We tend to overindulge in tastes like sweet or salty and generally avoid bitter flavours in our Western diets where we have enough abundance to choose. The overindulging in rich foods, especially foods that have high levels of fat and sugar, like meat and alcohol, can be hard on the digestive system and leave you with an achy belly, bloating, flatulence and constipation. One solution is to incorporate more bitter foods into those meals and your diet in general (food list below!).
The effect of bitters in the body include promoting bile flow, increased appetite/saliva production, improving sphincter tone generally and in your stomach (reducing reflux), supporting pancreatic function and digestive enzyme production, regulating bowel motility & liver detox. Bitters have a correcting action and are not intended to be used long term. You may use them for a few months to restore digestive function, or simply for occasional meals as needed.
Bitter herbs and vegetables work by stimulating the digestive system - starting with salivary responses in the mouth. So, to reach more bitter receptors and increased benefits: chew thoroughly, take your tincture directly on your tongue without diluting in water or swish the tincture in a bit of water in your mouth a bit before swallowing. Bitters are actually perceived as a toxin and therefore signal to the body to turn the digestive system on to get them processed and out the other end! This is super helpful when your food is getting stuck and making you feel over-full or without an appetite, or even constipated.
I eat bitter foods often but still like to keep a bottle of bitter herbs (a tincture) around to take just before or after I eat if needed. My favourite bitter herbal tinctures are once that also include herbs with digestive properties called "carminatives". Carminatives are warming herbs and they balance the cooling effects of the bitters as well as really help to relieve gas! Tip: chamomile is naturally both a bitter and a carminative.
Here's a list of bitter foods you can incorporate into your diet:
black coffee! (drinking it black is important to achieve all the beneficial effects). Be aware, coffee is not for everyone and may cause more digestive harm than it helps. If you suffer from anxiety, or stomach issues that don't resolve with a daily morning coffee, this may be a sign that your body may not tolerate coffee well.
chicory (a strong bitter - sometimes the fiber in chicory can irritate digestive systems),
bitter melon (scoop out and discard the seeds for a slightly less bitter taste - try cooking with onions and tomatoes),
turmeric (caution: it stains - clothing, teeth - and fingers if preparing it fresh!),
mild options: grapefruit, kale, parsley, cilantro
Herbs: gentian, globe artichoke (also a food), burdock root (also a food), yarrow, chamomile
How to cook with bitters (and enjoy them):
1) Chop and sautee an onion in a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil
2) Then add chopped bitter greens & stir until they are lightly cooked and their colour gets brighter
3) Option to add other sweeter vegetables to the dish, try: spinach, tomatoes, carrots, yams or sweet potatoes (*add chopped root veggies before leafy greens if using)
4) In the last 30-60seconds, add diced fresh garlic to taste
5) Option to add a little more olive oil (or grassfed butter) and a splash of ume plum vinegar or anchovy sauce (both give a salty finish) or wine vinegar
*Key: be generous with your healthy fats, and include garlic/onion for flavour! Feel free to sprinkle a little sea salt or use one of the naturally salty sauces recommended.