Eight Potential Health Benefits of Kombucha

Kombucha is a sweet, fizzy drink made of yeast, sugar, and fermented tea. It has a number of potential health benefits, including gut health and liver function.

This article explores eight potential health benefits of kombucha and looks at the research that supports them.

What is kombucha?

A jar of raw kombucha fermented drink, on a wooden table with chopped up lemon and a stem of ginger.
Kombucha is a fermented drink that is popular for its purported health benefits.

To make kombucha, sweetened green or black tea is fermented with a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, otherwise known as a SCOBY.

During the fermentation process, the yeast in the SCOBY breaks down the sugar in the tea and releases probiotic bacteria.

Kombucha becomes carbonated after fermentation, which is why the drink is fizzy.

Potential health benefits

There is a range of potential health benefits of kombucha, including:

1. Gut health

As this 2014 study confirms, the fermentation process of kombucha means that the drink is rich in probiotics. Probiotic bacteria are similar to healthful bacteria that are found in the gut.

Consuming probiotics may improve overall gut health. Probiotic bacteria have been found to help treat diarrhea, and some research suggests they may help ease irritable bowel syndrome(IBS).

More research is needed into how kombucha improves gut health, but the link between probiotics and gut health suggests it may support the digestive system.

The link between healthy bacteria in the digestive system and immune function is becoming clearer as more studies focus on gut health. If the probiotics in kombucha improve gut health, they may also strengthen the immune system.

2. Cancer risk

There is growing evidence to suggest drinking kombucha could help reduce the risk of cancer.

2008 study found that kombucha helped prevent the growth of cancer cells. Further research in 2013 found that kombucha decreased the survival of cancer cells. Both studies suggest kombucha could play a role in treating or preventing cancer.

It is important to note that these studies looked at the effects of kombucha on cancer cells in a test tube. More research is needed to see if people who drink kombucha have a reduced risk of developing cancer.

3. Infection risk

A type of acid called acetic acid, also found in vinegar, is produced when kombucha is fermented.

study carried out in 2000 found that kombucha was able to kill microbes and help fight a range of bacteria. This suggests that it may help prevent infections by killing the bacteria that cause them before they are absorbed by the body.

4. Mental health

Young smiling woman drinking fruit juice ice tea.
The probiotics in kombucha are thought to have the ability to treat depression.

There may be a link between probiotics and depression, suggesting that drinking probiotic-rich kombucha could help promote positive mental health.

There are strong links between depression and inflammation so the anti-inflammatory effect of kombucha may help alleviate some of the symptoms of depression.

2017 review looked at a number of existing studies and concluded that there is strong evidence that probiotics may help treat depression. However, further research is needed to prove how effective they are.

5. Heart disease

Levels of certain types of cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease. Studies in 2012 and 2015 found that kombucha helps to reduce levels of the cholesterol linked to heart disease. Cholesterol levels and heart disease are also influenced by diet, exercise, weight, lifestyle habits, and inflammation. However, the research cited here suggests drinking kombucha may help reduce the risk of heart disease.

At the same time, it is important to note that these studies were in rats. More research is needed to prove that kombucha reduces the risk of heart disease in humans.

6. Weight loss

When kombucha is made with green tea, it may aid weight loss. A 2008 study found that obese people who took green tea extract burned more calories and lost more weight than those who did not.

If kombucha is made with green tea, it follows that it could have a similarly positive effect on weight loss.

Again, researchers need to look at kombucha and weight loss specifically before this is certain.

7. Liver health

Kombucha contains antioxidants that help fight molecules in the body that can damage cells.

Some studies, the most recent being in 2011, have found that the antioxidant-rich kombucha reduces toxins in the liver. This suggests that kombucha may play an important role in promoting liver health and reducing liver inflammation.

However, studies to date have looked at rats and more research is needed to say with certainty how kombucha can support liver health in humans.

8. Type 2 diabetes management

Kombucha tea in iced bottles, with fruit segments fermenting.
Kombucha may help to stabilize blood sugar levels and aid in the management of diabetes.

Kombucha may also be helpful in managing type 2 diabetes.

2012 study found that kombucha helped to manage blood sugar levels in rats with diabetes. This finding suggests it may be helpful in type 2 diabetes management.

Again, more research is needed to say with certainty whether kombucha can have the same benefits in type 2 diabetes management for humans.

Are there any risks?

It is important to be careful when making kombucha at home, as it can ferment for too long. It is also possible for kombucha to become contaminated when not made in a sterile environment.

