Friday, December 30, 2011

Ring in the New Year with Bitters (They're Good for You)

BY ACHS Instructor Scott Stuart, L.Ac., B.S., M.A.O.M.

Did you know that the flavor of an herb has a specific action(s) on the energetic state of the body? Herbs have one or more flavors, each of which has a different action on the body. For example, there is a lot that can be said about the flavor “bitter”.

In his book, The Male Herbal, James Green notes, “It is my opinion that the nearly complete lack of bitter flavored foods in the overall U.S. and Canadian diet is a major contributor to common cultural health imbalances such as PMS, other female and male sexual organ dysfunctions, hormonal imbalances, migraine headaches, indigestion, liver and gallbladder dysfunction, abnormal metabolism, hypoglycemia, diabetes, etc.” Green points out that the only bitter flavors we commonly eat might be coffee and chocolate (which are then sweetened), or a well hopped ale or stout.

However, bitter has many beneficial physiological actions. When bitter flavor touches the tongue receptors, it signals the central nervous system to stimulate the exocrine and endocrine glands. This creates a general stimulation of digestive juices to the stomach, liver, pancreas and duodenum, thus improving appetite, digestion, and assimilation.

Along with this, bitter appears to also stimulate the repair of damage to intestinal walls. (Bitter would be contraindicated where the stimulation of stomach acid is not desired, such as in hyperacidity. However, after the healing of an ulcer, bitter speeds the healing.) Bitter also aids the poor overworked liver in detoxification, increases bile flow, and helps the pancreas regulate blood sugar. As bitter stimulates actions and sensations generally within the entire body, there is some evidence it also has an anti-depressant affect as well. As the Chinese have said for a very long time, bitter calms the mind, and guides to the Heart.

Green also speculates about the philosophical, even spiritual, implications of the lack of bitter in our lives, stating: “Hand in hand with the avid avoidance of bitter flavors in the diet, the North American psyche refuses, in general, to deal with the (bitter) “shadows” of its life, routinely projecting the darker side of its own nature onto others (individually in relationships and nationally in foreign policy). We Westerners seem quite unwilling to deal with the difficulties and more bitter struggles in life. We look predominantly towards sweetness and the “American Dream” of living happily ever after.” Food for thought, anyway.

To have its positive affects, bitter must be tasted. Only a small amount is necessary. Too much bitter will have the opposite effect. After all, it always comes back to balance and moderation, does it not?

Some common bitter herbs are gentian (the main herb in Angostura Bitters), dandelion, mugwort, blessed thistle, globe artichoke leaf, chicory, horehound, chamomile, centaury, hops, goldenseal, yarrow, wormwood, and agrimony.

To add a little bitter to your salad, try some cress, endive, dandelion greens, beet greens.

Pregnant women should be cautious in the use of bitter flavored tinctures or concentrates, as they may stimulate uterine contractions. Bitters are also contraindicated for excess menstrual flow and during painful menstrual cramps.

For the rest of us, to learn to appreciate bitter is to return to a more balanced physiology and psychology. Try a little bitter in the diet. It’s good for you!

Image © American College President Dorene Petersen (2001).

*Note the ideas and opinions expressed within this post have been provided for educational purposes only and do not necessarily express the ideas and/or opinions of the American College of Healthcare Sciences. This information is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent disease. Always consult with your primary care physician, naturopathic doctor, or Registered Herbalist before making any significant changes to your health routine.

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