liver and our need to detoxify at this time of year is by consuming bitter vegetables and herbs.

Unfortunately, in modern Western culture we tend to be addicted to sweet, salty and fatty foods, and we avoid foods that taste bitter. This is one of the (many) things that are unbalanced about the modern industrialized diet, whereas traditional folklore diets contain a balance of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter foods. Our obsession with sweet and salty, and aversion to bitter, has some basis in physiology. We have a natural attraction to sweet, salty, and fatty foods because our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed a high calorie diet (thus sweet and fatty) to support their very active lifestyle. Salty flavours are also indicative of minerals in foods, some of which were more difficult to get. Unfortunately, this built-in attraction that served our ancestors has become a disadvantage in the modern context where sugar, salt, and fat are readily available.

Bitterness, on the other hand, was often associated with poisonous chemical constituents (such as many alkaloids) in plants. Many of these chemicals are specifically produced by plants to discourage animals from grazing on them. Although they are not appropriate for regular consumption, many of these herbs can be consumed in small quantities as medicines. Even animals know this and will consume very bitter herbs that are not a normal part of their diet if they are sick. When I’m out in the wilderness, wild harvesting herbs, I often come across bitter medicinal plants that have been selectively grazed by herbivores such as deer and rabbits.

Bitter foods and herbs confer numerous important health benefits. Although many of these are due to nutritional and medicinal properties of their constituents, some of their benefits are actually due to their bitterness. This is partly because there are bitterness receptors in the mouth and upper digestive tract. When these receptors are activated by the bitter constituents of plants, it triggers a variety of important physiological responses. These include:

• Stimulation of the digestive secretions of the entire digestive tract. This improves digestion of the foods we eat and assimilation of their nutrients, thereby providing general health benefits throughout the body.
• Improving digestion also tends to reduce food sensitivity reactions, leaky gut, systemic autoimmune reactions, and improves the balance of microorganisms in the gut, collectively known as the gut microbiome. There is growing evidence that an unhealthy microbiome is linked to many negative health consequences.
• Bitters also improve appetite. This is because they strengthen normal digestive signals. We may have a more vigorous appetite, but will also be satiated more quickly, so it is not going to result in weight gain. If anything, bitters tend to help us lose weight if we need to.
• Bitters tend to lower blood sugar levels and, in general, support the functioning of our endocrine glands, thereby helping to balance hormone levels.
• Bitters improve the functioning, and reduce congestion of, the liver and gallbladder. Indirectly, this means that they also help to improve fat and carbohydrate metabolism, reduce LDL cholesterol, and increase detoxification. In supporting detoxification, they help to reduce chronic inflammatory conditions and carcinogenesis.
• Although they increase stomach acid production, bitters are actually beneficial for ulcers. This is because they stimulate cell growth and healing of the lining of the digestive tract and healthy mucus secretion in the stomach, which is one of the ways our stomach protects itself from its own acid secretions.
• Bitterness is also associated with alkalinity, so bitter foods and herbs tend to alkalinize the body. This is important because the modern Western diet tends to be far too acidic, primarily due to over-consumption of processed foods, animal proteins, and simple carbohydrates.

In order to fully benefit from these properties of bitter foods and herbs, it is important that we actually taste their bitterness because many of these effects are largely activated by neural reflexes and hormones released as a result of the stimulation of bitter taste receptors. That means that the benefits of bitterness are somewhat reduced if we mask the bitter taste of foods too much, especially by using sour ingredients such as lemon or vinegar. Similarly, the benefits of bitter herbs are reduced if they are taken in such a way that we don’t taste them at all, such as in capsules or pills. The sweetness of glycerites (glycerin-based extractions) can also mask bitterness to some degree if they contain more than 10% glycerin.

All in all, what this means is that for those of us who have learned to dislike bitter flavours, it is important that we learn to cultivate a taste for bitterness. Keep in mind that this is largely a learned response. When I was a kid I disliked most foods. My diet primarily consisted of white bread and pasta, corn, potatoes, dairy products, and meats. The only good thing about my diet was that I loved fruit. When I was 16, due to some health issues I was having, I began a gradual process of improving my diet. I switched to whole grains, eliminated dairy products, reduced meat, and introduced a few vegetables that I could more or less tolerate. Then one day I came into my home and my mother was cooking mushrooms. I disliked mushrooms so much that the smell of them used to make me nauseous.