Over-fermentation or contamination may cause health problems so it may be safer to buy kombucha in a store than to make it at home.

Store-bought kombucha normally has a lower alcohol content than homemade versions, but it is important to check the sugar content.

There are many potential health benefits of kombucha. However, it is important to remember that research is ongoing and not all benefits have been proven in studies with human participants.

If made properly or bought in-store, kombucha is a probiotic-rich drink that is safe to enjoy as part of a healthful diet.

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A Gentle Daily Dose

Bitters:

If you wanted to get your body into good physical fitness, would you choose to exercise vigorously for 1-2 weeks of the year and otherwise remain inactive? If you wanted to live in a clean home, would you obsessively scour every nook and cranny for five straight days and every other 360 days let the mess pile up around you?  Unless you’re a wise-cracker, I’m going to go ahead and guess you answered “no” to those questions. It’s only common sense and, in fact, the model described above can be detrimental. 

Why, then, has our culture become so fond of the high-intensity detox cleanse? While there is certainly a place for narrowing in on specific dietary and lifestyle habits for a short period of time as, say, a gentle Spring cleaning or for particular health-related reasons, our focus on extreme cleanses is in general both misguided and ineffectual. 

If you’re looking to improve your health and feel better in your body, the real key is in making more subtle long-term shifts. Mohamed Ali is quoted as saying, “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you down, it’s the pebble in your shoe”. So, let’s take a look at that pebble in your shoe; for addressing that is where you will find a sustained change in your life and in your health. And you’ll feel a marked difference once you do.

An extreme cleanse could get you to the top of the mountain, but you may very well be hurting once you arrive and it’s unlikely you’ll be making it back up there again anytime soon. Instead, take a reasonable look at that pebble. Focus on moving your body every day and eating good protein, healthy fats and lots of greens. Make time for gratitude, deep breaths, and connection. With these gentle, sustained shifts, the stamina to climb any mountain will always be at your fingertips. 

It is in these simple daily rituals that we call on bitters to do their best work and to keep us in our best shape. While it would be helpful to have a bottle of bitters with you for your yearly sprint up the mountain, they offer the most as a tonic. Taken daily before meals, your body will thank you for all of the health benefits they provide.

Enjoy the liver support bitters offer and expect a clean burning metabolism, clear, healthy skin, and fewer cravings. Appreciate how they support your digestion, and soothe gas and bloating. Note that bitters actually encourage digestive secretions, which in turns helps you absorb the most nourishment available in all that healthy food you are eating. Most of all, take small daily strides for your health and appreciate the energy and clarity that accompanies you each step of the way on your hike through life.

Bitters old bottles

Bitter Principles

In modern herbal medicine, bitter principles occupy a central place in herbal therapeutics beating the acrid constituents. Most people consuming herbal medicines complain about the bitterness of the medicines prescribed. This is the only defining attribute of herbal medicine and the only feature to set it apart from other therapies.

The bitter principles work by stimulating the bitter receptors of the tongue and increasing saliva secretion. Thus, it is always advisable to taste and chew the herbs for making them most effective. The bitter principles also bring about an increase in the secretion of digestive juices, thereby increasing appetite. They protect the tissues found in the digestive tract, boosts up the bile flow and strengthens the pancreas.

Their chemical composition includes a complex pattern of molecular structures. Since they act on the bitter receptors of the mouth, thereby producing the bitter taste in the mouth, their stimulation does not produce any electrical changes on the surface of the cell. Instead, the bitter molecules bring about intracellular biochemical changes by acting on the cell membrane receptors. This facilitates an increase in calcium concentrates within the cell and signals the gustatory nerve.

The bitter substances are mostly of terpenoid structure, especially the sesquiterpene lactones, monoterpene iridoids and the secoiridoids. Iridoids are responsible for the chief bitter constituents of the plant family Gentianaceae, Cichorium intybus (chicory), dandelion, Valeriana officinalis (Valerian), wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa), and quassia bark.

Sesquiterpenes account for the bitter taste of the Artemisia plants, or wormwood genus, Cnicus benedictus (blessed thistle), and ginkgo biloba (ginkgo). Other components which add to the bitterness are diterpene bitters, found in columbo root (jateorrhiza palmata) or white horehound (Mar.rubium vulgare). Triterpenoids are the cause of bitterness for the Cucurbitaceae family of plants, which includes pumpkin, cucumber, colocynth, marrows and the bryonies.

