Most people are naturally drawn to the taste of sweet. Perhaps this sends a message to the brain that you will get energy to carry on. But a bitter taste emits a very different signal – on guard, this could be poison! Here’s the bitter truth: bitter foods in small doses have tremendous health benefits.
Welcome to the hermetic zone, or hormesis, from the Greek word hormaein:” to set in motion, impel, urge on.” It’s based on the theory that low doses of toxins or other stressors trigger repair mechanisms in the body. This sets in motion a process that fixes not only any damage caused by the toxin, but also other miscellaneous stuff that needs mending. It’s kind of like when you go down to the basement to tighten some screws on the boiler and, by the way realize, gee, there’s a small leak in a pipe and the hot water heater needs attention. Or, like how a muscle gets larger and stronger after the stress of weightlifting or rigorous exercise – the workout does not tear us down, but leaves us in a better condition than if the “insult” had never occurred.
Hormesis embodies one of the important ways plants protect us. Constantly under attack from insects, animals, bacteria, fungus, and, of course, people trying to eat them, many plants have evolved to produce different toxic compounds as a defensive measure. Humans, unlike herbivores animals, have the ability to detect the presence of these toxins through specialized taste receptors that register the bitter taste. Turns out, bitter receptors are not just in the mouth, but all over – in the esophagus, stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, even nasal, respiratory tracts, breast, testicular and brain tissue.
So, when activated with a small toxic dose, the receptors spur the immune system into action. (Sugar receptors, on the other hand, have the opposite effect: they depress, dull immune function.) Of course, the key is “small dose.” Higher toxic input could overwhelm the system. The low dose presents a challenge the body can handle. It’s a wake up call: get to work! Like a military drill, prepare for the worst, get in shape!
Thus, eating bitter plant foods assists us in maintaining homeostasis, while also supplying vital nutrients, antioxidents, phytochemicals, etc. What an amazing design nature has created – the plant kingdom in sync with our immune system helping us survive and thrive!
Beneficial effects of bitters
For thousands of years, healers, e.g., in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, have recognized the value of hormesis. Bitters were incorporated into food preparations and medicines to enhance overall gut health, prevent gastrointestinal infection, as well as sinus infections (fewer colds, sore throats, coughs), to empower the immune response to dissolve phlegm, mitigate asthma. Today, research has found that bitters can be helpful for children with Types 1 and 2 diabetes, lowering blood sugar and the need for insulin.
Regular consumption of small amounts of bitters tunes up the metabolic functioning of the body: impacting fat storage, insulin release, blood sugar levels, metabolism speed, reducing heartburn, gas, bloating, nausea, normalizing liver function, regulating appetite for those who eat too little or too much. Bitters also affects the brain – studies have found that the phytochemicals in bitter plants trigger hermetic responses in brain cells which can improve brain function and may increase resistance of neurons to injury and age-related neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson disease.
Bitter foods such as leafy greens, cacao, herbs, and bitter melon all contain liver-boosting nutrients such as sulfur, along with fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K). These are necessary for the body to be able to produce bile, which is needed for optimal digestion and to help the liver work at prime level.
Here’s a summary of just some of the known benefits derived from a daily dose of bitters:
- Balanced appetite.
- Better digestion, reduced reflux, burping, gas, bloating, improved bowel function.
- Strengthened overall immune function.
- Improved absorption of nutrients, increased production of stomach acid, more bile to aid breakdown of fats and proteins.
- Lowered risk of food allergies due to better breakdown of protein from stomach acid.
- Improved balance of blood sugar levels which normalizes release of insulin.
- Reduced inflammation and obesity.
- Improved detoxification by energizing the drainage system, helping to remove foreign dangers, such as, heavy metals, pesticides, plastics, industrial chemicals.
So, how does one get a daily dose of bitters?
