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The health benefits of bitter tonics

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Photo by Chris Casella

We all learned in school that we have taste receptors on our tongue: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. As Americans, we have studiously avoided the bitter and have an exaggerated fondness for the sweet. We also eat less unprocessed foods than other cultures and more refined flours and sugars. All of this has taken its toll on our collective digestion, skin health and immune systems. (1)

What if I told you there was a general tonic we all should be taking that would make us healthier? That it helped regulate blood sugar, energy levels, the immune system and more? That our bodies were built to have it, but as a culture we have denied ourselves this tonic in our food, and now we need to take extra measures to replace it in our diet? This tonic: bitters.

What are bitters? They are simply things that taste bitter in flavor: dandelion, gentian, coffee, dark chocolate and greens are all bitters.

Many traditional cultures around the world believe that it is important to have all four flavors included in the diet and that each flavor has a specific effect on the body. The flavor of bitter is very much associated with the digestive system. As human beings, we evolved eating tons and tons of bitters – bitter greens, bitter roots, bitter barks. The majority of food growing in the wild has an element of bitterness to it. Even the ripest wild blackberry is not purely sweet; it also has a little sour, a little bitter to its flavor profile. Early humans rarely consumed sweets, as refined sugar and corn syrup were not available. Maple syrup was a seasonal treat, and honey was sparingly used to last all year long.

Here in the United States, we consume an immense amount of sweet, salty and processed food, and we have a severe dearth of bitterness. But our bodies are built for these bitter flavors. Bitter engages and excites the digestive system. Bitter challenges the body, alerting it through taste that a complex food is being ingested, more nutrient-rich than heavily processed foods. It’s very important for the body to be challenged – it keeps us strong, on our toes, ready for action. Bitters are like going to the gym for the digestive system; they help to keep it toned.

When you take a bitters tonic, the first thing you will notice (after the bitter taste) is a flood of saliva. That’s because your digestive system has been cued. The same thing is happening in your stomach – gastric juices are being secreted, waiting for an influx of dense food.

Bitters are a true tonic that should be taken regularly over time in the same way that bitter foods would be consumed (if we Americans consumed them, that is). Continued use of digestive bitters is not only safe, it is the best way to use them. The positive benefit of bitters on digestion actually increases with time, and the full effect is seen only after continued and prolonged use. As an herbalist, I tell most folks to take bitters, but I especially recommend them to anyone who has digestive issues like GERD, reflux, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowels or sluggish digestion. They are also invaluable to diabetics and folks with slow-to-the-draw immune systems.

Did you know that the benefits of bitters extend beyond digestion? Skin and immunity can improve from regular use, and bitters also increase the quality of the autonomic nervous system (the system that energizes the digestive organs). The effect on the nervous system extends beyond the digestive organs and helps reduce anxiety and overall stress – and who doesn’t need that?

So where to get your bitters? What variety should you get? While all bitter tastes stimulate the receptors, find an all-natural product that contains enough bitter tastes to have a therapeutic effect. The difference between cocktail bitters (the kind available at liquor stores) and bitter tonics (available at herb stores, health stores and apothecaries) is profound. Many cocktail bitters have hardly any bitter flavors at all, and most have too many sweet, fruity or artificial tastes to be a digestive tonic (or considered healthy). Instead, opt for an herbalist-made bitter tonic with all natural ingredients. These products will have alcohol and herbs only. Some common bitter herbs include: gentian, hops, burdock, quassia, dandelion, marshmallow and yellow dock.

Adding bitters to your supplements will result in better digestion and absorption of nutrients, stable blood-sugar levels, a more effective liver and gall bladder and faster metabolism. Try some today!

(1) Digestion, skin health and the immune system are closely linked; 90 percent of the immune system is in the gut, and the skin is an organ of elimination – toxins that we ingest come out through the skin as well as the digestive tract.

Lily Shahar Kunning is an herbalist who owns and operates Clintonville’s Boline Apothecary.

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