Many alkaloids also contribute to the bitter taste as in the protoberberine isoquinoline alkaloids of goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis), and Berberis, the morphine alkaloids, the quinoline alkaloids of quinine and Angostura and the purine alkaloids ( in coffee). In addition to this, many miscellaneous compounds like ketones and amino-acids are responsible for the bitterness, as found in hops.

Bitters are indispensable when it comes to counter a heavy meal. Sometimes, chicory and dandelion roots are mixed with coffee beans to produce a bitter drink usually taken after meals. The drink vermouth is a good example of an appetizer which gets its name from bitter herb wormwood. The traditional beer that is brewed with hops can also be used as a digestive remedy due to its bitter principle. Even nowadays, bartenders are faced with the inquiry of a lot of Angostura Bitters (Cusparia angostura) which is commonly used to shoo away a hangover. What’s common to all these practices is the belief that a bitter medicine can balance a heavy or rich meal and can be the basis of excellent tonics. Our grandpas used to believe that medicines that didn’t please our tongue were the best of all. When we go through the records of traditional plant medicine we find a reflection of this notion. All the bitter medicines are cited as ‘genuine stimulants’ and the real panacea for all.

With the passage of time, we have come to discover and understand some more features of the bitter medicines. It is accepted that bitters stimulate only a certain type of taste receptors. Thus, they will have no effect if they are taken in capsules or by intra-gastric tube. The bitter taste buds are thus the mediators in the way of making the responses happen. This is one of the best examples of a reflex response which takes place when a small stimulus initiates a complex reaction. As soon as the bitter taste bud is stimulated, it releases the gastrointestinal hormone gastrin. If we study the common physiological actions of the gastrin, we find a close similarity with the traditional remedies of the bitters. We can, therefore, tally the actions of bitters with that of gastrins.

Basically speaking, gastrins are beneficial in numerous ways. Researchers over the years have established that it increases gastric acid and pepsin secretion, hepatic bile surge, hepatic bicarbonate production, intestinal juice production, pancreatic digestive secretions and intrinsic factor secretion. At the same time, gastrins help in enhancing the flow of Brunner’s glands secretions, insulin, glucagon and calcitonin release, helps muscle tone of lower oesophageal sphincter and muscle tone of stomach and small intestine, augments cell division and growth of gastric and duodenal mucosa as well as helps in cell division and growth of the pancreas.

This information will now help us to explain the role of bitters in the herbal medicine. Let us examine them one by one.

Bitters Act as Appetizers

Gastrin is known to be very effective in increasing the appetite. It acts directly on appetite centers in the hypothalamus and indirectly through increased stomach motility. As we have seen earlier, bitters have also been used as key elements in aperitifs or for increasing appetite during convalescence. They can be very useful indeed in treating anyone for whom anorexia is posing an obstacle to recovery. Sometimes, lack of appetite is the body’s own signal to prevent over-stuffing. But this type of anorexia should be distinguished from other harmful types that reduce the strength of an individual. Administering bitters then comes in quite handy and especially in case of anorexia nervosa where bitters are a very helpful tool to counter the problem.

Bitters Increase Secretion of Digestive Juices

Bitters are known to expedite the process of digestion by boosting the stomach and pancreatic enzyme secretions. In those cases where these secretions are irregular or malfunctioning, bitters can help a lot towards speedier digestion by breaking down the food material. Digestive secretions sterilize the food material inside the stomach and break down protein and other large molecules that threaten the body’s immune system.

There is a paradox with food. It is certainly the most important source of nourishment for the body, but it also poses the greatest immunological threat to it. This is reflected in the presence of lymphoid tissues in the digestive tract. The digestive juices denature the antigenic material that prevents the situation from going out of control.

Sometimes, a low rate of secretion arises due to enteric infections, or if any suggestion is found of antigen penetration through the gut wall. This may occur in case of a food allergy or an autoimmune problem that contains the symptoms of reduced digestive abilities.

Herbal therapeutics point out that a fall in digestive secretion can damage the body to a great extent. It should always be corrected immediately as and when encountered. Besides enteric infections and food allergies, such reduced ability to digest can be understood by the symptoms of a nauseous feeling or feeling bloated even after taking a little food. Passing small malodorous stools is another sign.

As modern food items contain an increased percentage of adulteration, the risk of depressed digestion has increased greatly, and the only measure is to administer bitter remedies.

