Bitter Can Be Better — For Your Health
by Stacy Thomas | August 28, 2020, updated 3 months ago
The next time you’re in a trendy bar (if you go to those) check out the menu and I bet you’ll be able to find at least one cocktail that includes Angostura or bitters.
Bitterness Through the Ages
Herbal bitters have been popular since the 19th century when it was used pharmacologically as a stomach aid and tonic. In the late 1800s bars all over the world were splashing high-proof herbal concoctions into their drinks. Before that, bitter tinctures and tonics were used regularly in traditional medicines—traces of bitters have been found on Egyptian artifacts, and Romans added bitter ingredients to their wines to help digestion during overindulgence.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which adheres to the theory of the Five Elements (Wood, Water, Fire, Earth and Metal), bitter is the flavour that triggers the Fire element. According to TCM the Fire element dominates the heart and small intestine, as well as the fight, flight or freeze response, and pericardium (self love and relationships) meridians. To activate the fire element is to activate our “heart filter”, helping us create healthy emotional and spiritual connections by keeping negativity out and positivity in.
Our Digestive Health Equals Our Overall Health
You don’t need to be a drinker to get bitters into your diet. Eating greens like kale, endive, dandelion, and citrus peel activate the bitter receptors (T2Rs) in your digestive system, causing a chain reaction of beneficial effects that help to improve your digestive health and your mental health.
Our tongues register five flavours: sweet, salty, sour, umami, and bitter. Each flavour has its own purpose in our digestion systems. We enjoy the taste of sweet because it identifies rich sources of energy. Sourness, while it includes many beneficial foods like fermented foods, helps us avoid eating rotten or spoiled things.
Our bitter receptors are the most sensitive of the five basic tastes. It’s a protective flavour, meaning it has evolved as a line of defense against eating poisonous or toxic food. When stimulated, our bitter receptors signal a strong digestive action in the gut with increased digestive juices, and bile production to deal with potentially dangerous compounds. This increased action improves our absorption of vitamins and minerals from our food.
The Positive Effects of Bitter Foods
Bitter flavours can improve our overall health. Bitters have a tonic effect, meaning that if they are consumed regularly over an extended period of time, there will be an observable increase in wellness and vitality. This is because, as digestion improves, organs are better supported, nutrients are better absorbed, and blood flow to the heart and brain is increased.
The simple act of overeating at a party can have unfortunate consequences, including heart palpitations, bloating, and gastric reflux. Consuming bitters before, during, or after these occasions can protect against these effects by increasing digestive juices, and breaking down food more efficiently.
Research has shown that the consumption of bitter foods shuts down the receptors in our brains that cause us to crave and eat sugar. When we do consume sugar, bitter foods slow our absorption of it and help regulate our blood sugar levels.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Our guts and brains are connected through something called the gut-brain axis. There are 100 billion neurons in the brain, and 500 million neurons in the gut. All these neurons are talking to each other, constantly, through a network of neural connections in your nervous system. When the digestive system is disrupted, these connections are interrupted.
The vagus nerve is the most important of these pathways between the gut and the brain. It sends messages both ways, which means that stress in the mind is relayed through the vagus nerve directly to the gut, resulting in gastrointestinal problems, such as IBS.
When the bitter taste receptors in the mouth are stimulated, signals are sent through the vagus nerve to the salivary gland and the stomach, which activates the digestive system and the appetite. This increased digestive activity means better absorbed nutrients, creating a positive loop between the brain and the gut which leads to better stress responses, and less anxiety.
Bitters Are Easy to Add to Your Diet
There are myriad ways to make bitter flavours a regular part of your diet. Even if you don’t like the taste of bitter right now. Many people report that after consuming bitter tastes for a while, they begin to crave the flavour. In fact, the craving for bitter can replace the craving for sugar, minus the diabetes, and mood spikes and crashes.
- Citrus fruits
- Cruciferous vegetables (including brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, arugula, kale, radishes)
- Dandelion greens
- Green tea
- Bitter melon
Stacy Thomas was born and raised among the orchards of the Okanagan Valley. She studied journalism in Vancouver, B.C., and has worked as a reporter in places such as Germany, Ukraine, Northern B.C. and rural Alberta. Passionate about nature, she now lives in Squamish with her partner Nicki and her rescue dog Harley. She is currently a student of creative writing at the University of British Columbia, where she draws comics and writes poetry.