The Healing Properties of Bitters

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Photo courtesy Fotolia/Elenathewise
Bitters offer many healing properties, though one must first get past the taste!

The Plant Healer’s Path (Plant Healer Press, 2013) addresses topics vital to an empowered, effective herbal practice, including many issues that have not been addressed by mainstream sources. Jesse Wolf Hardin, a renowned herbalist and co-founder of Plant Healer Magazine, brings to readers enchanting tales, profiles of many medicinal plants, and recipes favored by herbalists. The following excerpt is taken from “Discernment, Critical Thinking, and Response,” and explains the importance of bitters, an herbal remedy that aides in digestion and metabolism..

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Bitters are some of our most effective and widely applicable medicines. They are also easy to come by and simple to integrate into our lives. The longstanding popularity of proprietary bitter formulas bespeaks the usefulness of such preparations.

Very simply, a bitter is an herb with a predominantly bitter taste, and the activation of that taste in the mouth stimulates the secretion of digestive juices throughout the body. By necessity then, bitters must be tasted in order work their magic. Bitters theoretically stimulate the activity of the digestive organs, triggering or increasing the flow of acids and juices, releasing enzymes and generally improving both appetite and digestion. Many bitters are especially efficient at increasing the metabolism of fats and proteins. However, bitters do not just stimulate digestion, they also tighten/tone the mucosa.

It is overwhelmingly common in our culture to suffer from insufficient amounts of digestive fluids (including acids, biles and enzymes) resulting in nutrient malapsorbtion, chronic digestive infections and syndromes such as heartburn and reflux that many people associate with too much stomach acid. Lowered gastric secretion also significantly contributes to gut inflammation and thus food intolerances and allergies.

Many schools of traditional medicine view the stomach and digestive functions as the center of health and vitality. If the digestive fire is low, then the whole organism will suffer and there will be a cascade effect throughout the body. For the immune system to work properly, our digestive system must be working properly. All parts and functions of the body are connected and interdependent but the digestion, and thus the metabolism, are the core from which all wellness flows.

In Traditional Western Herbalism, bitters are especially associated with the liver. Indeed, the bitter taste can both stimulate and cool the liver (and gallbladder), often significantly improving poor digestion directly related to a sluggish or damp liver by increasing hepatic tone and bile flow. Chronic hepatitis is almost always benefited by the use of appropriate bitters as both herbs and food. And on another level, certain kinds of anger (usually outbursts of reactionary anger) can be cooled by a good dose of bitters.

The pancreas is also directly effected by bitters, and they help regulate the secretion of pancreatic hormones. Additionally, they can be very helpful in the modulation of blood sugar and insulin. In close relationship to the effects on both the liver and pancreas, bitter herbs and foods can often dramatically help the irritability, bloating, moodiness and digestive upset of PMS.

Where there is depression with feelings of sluggishness bitters can help by clearing removing and stagnation in the tissues. Bitters also clear heat (inflammation) and infection from the tissues. Strong bitters such as Oregon Grape Root and Rue have a long reputation for eradicating bacterial infection and general inflammation in the body.

In general, bitters move energy in the body, usually in a downwards motion. It is especially efficient at releasing heat, dampness and phlegm down and out of the organism. Bitters have long been broadly classified as cooling (likely because of their anti-inflammatory action) but in actuality they range all the way cold to hot. Regarding humidity, they tend towards a drying and reducing action, although there are mucilaginous bitters such as Fenugreek. The downward movement can help facilitate a sense of groundedness as long as the drying properties are not excessive for the individual. Where there is constitutional dryness I would recommend either formulating a blend that also nourishes the vital fluids or picking a single bitter herb that also has demulcent properties.

As with all herbs, not all bitters are appropriate for all people, but food-like mild bitters are beneficial to just about everyone. Traditional diets of wild foods usually, if not always, included significant portions of bitter greens, roots and seeds.

Therapeutically and practically, I would suggest that most people use bitters before meals either as salad greens or as an elixir or tincture of some kind. Bitter roots like Calamus or Angelica can also be chewed before and after eating. Many people even find that when they’re craving sweets, a hit of bitterness will help them move through that, and fulfill whatever bodily need was causing it.

We Westerners don’t usually care much for the taste of bitter foods likely because of the utter dearth of it in modern diets. I used to hate bitter tastes, I wouldn’t even eat Dandelion or Mustard greens, they literally made me gag. I had such a thing for sweets and couldn’t abide the bitter. Turns out bitter was just what I needed. I can’t even begin to emphasize what an important part of my digestive and emotional recovery it has been and continues to be. You should have seen me trying to get them down in the beginning, I made some awful faces. Now I actually love them, and think salad is really weird without some bitter greens. It really can be a learned taste, especially once the body recognizes that, wow, this is exactly what it’s been looking for.