Since the bitters increase the destructive components of digestive secretions, their use is generally not advised in cases of hyperacidity or those with peptic ulcerations. But it also raises the secretions of protective fluids, such as bicarbonate from pancreas and liver and from the Brunner’s glands. This is not the case for the acrid constituents. The bitters expedite the whole digestive process. For other reasons, they are not prescribed in hyper-acidic conditions.

Bitters Offer Protection to the Gut Tissues

In cases of heartburn, hiatus hernia or oesophageal inflammation, the reflux of corrosive stomach contents into the oesophagus is prevented by bitter remedies. This task is achieved by increasing the tone of the gastro-oesophageal sphincter. The bitters also decrease the harmful effects of the digestive juices and dietary toxins by enhancing the already rapid rate of mucosal regeneration in the stomach and duodenum. This acts as a healer in the case of ulceration or an infection. Similar action, if performed on the matrix of the pancreas might as well help in pulling through a pancreatic disease.

Bitters Enhance Bile Flow

Bile juice is secreted by the liver. It is also considered as the excretion of the liver. The liver contains an extremely dynamic flow of juices. If pictured, each cell can be seen as being in a stream of a mixed nutrient-rich portal blood from the gut and oxygen-rich arterial blood from the general circulation. These fluids disseminate through the cell and are subjected to heavy dispensation that is a part of the liver function. The metabolic products that are born out of this activity move from the liver cell into the outgoing blood flow. Some of the most important, however, is channelled into a separate exit that drains into the biliary system. The liver thus self-cleanses by its own mechanism.

This is the organ which suffers from all the harmful effects of binge eating, defective digestion or ill health by being overloaded with toxins or the deposition of waste material. The fluids which pass through the liver cells may not be enough to wash out the toxins. This poses a threat to the liver making it prone to liver pathology or more common range of functional disorders. An improved flow of bile juice will definitely not allow such waste material to accumulate. Bitters play this role very effectively. With the consumption of toxic materials increasing, this is certainly one of the advantages.

The bitters have been proven to be effective in curing all allergic, metabolic and immunological conditions where the diagnosis points to the digestion. The liver exerts an influence over the immunological system as well. Even in case of herbal therapies for migraines, hepatic remedies are suggested, most of which use the bitter.

The use of bitters leads to a greater production of biliary elements and dilutes the bile as well by increasing the bicarbonate content. In case of gallstone formation or gall-bladder disease, that is formed by the over deposition of bile, bitters are known to work wonders. Along with lemon juice which dilutes the bile as well, bitters are also an effective and accepted treatment of these diseases.

Bitters Improve Pancreatic Functions

Gastrin helps pancreatic secretion and also increases the secretion of insulin and glucagon, the two main hormones the pancreas produces. However, these are conflicting in nature. There is a possibility of a ‘state dependent’ effect. This is a response to gastrin that varies according to the condition of mutual and simultaneous secretion of the two hormones.
Bitters have also been used in controlling late-onset diabetes. Chinese physiology states that bitters can effectively reactive hypoglycemia and produce immediate and excellent results.
Thus we conclude that bitters neutralize pancreatic hormone secretions by increasing the amount of glucagon when insulin is high and vice versa. They are more likely to raise a hormone level when it is deficient. Bitters control fluctuations in blood sugar levels permanently and temporarily as well.

Bitters Act as Tonics

All the above contributions of bitters make it easy to understand that they can boost your health to a great extent. Their primary role is to stimulate all the above-mentioned digestive functions. The digestive processes are the platform where the nourishment requirements of the body are met. This is the place where the body examines the materials it is fed with and most calorific and metabolic processes are regulated. Depending upon the extent to which this platform is in danger under the modern living conditions, it might or might not respond to the bitter remedies.

Bitter remedies were mainly resorted to in old age or in a convalescent state in order to be able to improve the quality of nourishment to the body. However, in the modern age, as illnesses become chronic in nature and more frequent, attacking persons of all ages, it is advisable to resort to bitter remedies. Food has also become less wholesome and more prone to indigestion. Bitter remedies can definitely offset the harmful effects of adulteration to a great extent.

Dandy Tummy Bitters Recipe

These homemade bitters with fennel seeds and dandelion root should be taken before or after a meal to help stimulate digestion.

Take a drop or two of these dandelion bitters before or after a meal to help with digestion.

Is your digestive system ready for a big feast? Just a drop or two of any bitter herb on the tongue will help stimulate healthy digestion before or after a meal. In addition to dandelion’s bitterness, the aromatics from the fennel, ginger, and orange will help with uncomfortable post-dessert bloat.

