Tag Archives: bitters

What is a “bitter herb”?

Dandelion leaf, by Greg Hume
Dandelion leaf, by Greg Hume
As an herbalist for whom tastes of herbs -sweet, sour, salty, spicy (pungent), astringent and bland- imply specific medicinal actions. Bitterness is something that is often confusing because there is a genetic component to the ability to taste – according to 21 and Me I belong to a snip where 80% cannot genetically taste bitterness. (I am in the 20% that can.) The most often confused tastes are sour or pungent. I cannot attribute a pungent herb like horseradish or a sour taste like lemon as “bitter”.  Bitter covers tastes like black coffee, radicchio, karela (bitter melon), dandelion greens, black walnut hulls, gentian, angelica or artichoke leaves. There is often a slightly sweet aftertaste to bitterness.


Dictionary.com defines bitter (adjective) as:

1.  having a harsh, disagreeably acrid taste, like that of aspirin, quinine, wormwood, or aloes.gentiana_macrophylla_fetissowii

2. producing one of the four basic taste sensations; not sour, sweet, or salt.

3. hard to bear; grievous; distressful: a bitter sorrow.
4. causing pain; piercing; stinging: a bitter chill.
5. characterized by intense antagonism or hostility:  bitter hatred.
6. hard to admit or accept:  a bitter lesson.
7. resentful or cynical: bitter words.
In herbal medicine the largest category of herbs tends to be bitters, which are  anti-infective, anti-inflammatory, digestive causing bile to flow and often antiparasite.  Herbalist David Winston categorizes bitter herbs as cooling bitters, warming bitters and antiparasite aromatic bitters which are intensely bitter.
In Chinese medicine bitter herbs according to Subhuti Dharmananda, in his article Taste and Action of Chinese Herbs -Traditional and Modern Viewpoints

There are two basic qualities associated with bitter taste:

  1. According to the five element systematic correspondence, the bitter taste is associated with the heart system.  The alkaloids and glycosides commonly found in bitter plants help explain this relationship, as the Chinese heart system corresponds mainly to the nervous system and circulatory system of Western medicine, the two systems most strongly impacted by these types of active constituents.
  2. According to the taste/action dogma, bitter herbs have a cleansing action (removing heat and toxin).  The cleansing action of bitters mainly refers to their antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects, which are found with alkaloids, glycosides, and flavonoids.  The bitter herbs also dry dampness, and this refers mainly to reduction of mucous membrane secretions; we can recognize today that increased mucus secretion is usually secondary to inflammation and infection.

Meals should start or finish with something bitter, be it a salad with bitter greens or an aperitif or digestif drink or an espresso after eating. Fernet Branca and Angostura Bitters are two commercial bitters, but I love Urban Moonshine’s Maple Bitters which come in a handy purse spray. Or you can take a slice of lime in water and bite down on the skin. This will stimulate your bile and stomach acid production. (So-called “acid reflux” in people over 30 is usually a problem of stomach acid being too low to stimulate the closure of the esophageal sphincter.) When the bitter taste stimulates peristalsis it helps relieve constipation and even depression. It helps create the optimum conditions for the gut bacteria as well.

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