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Agh! This is bitter! While bitter is one of the five tastes (along with sweet, sour, salty, and savory/umami) we use to describe foods, it’s probably the most disliked. Bitter herbs are known from the Old Testament of the Bible as the food representing the bitterness of slavery. Most people tend to gravitate toward sweet or salty snacks or “reward” foods, while savory is accepted as regular mealtime food, and sour is loved for its “pucker power” –especially when combined with sweet. But bitterness tends to have more of a negative connotation. It’s associated with the spinach and swiss chard our mothers tried to get us to eat growing up.

Knowing the connection with green leafy vegetables, you might guess that bitterness is associated with some health benefits. You would be correct. Bitter herbs and foods are bitter due to some valuable health-promoting constituents. These constituents are exactly why The Wellness Way makes such extensive use of bitter herbs.

Why Are Wellness Way Herbs So Bitter?

When you take your first shot glass full of herbal extracts from your Wellness Way practitioner, you may flinch or even gasp. Agh! This is so bitter! Well, that’s because of certain healing constituents (bitter acids) in these herbs. These range from alkaloids, like quinine, to polyphenols, like tannins. Tannins are a good indication of bitters in foods. Wormwood’s main bitter chemical constituent is a terpenoid called “thujone,” while artichoke’s main bitter compound is “cynarin.”

These constituents have been highly researched. Some of them, like morphine and quinine, have been used in allopathic (mainstream) medicine. Taking bitter herbs to promote good digestion and overall health is nothing new. Our ancestors have known the benefits of bitter foods and herbs for generations.

The History of Using Bitter Herbs for Health

Bitter herbs have been used for centuries in cultures across the world. In ancient Egypt, it was common to add bitter herbs to wines as a digestive tonic. Potential herbs used included rosemary, mint, coriander, sage, aloe, and wormwood. The Biblical Old Testament calls for bitter herbs to commemorate the Feast of the Passover with the Seder meal.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which has been around for thousands of years, uses a variety of bitter herb blends for digestion. The Xiaoyao pill combines eight types of TCM to help with indigestion. Chaihu Shugan powder is another TCM bitter herb remedy shown in multiple studies to improve digestion.

Swedish Bitters are commonly found on the shelf at your local natural foods store. This formulation of herbs has been in use since the 1730s and was originally made up of seven bitter ingredients: aloe, rhubarb, saffron, myrrh, gentian, zedoary (related to turmeric), and agarikon (a tree fungus containing quinine). They were mixed with alcohol and some theriac, another herbal medicine that goes back to the ancient Greeks. It was used to warm and strengthen the body, renew the mind, preserve good health into old age, and as an antidote to several diseases.

Angostura Bitters is a well-known blend developed by a German doctor, Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, and sold in Venezuela after being stationed in the army there. This brand is a proprietary blend of ingredients using gentian and other spices that’s now well-known for its use in mixed drinks. In Wisconsin, where The Wellness Way corporate office is located, Angostura Bitters is most often used in the state cocktail, the Brandy Old Fashioned.

Washington Island, located off the end of the Door County peninsula, is famous for its consumption of Angostura bitters. On this island is a historic saloon called Nelsen Hall. During prohibition, the owner sought out a pharmaceutical license so that he could sell bitter herb shots for health.

People flock there from around the world to become card-carrying members of the Nelsen Hall “Bitters Club.” They pour over 10,000 shots each year, making them the #1 seller of Angostura Bitters in the world.

What Can Bitter Herbs Do for You?

Bitter herbs are especially known for their digestive benefits. However, they can also help you fight sugar cravings, balance your hormones, and promote beautiful skin. Here are some of the ways bitter herbs may support vibrant health:

Support Digestion

Lower Inflammation in the gut – A blend of myrrh, chamomile, and coffee charcoal was comparable to the pharmaceutical drug mesalazine (also called mesalamine) for maintaining remission in ulcerative colitis. Ulcerative colitis is characterized by inflammation in the colon. It is classified along with Crohn’s Disease as an Inflammatory Bowel Disease.

Stimulate enzymes & bile – Stimulate digestive enzyme production and bile flow, which can help with fat digestion and prevent liver toxicity.

Lessen acid reflux – Taking certain bitter herbs (Chinese red sage or danshen) could help acid reflux by improving the tone of your esophageal sphincter, which, when working properly, prevents acid from getting into your esophagus. Another Chinese herbal formula, consisting of bupleurum, bitter orange peel, white peony root, honey-fried licorice root, evodia, and Chinese goldthread also shows promise for soothing acid reflux.

Balance Blood Sugar and Reduce Cravings

Lower blood sugar – It depends on the individual herb, but some bitter herbs have been shown to lower blood sugar levels. In a clinical trial of 480 overweight people, a Chinese herb formulation decreased fasting blood sugar levels, improved pancreatic function, and led to weight loss.