Learn more about bitter plants, and which ones you can plant in your home garden, in the article Health Benefits Of Bitters.

Ingredients:

• 2 parts dandelion root
• 1 part fennel seed
• 1/2 part ginger root
• 1/2 part orange peel
• 1 glass jar with lid
• Enough 100-proof vodka to fill your glass jar
• Cheesecloth

Instructions:

1. If using fresh plants, harvest and clean your herbs before chopping and grinding them.
2. Fill a clean glass jar halfway with the fresh, ground herbs. If tincturing dried herbs, only fill the glass jar one-third of the way because dried roots will expand.
3. Pour the vodka over the herbs until the jar is full, and be sure your herb mixture is completely covered.
4. Label your jar with the name of the herbs, date, alcohol strength, and plant parts used.
5. Allow the tincture to sit for 6 to 8 weeks, shaking the jar often to keep all the plant material submerged.
6. Strain the finished tincture through cheesecloth to separate the herbs from the liquid, bottle the liquid in amber dropper bottles, and label.

Bitters: A Healing Craft

WE ARE IN THE MIDST OF A RENAISSANCE in both the interest in natural health and herbal medicine; and the craft cocktail. The use of bitter herb extracts are a key part of both of these wonderful traditions, and a practice I adhere to regularly.

Burdock-01-WEB

What Are Bitters & How Do They Work?

“Bitters” as a term refers to an alcohol extract of bitter tasting herbs such as gentian or yellow dock mixed with spices and natural flavors. Bitters formulas were very popular in the 1800s as herbal formulas and it is to this knowledge that we refer back to as bitters again gain deserved attention. Certain classes of herbs that produce a bitter flavor have a similar effect on the body, and herbalists know these bitter tasting herbs to have a positive effect on the digestion system and the body’s detoxification system. When bitters are tasted by specific receptor sites in the mouth, and at sites found throughout the entire gastrointestinal system, they activate the digestion system to function properly.

In the early 20th century, herbalism was the most common form of healing in North America. Most people had common knowledge of how to use herbs to heal common ailments. Bartenders knew this too. Bitter herbs are particularly helpful when we are consuming excess food and alcohol. Bitters were a key component in traditional cocktails and still are to this day. In cocktails, bitters provide depth and character to cocktails. They are the ingredient you should not be able to pick out clearly but would miss it if it was not there, like salt and pepper in food. Pre-abolition there were hundreds of bitters companies, but by the mid-20th century, it reduced down to a handful including Angostura and Peychaud’s. Happily, in the last decade there have been craft bitters companies popping up all over North America and you can now easily find a wide range of bitters that range from small distillers who brew their own alcohol and infuse the herbs in the process, herbalists preparing medicinal grade formulas, as well as a slew of incredible formulators making bitters for culinary uses and popular cocktails.

It’s exciting to be both a herbalist and cocktail enthusiast these days. We have an opportunity to share wonderful drinks with friends and family while at the same time sharing the wonderful healing properties of bitters. You can bookend your celebration meals with cocktails, aperitifs, or even desserts that feature a dash of bitters and support your guest’s health and feeling of wellness. Bitters taken before and after meal times support our bodies in a number of ways:

  • Stimulating the important vagus nerve in our body that connects key parts of our gastrointestinal system such as the tongue, stomach, intestines, liver, and gallbladder. This nerve is the ‘brain-to-gut connection’
  • Increasing saliva and digestive enzyme secretions
  • Slowing the movement of food out of the stomach and into the intestines. This action makes us feel fuller faster, and prevents gas and bloating through a better breakdown of food in the stomach.
  • Ensures a proper seal of the valve between your oesophagus and stomach preventing acid backing up and causing heartburn
  • Supporting the liver and gallbladder by kick-starting important secretions and proper detoxification

Many traditional cocktail recipes such as the Old Fashioned and Manhattan call for bitters but feel free to add a dash to any cocktail you love. I personally recommend serving a dash of bitters in a small glass with sparkling water and/or a splash of juice as a pre-dinner aperitif.

MAKING BITTERS

bitters makingMaking your own bitters is deceptively easy to do—all you need are some bitter herbs, spices, a jar, vodka, a touch of patience, and a willingness to experiment. With bitters, a little goes a long way. When making bitters of your own start by making small amounts. A one-ounce bottle will last you many, many, cocktails. Use recycled jam or even spice jars for making your them—don’t start with large quart-sized mason jars.

