Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Herbal Bitters

I’ve been interested in herbs and herbalism for many years, but beyond buying the odd book, I’d not really taken it any further. That was until about 18 months ago, when a herbal workshop day was advertised on a mailing list I subscribe to. So with very little to loose, and potentially loads to gain, I ventured down to ‘Springfields Sanctuary’ near Stow-on-the-Wold one balmy Saturday in June and met Sarah Head.

From Springfields Sanctuary

Since then, I’ve attended quite a few of Sarah’s workshops, both at Springfields Sanctuary and at her home near Solihull. I’ve learnt a lot about making tinctures and balms and vinegars, but regrettably I’ve not given myself the time to use them or really think about the context of what I’ve learnt.

This year, I’m taking part in Sarah’s Herbal Apprenticeship, which will force me to use more joined-up thinking and thoroughly explore my chosen herbs in more detail.

So when I was asked to write something about herbal bitters for a ‘Blog Party’, my first reaction was to politely refuse because I lacked experience with them. Then I thought about it a bit more and wondered if I should use the opportunity to learn more about them and record what I found in this blog entry, so here goes…

The first and most obvious thing to say about bitters is that they are so called because they taste bitter – it sounds so obvious but I initially thought there would be some other clever reason – well there’s not!

I can remember tasting a Dandelion leaf at a workshop and thinking ‘that’s bitter’, so there was my first ‘deliberate’ herbal bitter experience! Of course, throughout my life, I would have had many other bitters, but I have tended to shy away from bitter tasting things, which as I’ve found out, is not necessarily a good thing.

The taking of bitters, either directly as a herbal medicine or simply as a part of your diet, will improve digestion and liver function. Information on the internet indicates that bitters are typically used to aid digestion after eating a large meal or to help ease an upset stomach or nausea.  Bitter herbs can also be taken before a meal to help stimulate the appetite, for example when someone wishes to gain weight after or during an illness.

Bitters work the moment they hit your tongue (did you know your tongue has over 25 different bitter taste receptors?) and immediately get you salivating, followed by a series of reactions throughout the digestive tract. They stimulate the production of the hormone gastrin, which in turn regulates the production of gastric acid, and increase the production of the enzyme pepsin.  Bitters also act on the pancreas and liver/gall bladder, which in turn ensure good digestion of fats and oils.

Now you might be getting lost at this point with terms like ‘gastric acid’ and ‘enzymes’! All you really need to know is that these substances maximise your body’s uptake of minerals, fats and oils, will help break down proteins, and ensure absorption of key vitamins such as B12 (this is just a brief summary – they do so much more!).  Without them, you’ll not be getting all the goodness from your food, which is a) a waste and b) could lead to problems relating to deficiencies of certain minerals, or vitamins.

By promoting a good flow of bile, bitters are also helping the liver get rid of waste products, as well as providing a source of lubrication for your digested food to pass quickly through your body. In other words, they can help with detoxification and reduce the possibility of constipation.

Hopefully if you didn’t think it before, you’re now thinking that bitters are pretty good things to have in your diet, but it seems that the typical western diet has lost it’s appetite for bitters, in preference to sweet tasting foods.

Herbalist Jim McDonald, in an article called ‘Blessed Bitters’ surmises that most modern folk suffer from ‘Bitter Deficiency Syndrome’. He goes on to say “Perhaps it is not right to think that bitters should be used to treat sluggish digestion, but that a lack of bitter flavour in one’s diet can be the cause of sluggish digestion.”

Put simply, Jim says we are not eating enough bitters and many modern digestive and related issues may be due to this simple fact. If you accept this statement, your next question should be along the lines of ‘show me the bitters please!’

At this point my lack of knowledge of herbs is starting to tell. As I mentioned at the start of this article, I am fairly new to herbalism and whilst I have many ‘dots’, very few of them are joined up! I therefore can’t give you my personal experience of using bitters, so instead, I dived into one or two of my books, mainly ‘Hedgerow Medicine’ by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal to get a small selection of plants were classed as bitters, or had bitter properties referred to. I’d also like to add that the herbs listed here, are those found readily in the British Isles as I’m especially interested in native herbalism.

I hope at some point in the future, I can write more from personal experience rather than scouring the internet and books for other people’s views!

Angelica (Angelica archangelica)

Photo copyright Henriette Kress, http://www.henriettesherbal.com

“The bitter taste of angelica… stimulates stomach activity, making it a key remedy for poor appetite and anorexia. It soothes cramping and sensations of fullness in the digestive tract, and eases wind.”

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria, A. Procera)

Photo copyright Henriette Kress, http://www.henriettesherbal.com

Agrimony works with both the liver and digestive tract, helping to co-ordinate their functions. Agrimony has both bitter and astringent qualities.

Burdock (Arctium spp.)

Photo copyright Henriette Kress, http://www.henriettesherbal.com

Often used with dandelion (another major bitter) as a complementary herb. Burdock’s bitterness “helps stimulate the digestive fluids and promote appetite and digestion”.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Photo copyright Henriette Kress, http://www.henriettesherbal.com

Regarded by many as a wonderful food as well as a great medicine, “it is the bitterness in dandelion that makes that so good for your digestion. The bitter taste stimulates secretion of the digestive fluids”.

Hops (Humulus lupulus)

Photo copyright Henriette Kress, http://www.henriettesherbal.com

A bitter sedative herb commonly known for its use in brewing. Hops are used herbally as an aid to sleep and to stimulate digestion. Hops can “calm and relieve the spasms of irritable bowel syndrome and increase urine flow”.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Photo copyright Henriette Kress, http://www.henriettesherbal.com

Mugwort is a warming herb and known herbally as an aromatic bitter, which “warms the digestion and stimulates a sluggish liver. It encourages the secretion of digestive juices…”.

Oak (Quercus robur, Q. petrea)

Photo copyright Henriette Kress, http://www.henriettesherbal.com

Oak bark, taken as a decoction is a “strong and bitter… and is the primary treatment for acute diarrhoea, taken in small but plentiful doses.”

In addition to the above citrus fruits can also be a source of bitters - oranges, lemons and grapefruit peel are generally available when other ‘green’ bitters are out of season.

I have also seen herbal bitters classified according to their intensity. Those classed as "Mild" include Yarrow, Mugwort, Chamomile, Dandelion, and those classed as "Strong" include Wormwood, Barberry, Boneset, Gentian, Golden Seal, Horehound, Rue and Tansy.

I’m so pleased that I was asked to write this blog post and I hope that the lack of personal experience with bitters does not disappoint. For me, a few hours of research has opened up a whole new dimension and appreciation of herbs, not only for their medicinal properties, but also as an intrinsic part of a diet for optimum health.

Information sources:

Jim McDonald – http://www.herbcraft.org
Sarah Head – http://kitchenherbwife.blogspot.com
Henriette's Herbal - http://www.henriettesherbal.com
Hedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal
 (ISBN: 978-1-873674-99-4)
Herbal Remedies (Eyewitness Companions), Andrew Chevallier (ISBN" 978-1-4053-1282-0)

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