Everybody else loved my mother’s mushrooms. When I started feeling nauseous, I contemplated why the same smell that made me nauseous was very pleasurable to other people. My conclusion was that deciding whether we like or dislike a smell or flavour is, to a large extent, in our heads. So I decided at that moment to love everything – and it worked! Since that time there are now only a couple of flavours that I find challenging (basically molasses and caraway), but only when they are very overpowering. From that day to the present, mushrooms and bitter greens are among my favourite foods!

The point of my story is that those of us who find bitter foods and herbs challenging can learn to like them, if we change our attitude. I regularly remind my students that it is best if we learn to like the flavours of all of the herbs that we use. It’s an important way to cultivate a good relationship with the medicines.

The Bitter Wild Greens

I’m always amazed at how perfectly Nature provides us with everything that we need. In the spring, many plant foods and medicines become available that provide us with exactly what we need to support our transition from winter.  It’s beneficial to eat them at any time of year, but especially in the spring when they are most readily available. These greens are extremely nutritious and detoxifying and we will get the greatest health benefits if we eat a variety of them, both raw and cooked.

Recently there has been a growing trend towards eating more local and wild foods. As a result, wild foods are becoming more available at local markets, and even major supermarkets. Although in theory this is a good thing, it’s important to keep in mind that harvesting wild species can lead to the depletion, and even extinction, of local populations. There are too many of us and wild-harvesting foods on a commercial level is unsustainable, except for a few very plentiful wild greens such as garlic mustard, dandelion, and chicory. However, in the case of the latter two plants, there are cultivars that are grown commercially, making commercial wild harvesting unnecessary.

As a result, I discourage purchasing wild foods from commercial sources. It’s better to encourage local farmers to grow them and even better to grow them ourselves. However, learning how to identify and wild harvest them on a small scale for personal use is a great way to spend some quality time in Nature and bring home some tasty, nutritious, and detoxifying foods. We just need to be careful to harvest them only in areas where they are plentiful and not to over-harvest them.

When it comes to greens, some of them can be quite bitter, especially when cooked. We can adjust that by mixing them with milder tasting greens such as kale, chard, spinach, or beet greens. Adding some lemon juice will also neutralize some of the bitterness, but not too much! We don’t want to neutralize it completely.

Here are some examples of wild greens that are readily available in our region:
• Dandelion greens can be eaten raw or cooked. They are best harvested in spring after they’ve had an opportunity to grow some new leaves, but before they go into flower. At this stage, they may already have flower buds at the centre of the leaf rosettes. That is ok, as long as the bud stalks haven’t started growing. The larger leaves can also be harvested in June, after the plant has finished flowering. They are more bitter at that time and best mixed with some milder tasting greens.
• Chicory greens are very similar to dandelion. They should be harvested in April or May, before their flowering stalks start to develop. Early spring chicory tends to be more bitter than early dandelion. There are commercial cultivars of both dandelion and chicory that have larger, less bitter leaves. Some common vegetables, such as radicchio and belgian endive, are actually cultivars of chicory.
• Stinging Nettles are not as bitter as dandelion and chicory. They are harvested in April or May, when they are about four to six inches tall. It is important not to harvest more than 25% of the young nettles in any given area or it will over-stress the plants. Large colonies of nettles are usually only a few plants with many leafy stalks that are connected by underground rhizomes.
• Wild leeks are similar to garlic when eaten raw, or to onions when cooked. They have already been over-harvested and wiped out in many areas. To help maintain their population, the bulbs should not be harvested. Each plant produces two (or occasionally three) leaves. We only harvest one leaf per plant; otherwise the plant will die.
• Garlic mustard is a somewhat invasive species that lives in open woodlands and transition areas. It is virtually impossible to over-harvest. As a result, this is a good herb to get to know. It is very common in both urban and rural areas and probably the best green to wild-harvest because it is so plentiful. The top 50% of the plant is harvested in late April or early May, just as it’s coming into flower. The leaves are delicious raw in salads. As a cooked green, it is very similar to rapini (to which it is closely related), but a little more bitter. When cooked, it is best mixed with other milder tasting greens.
• Purslane, Lamb’s Quarters, Pigweed – Anyone who has a garden knows that, as soon as you till the soil, there are a lot of plants that sprout up all over the place. Several of these are great late spring edibles and it’s a good idea to let them grow between the rows of whatever we are cultivating until they are big enough to harvest. Purslane is a creeping plant that often pops up in gardens. It is best eaten raw in salads. Pigweed (a type of amaranth) and lamb’s quarters are excellent cooked greens. They are best harvested in June, when they are about six to eight inches tall. I love all cooked greens, but lamb’s quarters is my favourite. It tastes like a stronger, wilder version of spinach. Along with nettles, it is the best wild green to mix with more bitter plants to make them more palatable.
• Fiddleheads – These are the opening leaves of the ostrich fern. Commercially available sources are almost always wild-harvested and I don’t recommend purchasing them. If we are harvesting fiddleheads ourselves, it is important not to harvest more than two or three fiddleheads per fern because they only produce a limited number of leaves and harvesting too many of them will stress out, or even kill, the plant. Fiddleheads should not be eaten raw. Although they are very nutritious, even cooked it is best not to eat too many because they can be mildly toxic when consumed in excess.

