There is often a link between good digestive health and ability to think clearly. You can pretty much guarantee that people with cloudy minds, or foggy brains who find it hard to gather their thoughts together, have poor digestion. It is a favourite subject of herbalists, who will talk quite openly about bowel movements at any gathering – much to other guests’ amusement or disdain!
The digestive system is one of the primary places to treat in many differing health conditions. The Digestion and the gut being the Earth or foundation of the whole system; thus we need ‘good’ quality fuel to function efficiently. More often than not, a herbal health treatment plan starts with digestive herbs, and a nourishing, wholesome diet appropriate to that individual. In Western diets, which are notoriously high in sugar, dairy, wheat, alcohol and caffeine, problems such as IBS often occur. As Herbalists, we often start by eliminating ‘trigger’ foods for digestive health, whilst supporting with bitter herbs which mostly have profoundly positive healing effects.
Bitter herbs and foods play a helpful role in alleviating many digestive conditions not so much because they act as specific remedies, but because they provide components necessary for overall good health. It is very possible that the current national health crisis could be radically turned around simply by rebalancing our palate with the medicinal virtues of bitterness.
Many cultures globally revere bitter foods and herbs as a necessary component of optimum health. These plant compounds collectively known as “bitters” which include iridoids, sesquiterpene lactones and alkaloids, occur widely throughout the plant kingdom. They are considered secondary plant metabolites, meaning that they appear to serve no primary nutritional purpose to the plant, or for that matter, to us. Rather, these compounds are used by the plant to protect itself against microbes and oxidative damage, and to deter feeding predators.
When a bitter substance is recognised by bitter receptors on the tongue, a chain of neural and endocrine events begin, 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.).
When the taste receptors in the mouth recognise the presence of bitters they stimulate a systemic response. We begin to secrete saliva. An enzyme called amylase, is present in our saliva; it begins the chemical process of digestion by breaking down starch into sugars.
In the stomach, bitter herbs stimulate the secretion of the hormone gastrin which regulates the secretion of gastric acid. They also increase production of the enzyme pepsin that helps break down protein, and intrinsic factor that essential for absorption of Vitamin B12.
Bitters also act on the pancreas, the liver and gall bladder. They can help to normalise blood sugar and promote the release of pancreatic enzymes and bile which aid in digestion of fats and oils.
A healthy flow of bile helps rid the liver of waste, prevents the formation of gallstones and emulsifies lipids, breaking down fats into smaller molecules for absorption and processing in the small intestine. Bitters also enhance peristalsis and lubricate the intestine, restoring the appetite and decreasing chronic indigestion.
Thus, the taste of bitters can be used to strengthen the most fundamental aspect of our health—the ability to extract the nutrients from our foods and nourish our bodies. Taken over time, they will lessen symptoms of poor digestive function such as gas and bloating, constipation, loose stools and food allergies. Bitters enhance vitamin and mineral absorption, promote balanced blood sugar levels protect the liver and strengthen eliminatory function: healing inflammatory damage to the gut wall, and reducing the incidence of allergic disorders. In short, the daily use of bitters can address some of the most rampant and heavily medicated health conditions of our time.