The Role of Digestive Bitters in Human Health

Notes from the Digestive Bitters Class…

Defensive Strategies in Nature
All animals have some way to defend themselves. The defensive mechanism may be armor, a poisonous sting or bite, camouflage or the ability to outrun a predator. Some animals, such as mice and rabbits, simply outbreed their predation rate. The goal of all these strategies is to stay alive long enough to reproduce and keep the species extant.

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The root of Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens) is a classic bitter that stimulates the liver

Plants also have predators. A deer is a predator to a tasty leaf. A javelina is a predator to succulent roots. Plants need to defend themselves either by making their food unavailable, being poisonous, tasting bad or simply reproducing abundantly.

Some plants, such as the pinon pine (Pinus edulis) want their seeds to be picked and stored for future food use by pinon jays. The uneaten seeds that have been buried then become the next generation of pine tree.

Role of Bitters in Plants
In the case of bitters, it isn’t enough for a plant to be deadly poisonous if it still tastes good to an herbivore. The animal may die but only after the plant has already been devoured. The role of poison in the plant is much more effective if the plant also has a bitter taste and is unpalatable to the animal. This means the bitter flavor of a plant is a signal to the animal the plant may be poisonous and, ideally, should not be eaten.

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Dandelion is a mild and effective bitter

Our modern diet has a variety of bitter foods that are cultivated and commonly sold in grocery stores. These plants have been domesticated and had the poisonous effect bred out of them while some level of the bitter flavor remains.

The Physiological Response to Bitter
Just as plants evolve ways not to be eaten, herbivores evolve ways around these defenses. One response of humans is to activate the detoxification organs when the bitter taste is experienced, knowing the possibility that a poisonous food has just been ingested. One of the primary organs of detoxification is the liver-gall bladder system. Tasting bitter through food or drink activates the liver-gall bladder and other areas of the body.

The Role of Taste
A bitter substance must be tasted in the mouth to have this stimulating effect. A bitter food that bypasses the taste buds and is placed directly into the digestive system does not have the same effect.

Bitter taste receptors are known as the T2R Receptor Family. This is the most chemically and genetically diverse and complex of all the taste receptors. T2R receptors are found on the tongue and in the throat, stomach, liver, gall bladder, brain and pancreas. Amazingly, T2R receptors are also located in the lungs and breast cells.

Actions Stimulated by Bitters
Some T2R receptors are located in the brain. They signal a toxic plant has been ingested and one should eat less. One result is that including bitter vegetables in the diet leads to lower caloric consumption.

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Burdock root is one of the most commonly used digestive bitters

T2R receptors lower blood glucose by stimulating the liver uptake of sugar from the bloodstream. This leads to an overall lower level of blood sugar. Chronic excess blood sugar is a major cause of obesity and heart disease along with diabetes.

T2R receptors close sphincters between parts of the GI tract. This causes food movement to be slowed which leads to more thorough digestion and less caloric intake. It also slows the release of sugar into the bloodstream.

T2R receptors stimulate the release of the hormone “glucagon-like-peptide 1” (GLP-1) which increases both the release of insulin and insulin-sensitivity in alpha cells and beta cells.

Why Add Digestive Bitters?
The Western diet is basically one where the bitter flavor has been reduced or eliminated and all the above health problems have increased in the general population. With a modern diet, our digestion is not stimulated due to the excess of processed foods. It becomes lazy and ineffective.

Stress is Beneficial
Research shows that a complete lack of stress (emotional, physical, digestive) is unhealthy as is a stress excess. Children who grow up sheltered from all difficulties are less resilient. Our immune systems fail to develop if they are never challenged by an excessively sanitary environment. Muscles lose tone if they are never exercised.

The opposite is also true. An excess of stress in any of these areas is unhealthy. The middle road is best. Mildly stressing our digestion by regularly introducing the (potentially toxic) bitter flavor keeps our GI tract and overall metabolism alert and engaged.

Problems with the Modern Diet
Traditional diets are higher in bitter plants, animal proteins and lower in starches and carbs. Our modern diet has mostly eliminated fiber, bitter, weedy and wild and replaced it with sweet, smooth and tame. The sweet flavor does not activate the gut as do bitters; it simply rewards the brain by helping us feel good.

In wild foods and traditional diets, the sweet flavor is always accompanied by high fiber, which slows entry of sugar into blood stream. The modern diet of sweets has little to no fiber and blood sugar rapidly and dramatically increases.

Summary
Bitters help stimulate metabolism, improve digestion, reduce excess blood sugar and avoid obesity.  They keep our metabolism awake, stimulated, alive and balanced. Bitters assist the vital force of the body to do what needs to be done rather than take supplements to fill the void.

Sources
http://cellularscale.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/taste-cells-in-weird-parts-of-your-body.html
http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/31441/title/Matters-of-Taste/
http://www.pnas.org/content/99/4/2392.long
“The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants” by Guido Mase’
“Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes” by Jennifer McLagan

 

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