"Healthy bile flow helps rid the liver of waste products such as oxidized cholesterol and hormonal metabolites, prevents gall stone formation, and provides lubrication of the intestines, easing the passage of stool."
THE BITTER REFLEX AND ITS IMPLICATIONS
When a bitter substance is recognized by bitter receptors on the tongue, a chain of neural and endocrine events begins, labeled as the “bitter reflex.” Mediated by the release of the gastric hormone gastrin, this reflex results in an overall stimulation of digestive function, which over time strengthens the structure and function of all digestive organs (liver, stomach, gallbladder, pancreas, etc.). Let’s take a more in-depth look at this reflex.
Imagine you’ve tasted a bitter-tasting substance. Within fifteen to thirty minutes, your appetite is noticeably increased, your digestive juices are flowing, and your intestines begin to contract in anticipation of food.
Starting in your mouth, you’ll notice that your salivary glands have increased their output of enzyme-rich saliva, helping to break down complex starches into smaller and more easily digested oligosaccharides.
In the stomach, the hormone gastrin has stimulated the secretion of hydrochloric acid. The acidity helps break down protein, enhances the bioavailability of many minerals (especially calcium) and destroys any harmful microbes present in your food. It’s interesting to note that more people have levels of gastric acid that are too low rather than the opposite, due to stress or simply aging. Low levels of gastric acid contribute to poor nutrition and increased susceptibility to gastrointestinal infections.
Considered cooling by nature, bitters can reduce hot inflammatory conditions.
Interestingly, low stomach acidity is associated with a variety of allergic and immune-mediated disorders, including asthma; skin disorders such as eczema, psoriasis and rosacea; gallbladder disease and arthritis.
Gastrin also stimulates secretion of pepsin—an enzyme necessary for breaking large protein molecules into smaller parts—and intrinsic factor, necessary for the absorption of vitamin B12.
The smooth muscle of the stomach is also stimulated by the bitter reflex, which increases the rate of gastric emptying, and contracts the esophageal sphincter to prevent the movement of acidic stomach contents upwards into the esophagus. Self-repair mechanisms in the intestinal wall are stimulated, enhancing cell division and growth. While many people with GERD are hesitant to partake of bitters due to the potential increase in stomach acidity, the combined effect of these actions actually can help this condition by ensuring that the stomach contents are moved downward rather than allowed to reflux back up and out of the stomach. Bitters also act to heal any damage done to the gastric mucosa.
Down in the small intestine, the stimulation caused by the bitter taste prompts your liver to increase its production of bile, and your gallbladder to increase bile excretion. Bile is necessary for fat digestion and the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, D and E. Healthy bile flow helps rid the liver of waste products such as oxidized cholesterol and hormonal metabolites, prevents gall stone formation, and provides lubrication of the intestines, easing the passage of stool. It should not be surprising that by enhancing movement of waste products out of the liver, bitter herbs have been found to exert a protective effect in liver conditions such as hepatitis and cirrhosis.
COMMON BITTER HERBS
- Chamomile : Matricaria chamomilla. A mild bitter herb used as a sedative and antispasmodic. Its curative properties include relief of both fever and restlessness.
- Dandelion : Taraxacum. A mild bitter herb used as a blood cleanser and diuretic. Also said to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Still used in traditional cooking in the Mediterranean and parts of Asia.
- Goldenseal : Hydrastis canadensis. A strong bitter herb used to stimulate appetite and eliminate infections. In Collections for an Essay Toward a Materia Medica of the United States (1804), Professor Benjamin Smith Barton declared goldenseal a tonic, observing, “The root of the plant is a very powerful bitter.”
- Horehound : Marrubium vulgare. Dating back to Ancient Egypt, horehound is believed to be one of the original bitter herbs of the Bible. It has been used for colds and respiratory ailments (such as in cough syrup and throat lozenges).
- Milk Thistle : Silybum marianum. Also known as “sow-thistle,” this herb was likely one of the original bitter herbs. In healing, it’s known as a powerful liver detoxifier, as well as an antidote for Amanita-mushroom poisoning.
- Peppermint : Mentha piperita. Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote of peppermint, “The very smell of it alone recovers and refreshes the spirit.” The ancient herb is used as a flavor, a fragrance, and medicine. Peppermint oil is used to allay nausea and stomach aches.
- Rue : Ruta. A strong bitter herb used as an antispasmodic, a sedative, and a mild stomachic. Mentioned in the Bible as “peganon” and in William Shakespeare’s Richard III — “Here is this place/I’ll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace.”
- Wormwood : Artemisia absinthium. A perennial plant used as an antiseptic, tonic, diuretic, and stomachic. The herb’s strong bitter taste is still used in wines and spirits, such as vermouth.
- Yarrow : Achilles millefolium. A flowering plant that produces a mild bitter herb used as an astringent and cold remedy. The entire herb can be used.