When making bitters you can technically use any alcohol you like. Every bitters-maker has their favorite for a reason. When teaching herbal medicine making, I recommend my students start making their alcohol extracts with vodka. It’s clear and neutral in flavor so you can really see and taste the herbs you infuse into it. It’s also 40% alcohol so you get a good extract of a range of constituents and it ensures proper preservation. Once you’ve made a few formulas I encourage you to try other types such as bourbon, whiskey or rum.

The next step is to get your hands on some herbs. Most local health food stores carry a selection of organic dried herbs, and you can use fresh ingredients from the grocery store or a local garden. You can use either fresh or dried herb in your bitters. (Note that herbs shrink by roughly half their weight when dried so you would use half as much of a dried herb as you would fresh.) If buying herbs it is important to buy certified organic or cultivated herbs as some species such as gentian are endangered in the wild. Most organic gardeners in your area would be quite happy to have you dig a few dandelion or yellow dock roots as they are very weedy species!

To craft your own bitters extract here are some guidelines to follow for ratios of herbs;

  • 10% very bitter herbs: These would include gentian, cinchona, yellow dock or wormwood. They are by far the most intense, and using too much will overpower your formula.
  • 50% medium to mild bitter herbs: We get most of our action from medium to mild bitters herbs. My favorites are dandelion root and leaf, orange or lemon peel (make sure you include the white pith), bitter greens such as parsley or arugula, and angelica root.
  • 30% aromatic herbs: This is where we get to have fun. Aromatic herbs are what we think of as tea and spice herbs. Use ones that smell fragrant and delicious—some examples are rosemary, coriander, fennel, peppermint, ginger, lemongrass, celery seed, or allspice. This part of the formula is where you get to really infuse the flavor you want, allowing you to play and experiment until you stumble upon a blend you really like.
  • 10% sweet: A touch of sweetness acts as a harmonizer in our formulas. It pulls together the flavors and actually helps their uptake in the body. You can use traditional sweeteners such as simple syrup, maple syrup or honey (these you would add after you have infused and strained the extract). You can also use herbs on the sweet spectrum such as burdock root, codonopsis root, or licorice root. If you want to make savory bitters such as rosemary or jalapeno, I’d use burdock root.

To make your extract you need enough herb to loosely fill half of the jar if using dried or three-quarters if using fresh. Top the herbs with vodka, seal with a tight-fitting lid, and label with the date and contents. The important part is that the herbs are covered entirely by the alcohol in the jar; you may need to top up the jar a day or two later as the dried herbs will absorb some of the fluid. Place this jar in a dark place and shake daily for a period of two weeks to one month. Taste your formula every few weeks to see when you like the flavor. When the bitters are ready, strain the mixture through a fine strainer or an unbleached coffee filter. If using honey, maple syrup, or simple syrup as a sweetener this is the time to add it. A good ration is a tablespoon of sweetener to a cup of extract, shaking well to dissolve. Pour the finished extract into a clean bottle; a small dropper bottle works great. Let your extract age for at least one or up to a few weeks and then start using them in your favorite recipes, or as a digestive tonic before meals.

Modern Herbal Medicine ~ ‘Bitter Principles’

In modern herbal medicine, bitter principles occupy a central place in herbal therapeutics beating the acrid constituents. Most people consuming herbal medicines complain about the bitterness of the medicines prescribed. This is the only defining attribute of herbal medicine and the only feature to set it apart from other therapies.

The bitter principles work by stimulating the bitter receptors of the tongue and increasing saliva secretion. Thus, it is always advisable to taste and chew the herbs for making them most effective. The bitter principles also bring about an increase in the secretion of digestive juices, thereby increasing appetite. They protect the tissues found in the digestive tract, boosts up the bile flow and strengthens the pancreas.

Their chemical composition includes a complex pattern of molecular structures. Since they act on the bitter receptors of the mouth, thereby producing the bitter taste in the mouth, their stimulation does not produce any electrical changes on the surface of the cell. Instead, the bitter molecules bring about intracellular biochemical changes by acting on the cell membrane receptors. This facilitates an increase in calcium concentrates within the cell and signals the gustatory nerve.

The bitter substances are mostly of terpenoid structure, especially the sesquiterpene lactones, monoterpene iridoids and the Seco iridoids. Iridoids are responsible for the chief bitter constituents of the plant family Gentianaceae, Cichorium intybus (chicory), dandelion, Valeriana officinalis (Valerian), wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa), and quassia bark.

