If you have been following the current media trends you will see that sugar is out and bitters are in! How did one of the most revolting tastes become so big and trendy? What is the story of bitters? As a naturopathic physician and herbalist, I have long been excited by bitters. I loved making herbal potions for friends only to see their faces turn to a bitter frown after tasting the drink. The history of bitters is fascinating and enlightening. It conjures up images of a mountainous field of herbs, old monasteries, and monks making mysterious ancient formulas that taste, well, bitter. There is an old saying that herbalists have said: “ bitter to the tongue then sweet to the stomach, and sweet to the tongue then bitter to the stomach”. This saying give us a good understanding of how bitters can help stimulate and enhance digestion.
The classic understanding is that bitter foods and herbs help stimulate stomach acid (HCL) and digestive enzymes. It would be indicated in conditions of low appetite, gas and bloating. In fact, bitters are so popular that they are many kinds in every bar; every classic drink has a dash or two of bitters. In fact, there is research that bitters may help decrease the desire for alcohol. Oh, this must be a bartender secret to bring the evening drinking to an end, extra bitters!
The classic bitter herb is the mountain-loving Gentiana lutea or yellow gentian. The root contains secoiridoid glycosides amarogentin and gentiopicrin that are pure bitter without any aromatic flavor. Recent studies on gentian root are exciting. In a 2016 study (1) has shown that eating bitter gentian root before a meal can help decrease the appetite for the next 24 hours, leading to up to 25% reduction in calorie intake. With the huge increase in obesity and diabetes, this may be a simple method for helping overcome the challenge of too much food. Maybe bitters need to be prominently placed on the table with salt and pepper to make it easy to dose one's self before a meal. This is actually a great clinical tip because it will easily remind patients to take their bitters before or after a meal.
In another 2016 study (2) the authors researched the ability of gentian root extract and the isovitexin found in the root to support lowering of blood sugar and prevent endothelial inflammation and smooth muscle cell migration which can lead to artery thickening. In a 2010 study (3), the authors suggest that bitter agents which stimulate the bitter receptors to call T2R may stimulate natural intestinal incretins. These compounds help stimulate insulin and lower blood sugar. They conclude that bitter agents may have a future role in the development of diabetic lowering drugs. In fact, herbalists and naturopathic physicians can use bitter extract like gentian right now to help and not wait years for the development of expensive bitter drugs.
The use of bitters is expanding beyond the digestive tract, research studies like the ones mentioned above and other studies have given us new insight for bitter use which extends beyond the digestive tract. In a way it makes sense, bitter agents to help balance the epidemic of sugar overindulgence. The new use of bitters may help support the treatment of the epidemic of diabetes and cardiovascular disease that leads to chronic illness.
The following video is a presentation on The New Face of Bitter Herbs that offers more detail on this subject and additional bitter herbs.
So now when we make a toast with our favorite drink, make sure it has a good dose of herbal bitters to help support our health. Let's take bitters for health if we can learn to enjoy the taste or at least to tolerate the new face of bitters.
About Dr. Nagel, ND RH (AHG)
Glen has been a practicing herbalist and all around herbal wise guy for the last 25 years. Glen's background as an herbalist began with an apprenticeship with Herbal Ed Smith and Sara Katz, as well as Ryan Drum Ph.D. and Cascade Anderson Geller. Glen’s passion is to have students learning directly from the plants. Glen has a lifelong interest in plants and nature and believes in teaching with humor and hands-on experience. Glen is also a licensed naturopathic physician.
1. Microencapsulated bitter compounds (from Gentiana lutea) reduce daily energy intakes in humans, BJN Vol 116, Issue 10. November 2016, pp. 1841-1850
2. Gentiana lutea exerts anti-atherosclerotic effects by preventing endothelial inflammation and smooth muscle cell migration; Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular diseases: (2016) 26, 293-301.
3. T1R and T2R receptors: The modulation of incretin hormones and potential targets for the treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus; Curr. Opin. Investig. Drugs. (2010) April; 11(4): 447–454.