“Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison.”
“What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise.”
~ Oscar Wilde
I could never understand why in the Passover tradition, lettuce was used as a symbol of the bitter life of the Hebrew enslaved people in ancient Egypt. To me, lettuce never tasted bitter. If anything, it was crunchy and blend. Only when I studied herbalism did I learn that all leaves were once bitters. The lettuce we know looks and tastes very different from the lettuce that our ancestors knew.
Apparently, neanderthals valued the bitter taste as a sign of its healing properties. Archeologists Karen Hardy researched the diet of the neanderthals by analyzing the plaque from their teeth. She found residues of chamomile and yarrow on the teeth of Neanderthal people. Since chamomile nor yarrow has any nutrient value, she concluded that they were used as medicine.
The bitter taste is generated by chemicals, primarily derived from plants, that either once was, or are still now, toxic to a certain degree. Those plants developed the bitter compounds to protect themselves from insects, animals, and humans. They tell us: to consume them in small amounts and be ready to digest them fast.
All five flavors were included in traditional diets in a well-balanced way. However, in the last 100 years in Western culture, sweets and salt have become so much more prevalent in most, if not all, people’s diets, and bitter-tasting food and herbs have become totally absent from the diet creating an imbalanced diet.
The Western aversion to bitters is so deep that it is reflected in the language. So saying such as “until the bitter end” or “bitter pill to swallow” demonstrates how we link the bitter taste to negative emotions as a culture.
Herbalist Jim Mcdonald wrote about bitter deficiency syndrome. If each taste has a vital role in stimulating or sedating a process in the body, once you avoid a flavor, the body is out of balance. Jim believes, and I totally second his understanding, that in many cases where we recommend using herbs to stimulate and correct digestive issues, bitters work because these are cases of people with bitter deficiency syndrome.
“It is my opinion that the nearly complete lack of bitter flavored foods in the overall U.S. and Canadian diet is a major contributing factor to common cultural health imbalances such as PMS, other female, and male sexual organ dysfunctions, hormonal imbalances, migraine headache, indigestion, liver and gall bladder dysfunction, abnormal metabolism, hypoglycemia, diabetes, etc.”
~ James Green, The Male Herbal
Modern life does not only exclude bitters; at the same time, it exposes our bodies to an extensive range of toxins daily. Toxins are in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the cosmetics we use, the cleaning products in our cupboard, and pharmaceutical drugs. So any time you talk about processing chemicals in the body, you talk about the body’s lab, the liver.
King Mithridates, also called the poison king, was obsessed with toxic plants and their antidotes. The king that came into power by poisoning his mother and brothers was always afraid of an attempt on his life by poisoning. He had this idea that if large amounts of toxic herbs could kill him in a small amount, it might make him immune to poisoning. Instead, the king learned about toxic herbs and how to prepare and administer them and developed an herbal antidote to poisoning. After perfecting the formula, the king used the antidote as a daily tonic. The irony was that at last, when the Roman Empire invaded his small kingdom on the shores of the black sea, the king’s attempt to kill himself by poisoning failed. So he had to ask one of his soldiers to kill him with his sword.
The formula for the antidote is mentioned in the writing of many herbalists that followed the steps of King Mithridates and his herbalists. The formula acted by improving and speeding metabolism and eliminating poisons from the body.
You can not separate the bitter taste from its action on the body. By simply tasting a bitter food or herb, you know what its action on the body will be. Moreover, if you ingest the bitter food or herb in a way that bypasses its taste (such as in a pill), it will not have the same effect on the body.
- The bitter taste stimulates the secretion of digestive enzymes along the digestive system leading to a better breakdown of food.
- Bitters stimulate bile secretion, which leads to better absorption and elimination of fats.
- Bitters improve the absorption of nutrients by slowing down the gut motility in the upper GI tract. (giving the food more time to hang out where it can be absorbed)
- Bitter food increases gut motility in the colon and alleviates constipation.
- The bitter taste relaxes small muscles in all parts of the body, reducing cramps and lowering blood pressure.
- And so much More!
I suggest adding bitters to your diet as whole food as bitter greens. Coffee and dark Chocolate are excellent bitter tonics when consumed in small amounts.
Use herbal bitters tonic 20 minutes before every meal as a ritual to start your digestion going. Bee Fields Farm has a great formula called “Better Bitters.” Please contact me for more information.