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November 5, 2014

The bitters truth (for digestive health)

Digestive bitters refers to two elements: something that helps the digestive process, and something that has a bitter flavor.

Campari wouldn’t be the same without it

Digestive bitters are composed of a combination of medicinal herbs, some having a strong bitter flavor.  They have been used throughout European history, to stimulate the digestive system in preparation for eating, as well as soothe and heal various digestive symptoms.  Commonly used for several hundred years as a pre-meal aperitif, or post-meal digestif, they fell out of favor for a time, now recently resurfacing most popularly in the form of cocktail bitters.  Well known bitters include Campari, which forms the basis of the Negroni and other cocktails.

Less well known are the medicinal digestive bitters formulas, which are used specifically to create digestive wellness and heal digestive symptoms.  I’ve recently discovered a medicinal digestive bitters formula that I really like, produced by a company named Urban Moonshine, in Vermont.

A bitter history

Throughout history, humans have eaten a wide variety of plants, many of which had very strong bitter and sour flavors.  The modern industrial agricultural system has bred out these strong flavors in favor of mellower, sweeter flavors.  Take for example the mellow taste of iceberg lettuce compared to the bitter twinge of radicchio.  Our body’s digestive system has adapted to the taste of bitter flavors over thousands of years, and relies on the bitter flavor to trigger essential digestive functions.

Rousing the digestive system

The bitter flavor presents a positive challenge to the body.  When we taste the bitter flavor strongly on our tongue, the “doorbell” of the digestive system, it relays a signal to the digestive system: prepare for digestion.  The body then “wakes up”, releasing saliva from the salivary glands, bile from the liver, hydrochloric acid in the stomach, and enzymes in the pancreas – our own homemade digestive chemical factory.  Many digestive illnesses are due to a lack of this “juiciness”.  Generally speaking, it’s better to produce our own digestive juices, which are tailor-made for us, rather than receiving them in pill form (although bitters can definitely complement digestive enzymes and other supplements).

Because these digestive juices burn up and break down our food, they are referred to in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medical systems as the “digestive fire”.   When we have good digestive fire, we easily break down, absorb and eliminate our food.   When our digestive fire is weak, we have difficulty coping with the food we eat, leading to malabsorption, irregular elimination, and GI system inflammation.

Therefore good digestive health is a key element in healing any kind of disease, and in gaining/re-gaining optimal health: “The root of health is great digestion”.  Bitters spark and engage the digestive fire.

How digestive bitters help particular symptoms:

Acid Reflux / GERD / Heartburn

  • Helps astringe and tone the valves and sphincters in the digestive system, preventing both reflux and excessively fast movement of food through the system.
  • Encourages production of hydrochloric acid.  Many experts now believe that heartburn is due not to an excess of acid but a deficiency of acid.

Gas, Bloating, Nausea

  • The carminative oils with high essential oil content warm up the digestive fire, decrease tension and relax spasms in the gut tissues.  This reduces gas, bloating, and nausea.

Regulate Appetite

  • For low appetite: stimulates production of digestive juices, prompting an increase in appetite.
  • For excessive appetite: by taking digestive bitters 10-15 minutes before a meal, the body has been prepared for receiving food.  Because the digestive juices are ready to go, the digestive process is faster and more efficient, more quickly creating a feeling of satiation and fullness.

Sugar Cravings

  • A couple drops of bitters on the tongue can help to dissipate sugar cravings

Brain Fog and Mental Clarity

  • Due to the connection between gut and brain function (described in both Western and Chinese Medicine), bitters can help us clear the mind, thus inspiring mental clarity and restoring natural, spontaneous creativity

Food allergies

  • Priming the digestive system helps the body break down food more thoroughly, and earlier in the digestive process, therefore avoiding immune and inflammatory over-reactions that occur due to insufficiently broken down food in the small and large intestines.

Encourages our own production of stomach acid, bile, pancreatic enzymes

  • By regularly triggering the release of digestive juices, the body gets in the habit of producing its own digestive chemicals, reducing the need to rely on pills and supplements to replace them.

Provide food for beneficial probiotic bacteria

  • Inulin in dandelion and burdock roots provide prebiotic nutrients that feed beneficial gut bacteria populations.

Encourages detoxification of the liver and skin

  • By calming internal inflammation, bitter benefit the liver, skin, and many other body systems.

This article is based on a conference call given by Jovial King, herbalist and CEO of Urban Moonshine.  Jeremy Riesenfeld, L.Ac., and Transformational Acupuncture proudly carry their line of organic, locally-grown-when-possible, safe and gently formulated herbal products.

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