Pretty much every culture down through the ages has traditional dishes that incorporate bitter compounds in one form or another. For instance, the Jews eat bitter herbs, usually horseradish, at Passover seders to honor their ancestors who persisted despite great suffering. The Japanese on the island of Okinawa partake of a stir-fry called goya chanpuru – egg, tofu, pork and bitter melon – which is thought to ensure longevity. The slight discomfort is considered a healthy thing, as exciting as it is uncomfortable, an exhilarating rush. In our modern Western culture probably the most common bitter concoctions are taken as tonics: coffee and beer, which, in moderation, have been found to protect against type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, liver cancer, and promote heart health, etc.
In fruits and vegetables the highest concentration of bitter compounds is found in the peel and the skin – parts too often thrown away! Also, too often today, healthy bitter foods are weakened by adding sugars or commercial condiments to mask the bitterness. Our modern food supply is much less bitter than in past centuries because food processing has largely bred out the health promoting bitter elements in fruits and vegetables. Our palates have become accustomed to bland food! Our taste buds are flabby, a fact reflected in the increase of autoimmune and chronic degenerative conditions found in “advanced” industrial societies. So if you’re transitioning to a diet of whole, unprocessed, preferably organic or heritage varieties of foods, be prepared for a period of adjustment. Soon you won’t need to smother everything in ketchup or steak sauce to get a rise out of your taste buds!
Children need less bitter foods than adults – their bodies respond well to low dose bitters. Some people may be more sensitive to the bitter taste, but there are ways to mask the flavor without sacrificing the good effects. Roasting veggies converts starches to sugar, giving a sweeter taste that is more palatable. Or you can add a healthy fat, like grass-fed butter, ghee, tallow, coconut, avocado or olive oil. This enhances flavor and makes the fat-soluble nutrients in the vegetables more bioavailable. Unrefined salt, like seasalt, Celtic or Himalayan salt, can also minimize the bitterness while adding flavor and valuable trace minerals.
Moderation and variety are key. Organically grown is preferable. Here are some widely available bitter foods to incorporate gradually into your diet of quality animal and vegetable fare:
- Citrus, peels and whole fruit, dried or fresh – modulates hunger, improves appetite, digestion, absorption, speeds metabolism.
- Apple and carrot peels
- Apple Cider Vinegar – be sure to get the raw kind with the “mother” (e.g., Bragg’s).
- Dandelion greens or roasted dandelion root tea (commercially available as Dandy Blend) – children like this with just a little bit of raw honey.
- Whole grains, especially amaranth, millet – mildly bitter (which is why manufacturers add sugars to cereals which, of course, pretty much cancels out any beneficial effects).
- Arugula – stimulates bile production, helps detoxify, regulate immune function, cancer prevention.
- Dill – a natural antibiotic, Hippocrates prescribed fresh dill as a mouth cleanse to fight bad breathe.
- Other nutrient dense greens – swiss chard, watercress.
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Kale – best cooked to inactive a substance called goitrin that can suppress the thyroid gland’s uptake of iodine and result in enlargement of the gland
- Sesame seeds
- Spices: ginger, pepper, cardamom
- Culinary herbs: mint, yellow dock, burdock, fennel seed, thyme, marjoram, lovage,rosemary, tarragon, bay leaves, sorrel, sage
- Other veggies: artichoke, broccoli, broccoli rabe, radicchio, brussel sprout, chicory, white asparagus, chives, onion, sorrel, garlic, cocoa bean, purslane, radish, mustard, leek, bell peppers, eggplant, bitter melon
- Red wine, beer, coffee
- Dark raw chocolate with at least 85% or more cocoa solids
- Water with fresh lemon or Apple Cider Vinegar
Eating should be like a good workout, not too hard nor too easy. Our taste buds hunger for a little titillation, but too many of us have become accustomed to food that tastes insipid without generous dousings of artificially-flavored, chemically-preserved sauces or seasonings.
How much bitters is enough or too much? Everyone is different, but generally a wide variety of foods with bitter compounds, with not too much of this or that, is good.
Too much sweet and not enough bitterness unbalances immune function. But don’t neglect the full palette of possibilities. Delicious food starts with quality whole ingredients providing varied textures, a backbone of balanced basic flavors (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, savory), aromatic herbs and spices that give zesty flashes of beauty. Just remember, the motto that too many go by today -“If a little is good, more is better” – does not apply!
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