Sesquiterpenes account for the bitter taste of the Artemisia plants, or wormwood genus, Cnicus benedictus (blessed thistle), and Ginkgo Biloba (ginkgo). Other components which add to the bitterness are diterpene bitters, found in columbo root (jateorrhiza palmata) or white horehound (Mar.rubium vulgare). Triterpenoids are the cause of bitterness for the Cucurbitaceae family of plants, which includes pumpkin, cucumber, colocynth, marrows and the bryonies.

Many alkaloids also contribute to the bitter taste as in the protoberberine isoquinoline alkaloids of goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis), and Berberis, the morphine alkaloids, the quinoline alkaloids of quinine and Angostura and the purine alkaloids ( in coffee). In addition to this, many miscellaneous compounds like ketones and amino acids are responsible for the bitterness, as found in hops.

Bitters are indispensable when it comes to counter a heavy meal. Sometimes, chicory and dandelion roots are mixed with coffee beans to produce a bitter drink usually taken after meals. The drink vermouth is a good example of an appetizer which gets its name from bitter herb wormwood. The traditional beer that is brewed with hops can also be used as a digestive remedy due to its bitter principle. Even nowadays, bartenders are faced with the inquiry of a lot of Angostura Bitters (Cusparia angostura) which is commonly used to shoo away a hangover. What’s common to all these practices is the belief that a bitter medicine can balance a heavy or rich meal and can be the basis of excellent tonics. Our grandpas used to believe that medicines that didn’t please our tongue were the best of all. When we go through the records of traditional plant medicine we find a reflection of this notion. All the bitter medicines are cited as ‘genuine stimulants’ and the real panacea for all.

With the passage of time, we have come to discover and understand some more features of the bitter medicines. It is accepted that bitters stimulate only a certain type of taste receptors. Thus, they will have no effect if they are taken in capsules or by intragastric tube. The bitter taste buds are thus the mediators in the way of making the responses happen. This is one of the best examples of a reflex response which takes place when a small stimulus initiates a complex reaction. As soon as the bitter taste bud is stimulated, it releases the gastrointestinal hormone gastrin. If we study the common physiological actions of the gastrin, we find a close similarity with the traditional remedies of the bitters. We can, therefore, tally the actions of bitters with that of gastrins.

Basically speaking, gastrins are beneficial in numerous ways. Researchers over the years have established that it increases gastric acid and pepsin secretion, hepatic bile surge, hepatic bicarbonate production, intestinal juice production, pancreatic digestive secretions and intrinsic factor secretion. At the same time, gastrins help in enhancing the flow of Brunner’s glands secretions, insulin, glucagon and calcitonin release, helps muscle tone of lower oesophageal sphincter and muscle tone of stomach and small intestine, augments cell division and growth of gastric and duodenal mucosa as well as helps in cell division and growth of the pancreas.

This information will now help us to explain the role of bitters in the herbal medicine. Let us examine them one by one.

Bitters Act as Appetizers

Gastrin is known to be very effective in increasing the appetite. It acts directly on appetite centers in the hypothalamus and indirectly through increased stomach motility. As we have seen earlier, bitters have also been used as key elements in aperitifs or for increasing appetite during convalescence. They can be very useful indeed in treating anyone for whom anorexia is posing an obstacle to recovery. Sometimes, lack of appetite is the body’s own signal to prevent over-stuffing. But this type of anorexia should be distinguished from other harmful types that reduce the strength of an individual. Administering bitters then come in quite handy and especially in the case of anorexia nervosa where bitters are a very helpful tool to counter the problem.

Bitters Increase Secretion of Digestive Juices

Bitters are known to expedite the process of digestion by boosting the stomach and pancreatic enzyme secretions. In those cases where these secretions are irregular or malfunctioning, bitters can help a lot towards speedier digestion by breaking down the food material. Digestive secretions sterilize the food material inside the stomach and break down protein and other large molecules that threaten the body’s immune system.

There is a paradox with food. It is certainly the most important source of nourishment for the body, but it also poses the greatest immunological threat to it. This is reflected in the presence of lymphoid tissues in the digestive tract. The digestive juices denature the antigenic material that prevents the situation from going out of control.

Sometimes, a low rate of secretion arises due to enteric infections, or if any suggestion is found of antigen penetration through the gut wall. This may occur in the case of a food allergy or an autoimmune problem that contains the symptoms of reduced digestive abilities.