The Bitter Bite of Vegetables and Spices

Whether or not we choose to harvest wild greens, there are plenty of cultivated greens readily available. Great raw greens include any edible sprouts, mixed green salads, arugula, baby kale, spinach, radicchio, belgian endive, and watercress. Cooked greens can include spinach, chard, beet leaves, collard, kale, rapini, mustard greens, as well as culinary cultivars of dandelion and chicory.

There are also some mildly bitter root herbs that are quite good as foods when they are young and not too bitter or tough. The most readily available are Jerusalem artichokes, but the young roots of dandelion, chicory, and burdock are similar though a little stronger tasting. They make excellent additions to soups and stews. They taste like a stronger version of Jerusalem artichokes. Coffee substitutes made from roasted dandelion and/or chicory root are also great.

Many spices can also be used to add a bit of bitterness to meals, including turmeric, ginger, celery seed, fenugreek, asafoetida, and others.

Before we leave the topic of greens, it’s important to keep in mind that plants from the mustard family have thyroid-suppressing properties when consumed raw. Therefore, anyone who is hypothyroid should minimize consumption of raw mustard family plants. Of those that I’ve mentioned, the ones from the mustard family include garlic mustard, arugula, kale, watercress, collard, rapini, and mustard greens. Also from this family are broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, and kohlrabi.

Bitter Herbs

Bitter herbs are very important to the practice of herbalism. They can also be taken at this time of year to support the liver and general cleansing process. However, the bitterness of some herbs is due to very strong chemical constituents that are potentially toxic if misused. These herbs are not suitable for everyday use. They are used in more serious and specialized situations, and usually short term. This is particularly the case for herbs that contain bitter alkaloids such as barberry (Berberis vulgaris) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).

For general cleansing purposes we mostly use milder bitters such as dandelion root, leaf, and flower (Taraxacum officinale), chicory root and herb (Cichorium intybus), burdock root (Arctium spp.), and elecampane root (Inula helenium).

We can create a simple formulation consisting of several of these herbs. To intensify the bitterness of our formulation, we can add a small amount (5 – 10%) of a more strongly bitter herb. The stronger bitters that are not associated with potential toxicity include burdock leaf, elecampane leaf, yarrow herb (Achillea millefolium), boneset herb (Eupatorium perfoliatum), blue vervain herb (Verbena hastata), white vervain herb (Verbena urticifolia), white horehound herb (Marrubium vulgare), and yellow gentian root (Gentiana lutea). These herbs can be taken as a tincture or tea, but not in capsules or tablets. It is best to take them two to three times per day, before or after meals (before is preferable), if we want to maximize their digestive benefits.

Whether using foods or herbs or both, anyone who is pregnant, nursing, taking prescription medications, or has a serious illness should be cautious about detoxifying, and should not use the stronger bitter herbs. If you fall into one of these categories, or if you are doing some kind of detox and you experience any unusual symptoms, it is best to consult with a qualified herbalist or other practitioner familiar with the use of these foods and herbs.

Bitter foods tend to have a bad rap these days. This is mostly because our food preferences have been distorted by over-consumption of too many over-processed food-like substances. As I’ve discussed above, the lack of bitter in our diet comes with significant health consequences.

With a little work, we can bring our diet back into balance and even learn to enjoy bitter foods. And what better time than right now? Have a great spring!

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