The Bitter Principle

The Bitter Principle

Bitters are varied group of plant constituents linked only by their pronounced bitter taste. Many compounds can be bitter, not any one individual constituent, and it should be noted that bitter is primarily an action. When referring to bitter as a constituent it is referred to as ‘The Bitter Principle’ and is often a volatile oil, alkaloid or sesquiterpene (or some combination).

The bitterness itself stimulates secretions by the salivary glands and digestive organs, and such secretions can dramatically improve appetite and strengthen the overall function of the digestive system. With improved digestion and absorption of nutrients that follow, the body is thereby nourished and strengthened.

Bitter herbs are often hepatics & cholagogues, and must be tasted to produce these effects (although this is controversial within the herbal community). The sensation of bitterness is directed primarily by the vagus nerve to the central nervous system, leading to various physiological effects.

Bitters in Humoral Medical theory are considered to be cooling & drying. Regulating the digestive organs with a quality that congeals fluids, tightens tissues, and pulls energy back to the core. The have an earthy, grounding (or melanocholic temperament) that restrains the mind and can help when feeling scattered and focus is needed. Some herbal examples include:

Major Actions of Bitters:

  • General stimulation of the flow of digestive juices (acid, mucus, enzymes & bile) from the pancreas, duodenum and liver
  • Stimulate appetite
  • Stimulate peristalsis
  • Aid the liver in detoxification
  • Regulatory effect upon secretion by the pancreas of the hormones that regulate blood sugar (insulin & glucagon)
  • Help the gut wall repair damage by stimulating self-repair mechanisms
  • Establish parasympathetic dominance via the vagus nerve (calming to the nervous system)

Biters also have important Secondary Actions, including:

Conditions when bitters are especially useful include:

  • Digestive insufficiency (symptoms of belching, acid reflux, gas, bloating and indigestion)
  • Stress (or Sympathetic dominance)

Safety & Contraindications:

  • Inflammation in the gut (gastritis)
  • Gastric ulcer
  • Elevated/rapid transit time
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis)
  • Pregnancy
  • Kidney stones
  • Acute gall bladder disease
  • Gastro esophageal reflux or hiatal hernia

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