Herbal therapeutics point out that a fall in digestive secretion can damage the body to a great extent. It should always be corrected immediately as and when encountered. Besides enteric infections and food allergies, such reduced ability to digest can be understood by the symptoms of a nauseous feeling or feel bloated even after taking a little food. Passing small malodorous stools is another sign.

As modern food items contain an increased percentage of adulteration, the risk of depressed digestion has increased greatly, and the only measure is to administer bitter remedies.

Since the bitters increase the destructive components of digestive secretions, their use is generally not advised in cases of hyperacidity or those with peptic ulceration. But it also raises the secretions of protective fluids, such as bicarbonate from pancreas and liver and from the Brunner’s glands. This is not the case for the acrid constituents. The bitters expedite the whole digestive process. For other reasons, they are not prescribed in hyper-acidic conditions.

Bitters Offer Protection to the Gut Tissues

In cases of heartburn, hiatus hernia or oesophagal inflammation, the reflux of corrosive stomach contents into the oesophagus is prevented by bitter remedies. This task is achieved by increasing the tone of the gastro-oesophageal sphincter. The bitters also decrease the harmful effects of the digestive juices and dietary toxins by enhancing the already rapid rate of mucosal regeneration in the stomach and duodenum. This acts as a healer in the case of ulceration or an infection. Similar action, if performed on the matrix of the pancreas might as well help in pulling through a pancreatic disease.

Bitters Enhance Bile Flow

Bile juice is secreted by the liver. It is also considered as the excretion of the liver. The liver contains the extremely dynamic flow of juices. If pictured, each cell can be seen as being in a stream of a mixed nutrient-rich portal blood from the gut and oxygen-rich arterial blood from the general circulation. These fluids disseminate through the cell and are subjected to heavy dispensation that is a part of the liver function. The metabolic products that are born out of this activity move from the liver cell into the outgoing blood flow. Some of the most important, however, is channelled into a separate exit that drains into the biliary system. The liver thus self-cleanses by its own mechanism.

This is the organ which suffers from all the harmful effects of binge eating, defective digestion or ill health by being overloaded with toxins or the deposition of waste material. The fluids which pass through the liver cells may not be enough to wash out the toxins. This poses a threat to the liver making it prone to liver pathology or more common range of functional disorders. An improved flow of bile juice will definitely not allow such waste material to accumulate. Bitters play this role very effectively. With the consumption of toxic materials increasing, this is certainly one of the advantages.

The bitters have been proven to be effective in curing all allergic, metabolic and immunological conditions where the diagnosis points to the digestion. The liver exerts an influence over the immunological system as well. Even in the case of herbal therapies for migraines, hepatic remedies are suggested, most of which use the bitter.

The use of bitters leads to a greater production of biliary elements and dilutes the bile as well by increasing the bicarbonate content. In the case of gallstone formation or gall-bladder disease, that is formed by the over deposition of bile, bitters are known to work wonders. Along with lemon juice which dilutes the bile as well, bitters are also an effective and accepted treatment of these diseases.

Bitters Improve Pancreatic Functions

Gastrin helps pancreatic secretion and also increases the secretion of insulin and glucagon, the two main hormones the pancreas produces. However, these are conflicting in nature. There is a possibility of a ‘state dependent’ effect. This is a response to gastrin that varies according to the condition of mutual and simultaneous secretion of the two hormones.
Bitters have also been used in controlling late-onset diabetes. Chinese physiology states that bitters can effectively reactive hypoglycemia and produce immediate and excellent results.
Thus, we conclude that bitters neutralize pancreatic hormone secretions by increasing the amount of glucagon when insulin is high and vice versa. They are more likely to raise a hormone level when it is deficient. Bitters control fluctuations in blood sugar levels permanently and temporarily as well.

Bitters Act as Tonics

All the above contributions of bitters make it easy to understand that they can boost your health to a great extent. Their primary role is to stimulate all the above-mentioned digestive functions. The digestive processes are the platform where the nourishment requirements of the body are met. This is the place where the body examines the materials it is fed with and most calorific and metabolic processes are regulated. Depending upon the extent to which this platform is in danger under the modern living conditions, it might or might not respond to the bitter remedies.

Bitter remedies were mainly resorted to in old age or in a convalescent state in order to be able to improve the quality of nourishment to the body. However, in the modern age, as illnesses become chronic in nature and more frequent, attacking persons of all ages, it is advisable to resort to bitter remedies. Food has also become less wholesome and more prone to indigestion. Bitter remedies can definitely offset the harmful effects of adulteration to a great extent.