Reduce cravings – The bitter taste also helps block sweet-responsive receptors in the brain, reducing sugar cravings. The main bitter herb we use for that at The Wellness Way is Gymnema. Gymnema’s bitter acids also have “antidiabetic, anti-sweetener, and anti-inflammatory activities.”

Support Detoxification Pathways

Support liver health – Bitter herbs have also been shown to support the liver. Bitters from artichoke leaf and root not only protect the liver but also may help it regenerate.

Balance Hormones

Bind estrogen – Because bitters improve bile flow and support liver health, they can help the body bind estrogen metabolites, removing them from circulation. This helps prevent estrogens to build up, leading to estrogen dominance, hormone imbalances, and related issues.

Improve Fertility?

Improve ovary health – New research suggests bitters could improve fertility. It’s well-known that polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is the primary cause of infertility in women. Animal research now shows a bitter extract from hops could address hormonal and metabolic imbalances associated with PCOS, restoring reproductive function to the ovaries.

Protect The Brain

By activating the vagus nerve through the gut-brain axis, bitters seem to reduce inflammation in the brain, showing promise for memory improvement and the reduction of cognitive decline seen in Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

The Swiss Watch Principle and Bitter Herbs

The Swiss Watch Principle states that the body is like a Swiss watch. Each system is like a gear that affects all the others. When you impact your nervous system and digestive system by taking bitter herbs, you positively affect systems throughout your body. You can see that through all the ways bitter herbs support health, as listed above. Restoring the digestive system and associated immune response impacts whole body wellness. Since “all disease begins in the gut,” according to Hippocrates, regular use of bitter herbs, like we do at The Wellness Way, is a great place to begin.

How to Get Your Bitter Taste Back

The more you consume bitter foods and herbs, the more accustomed you will get to the bitter taste. You’re probably already consuming a source of bitters every day –coffee! If you currently add sweeteners and creamers, try weaning yourself off gradually. Embrace the bitter taste of coffee. When you start with The Wellness Way herbs dispensed into a shot glass, the best way to get used to them is to follow immediately with a chaser of some kind. For most Wellness Way employees and patients, that’s likely to be their daily dose of aloe vera juice. Between coffee and Wellness Way herbs, you can start to “get your bitter back” and restore normal digestion. Be sure to include the kids in your quest to restore your bitter taste. Children introduced to bitter foods and herbs early on are more likely to enjoy a wide range of foods as they grow up. Contact a Wellness Way clinic near you to get started!

Resources:

    1. Ancient Egyptian herbal wines | PNAS
    2. Numbers 9:11 Such people are to observe it at twilight on the fourteenth day of the second month. They are to eat the lamb, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs; (biblehub.com)
    3. Xiaoyao pill for treatment of functional dyspepsia in perimenopausal women with depression – PMC (nih.gov)
    4. Modified Chaihu Shugan Powder for Functional Dyspepsia: Meta-Analysis for Randomized Controlled Trial – PMC (nih.gov)
    5. Making Early Modern Medicine: Reproducing Swedish Bitters – PubMed (nih.gov)
    6. Bitter medicine: gout and the birth of the cocktail – The Lancet
    7. Randomised clinical trial: a herbal preparation of myrrh, chamomile and coffee charcoal compared with mesalazine in maintaining remission in ulcerative colitis–a double-blind, double-dummy study – PubMed (nih.gov)
    8. Microsoft Word – 020442.doc (herbalgram.org)
    9. Salvia miltiorrhiza Induces Tonic Contraction of the Lower Esophageal Sphincter in Rats via Activation of Extracellular Ca2+ Influx – PubMed (nih.gov)
    10. Efficacy of Chinese Herbal Formula Sini Zuojin Decoction in Treating Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease: Clinical Evidence and Potential Mechanisms – PMC (nih.gov)
    11. The safety and effectiveness of TM81, a Chinese herbal medicine, in the treatment of type 2 diabetes: a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial – PubMed (nih.gov)
    12. A spoonful of bitter helps the sugar-response go down – PMC (nih.gov)
    13. Gymnema sylvestre: A Memoir – PMC (nih.gov)
    14. Pharmacological Studies of Artichoke Leaf Extract and Their Health Benefits – PubMed (nih.gov)
    15. Bitter Taste Receptor Ligand Improves Metabolic and Reproductive Functions in a Murine Model of PCOS – PubMed (nih.gov)
    16. Hop bitter acids containing a β-carbonyl moiety prevent inflammation-induced cognitive decline via the vagus nerve and noradrenergic system – PMC (nih.gov)
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