Bitters Differentials

I have previously discussed some of the benefits and actions of bitters in on my blog, and here I want to provide some hints on telling when a particular plant might be more appropriate than another in any given situation. I’ve provided my assessment of energetics, basic actions and specific indications. As usual, I have not chosen a large number of herbs, preferring to focus on the remedies I know well. In this way I’m able to provide a better sense of the chosen plants even if there’s not a huge variety. All those represented here grow in the canyon or somewhere nearby, and make up my understanding of the archetypal bitters of this place.

Moonwort/Western Mugwort (Artemisia ludoviciana and spp.) – Cool, dry – Liver Relaxing

This is perhaps my personal favorite of the bitters, it’s aromatic intensity teaming up with a profoundly bitter taste for an effect on the gut that is both protective and stimulating. Especially good for when the digestive juices dry up due to stress and the belly shuts down, leaving all your food fermenting and churning in your gut. Also very useful for those with hepatitis and other forms of hot liveredness (yes, I made that word up) or gallbladder congestion that manifests as an inability to digest food, bloating, looking a bit greenish yellow around the gills and a frontal headache.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – Cool, dry – Liver Relaxing

An intensely diuretic bitter with a talent for cooling and relaxing the overheated livers of those affected by solvents, hepatitis and alcoholism. It’s also a prime choice for those with digestive problems related to high blood pressure, water retention, gout and other overly anabolic leanings. It can, however, cause low blood pressure in susceptible individuals.

Oregon Grape Root(Mahonia spp.) – Cool, dry – Liver Stimulating

These golden tinged roots are incredibly, mouth frighteningly bitter. They’re so bitter they’ll convince your gut and your mouth to secrete copious digestive juices and enzymes RIGHT NOW. Excellent for people with a pattern of dry mouth, gum disease, low blood pressure, constipation, dry skin, bloating and a red tongue with white-yellow fuzzies. It’ll often totally right the constipation in small doses while completely bypassing the need for harsh laxatives. Oregon Grape Root stimulates a lazy, overtired liver – perking it up with a gentle nudge (or sound kick, depending on what you need) and is a good non-diuretic bitter for those have low blood pressure, are very dry or otherwise need to avoid excess urination. It’s also quite lovely at clearing heat and removing infection throughout the body, from toothaches to bladder infections. Use with caution in cases of liver heat as Oregon Grape Root stimulates liver function through mild irritation, if it triggers any hepatic pain whatsoever, cease taking immediately.

Yarrow(Achillea spp.) – Cool/Warm, Dry – Liver Stimulating

Another fragrant bitter, though gentler than Mugwort. It excels where there are signs of heat with dryness, pelvic congestion, bloating and feeling of stuckness in the belly. It often works quite nicely for various forms of food poisoning (as do Mugwort and Oregon Grape Root). Although it can taste and seem quite innocuous, I have sometimes had Yarrow activate digestion where nothing else would work.

Blisswort/Skullcap(Scutellaria spp.) – Cool, Dry – Liver Relaxing

Not all Skullcaps qualify as truly bitter, but the Scutellaria of the Canyon borders on nauseatingly bitter. Intensely relaxing, anti-spasmodic and digestively stimulating. Skullcap is a great remedy for those have digestive issues related to tension or anxiety. This can be especially helpful for women (or men) recovering from eating disorders, the nervine properties serving to relax food fear and allow them to be chill enough to listen to their bodies and focus on the experience of eating. Especially good people who tend to get edgy, reactive and even hostile when anyone expects them to eat, or stop eating.

Vervain(Verbena and Glandularia spp.) – Cool, Dry – Liver Relaxing

Much of what I said about Skullcap as a nerve relaxant and digestive stimulant also applies to Vervain. Its unique abilities shine in people who are prone to compulsive, hormonally motivated food cravings, especially those women with who have a hard time with the second part (post-ovulation) of their menstrual cycle. Their PMS often manifests as the need to “bathe in blood” and go on a feeding frenzy. They’re easily irritated, and may actually bite you if you come any closer to their chocolate. Vervain cools down an overheated, tense liver that feels like it’s tied in knots and the tension is radiating out into their bodies and lives.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) – Warm, dry – Liver Stimulating

The bitterness and aromatic qualities of this plant seems to greatly vary depending on spp., location and time of harvest. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful digestive tonic that not only stimulates the juices but like all aromatic, also moves energy (and wind) through the body when it is stuck. Nice where there’s extreme fatigue, some edema and bloating. A very nice kidney remedy as well.

A Favorite Bitters Formula

(Keep in mind I didn’t say it tasted good, I only said it worked)

3 Parts Mugwort
1 Part White Horehound
1 Part Orange Peel
1/2 Part Skullcap
1/2 Part fresh Ginger

More from The Plant Healer’s Path:

Amateur Herbalist: The Healing Power of Spanish Needles
Pursuing your Education in Herbalism
Walking the Path of Herbalism

Reprinted with permission from The Plant Healer’s Path: A Grassroots Guide for the Folk Herbal Tribe by Jesse Wolf Hardin with Kiva Rose and published by Plant Healer Press, 2013. Buy this book from our store: The Plant Healer’s Path.