Bitters are herbs and herbal preparations that have a characteristically sharp effect on the palate. The name derives from the Middle English verb bitan,, which means "to bite." In the Ayurvedic medical tradition of India, other such groupings of herbs include astringent (e.g. cucumber), salty, pungent (e.g. horseradish or ginger ), sweet, and sour. Both traditional Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine regard the action of bitters as drying. Bitters are also antibacterial, cleansing, detoxifying, germicidal, parasiticidal, stimulating, and tonifying.
While the Chinese and Ayurvedic systems of medicine were familiar with bitters as far back as 5,000 years, two more recent paths of historical rediscovery and development have contributed substantially to promoting the benefits of bitters. Chronologically, the first of these involves one of the fathers of Western medicine, also regarded as "the father of chemistry," the Swiss physician Paracelsus, (1493–1541). Paracelsus is credited with the beginnings of a formula still in use. His development of the formula may have benefited from Marco Polo's travels to China, the opening of the trading route from China known as The Silk Road, and the distribution of commerce through the Venetian trading empire.
A quarter of a century later, the Swedish naturalist and healer, Jonathan Samst, resurrected his family's traditional formula called elixir ad longam vitam (elixir for a long life), traceable to the formula of Paracelsus. This mainly European development also branched out to include monasteries, such as the Benedictines, and several European families involved in trade, organized as "Houses." As a result, several Italian, French, and German original bitter herb beverages are commercially available.
The second discovery tradition begins with a German medical doctor, Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, who in 1820 left Germany to join the South American revolutionary, Simon Bolivar, in winning independence from Spain. Siegert was appointed surgeon general at the military hospital in a trading port town at the mouth of the Orinoco River. The name of this port town, Angostura, is likely familiar to bartenders and gin drinkers. Dr. Siegert, scientifically seeking a more effective means of treating the many wounded who also suffered from fever and internal stomach disorders, spent more than four years researching the properties and qualities of local plants and herbs that might be useful to his cause. In 1824, Dr. Siegert, with his privately developed formula called Amargo Aromatico (aromatic bitter) used by his patients, family and friends, unwittingly initiated what is today The House of Angostur. This is an industry located on 20 acres in Trinidad, with worldwide distribution.
Bitters include, but are not limited to:
- gentian root (Gentiana spp.)
- aloe (Aloe vera syn. A. barbadensis )
- wormwood (Artemisia absinthium ) from which absinthe was made
- dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale )
- angelica root (Angelica archangelica )
- senna leaves (Cassia senna )
- zedoary root (Curcuma zedoaria )
- myrhh (Commiphora molmol )
- cinchona bark (Cinchona spp.)
- turmeric (Curcuma longa syn. C. domestica )
- shitetta (Swertia chirata syn. Ophelia chirata )
- saffron (Crocus sativa )
Other plants may possess the principals and actions of bitters, but are primarily listed in another category. For example, goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis ) contains the bitter berberine compounds, but is primarily categorized as an astringent.
Chemically, the bitter herbs frequently contain volatile oils with anti-inflammatory qualities. Volatile oils evaporate quickly, and have distinctive aromas, forming the chemical basis of aromatherapy . Three well-known foods with bitter principles that demonstrate the aromatic characteristic in bitters are coffee, chocolate, and stout beer. Although purveyors and consumers may mask the bitter taste with milk, sugar, or other additives, the bitter action of stimulation of the digestive system remains, and is appreciated by many. In addition to volatile oils, the bitters contain a wide variety of active chemical components, including:
- furocoumarins, also in celery, which stimulate gastric juice secretion and relax the muscles
- complex sugars (complex carbohydrates), which have antiviral and anti-inflammatory effects
- furanosesquiterpenes (a fat in edible oils), with possible antiseptic activity
- anthraquinones, which have an irritant laxative effect
- alkaloids (in chocolate, mildly) with antispasmodic, antibacterial, and pain relieving effects
- other vitamins, minerals, and compounds, some that have demonstrated anticancer effects
For several hundred to several thousand years, the chief medicinal and culinary use of bitter herbs has been to stimulate digestion and improve elimination. This is clearly demonstrated with coffee, chocolate, and stout beer. Nerve endings in the tongue, reacting to the bitter flavor, increase the flow of saliva and trigger a wave-like action of rhythmic contractions throughout the smooth muscles of the digestive tract, from esophagus to rectum. This wave-like action, known as peristalsis, is the means by which food and its non-digestable remainder is moved through the body. The taste of bitters also initiates the flowing of stomach, liver, and pancreatic secretions. Bitters, therefore, are known to improve nutrient digestion and absorption. They are regarded as appropriate accompaniments to fatty or heavy meals, which otherwise tend to be digested sluggishly. Bitters are said to tonify and strengthen the digestive system, which may make them useful in the treatment of digestive organs including the stomach, liver, pancreas, and bowels, under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
- Extract, or herbal extract
- —An herbal remedy in which water or alcohol is used to dissolve the medicinally desired components from plant materials. Prepared extracts may be solid or liquid.
Bitters also promote circulation. Many anecdotes attest to their usefulness in treating the pain of arthritis and rheumatism, animal bites, colic, constipation , and hem-orrhoids . Their aromatic principals make bitters useful in arousal from fainting. Antiseptic characteristics help in reducing fever, cleansing wounds , and the promotion of proper healing. This antiseptic action is a reason why hops (Humulus lupulus ) was used in beer making as a preservative, prior to pasteurization. It is reported that the amount of hops, and therefore the amount of bitterness, is what distinguishes beer from ale and stout (the most bitter). The stimulant action of bitter herbs on the liver, according to one source, makes bitters a first aid remedy for hangover . Its purported remarkable effects on gin drinking seem to have contributed to the popularity of Dr. Siegert's Aromatic Bitter in England, and amongst royalty when he first took his product to London in 1862.
A number of preparations of bitters are commercially available. Many brand name bitter aperitif (before dinner) and digestif (after dinner) alcoholic beverages and liqueurs have been in use since the mid-1800s. Bitter tonics and extracts, usually in an alcohol base, are available for internal and external use. For internal use, it is recommended that extracts be added to water. Externally, they may be applied on cotton wool as a compress. References to external application also suggest first applying calendula (Calendula officinalis ) ointment or oil, moistening the cotton wool with the bitter herb tonic, and covering with plastic wrap. The ointment or oil prevents drying of the affected area, and the plastic keeps the area warm.
Encapsulations of bitter herbs are now available, which allow consumers to avoid the bitter taste. However, the capsules may be less effective since arousal of the tongue is an initiating physiologic factor in stimulating the digestive system.
Sources recommend that users read label warnings carefully, follow the manufacturer's dosing suggestions, and pay attention to adverse effects, if any, that occur within several hours of taking the bitters.
The chief, and almost universal precaution noted with the use of bitter herbal products, is that they are not to be taken internally by children and pregnant or nursing women. Another widely found precaution is avoidance of bitters by persons who have diseases of the gall bladder or the biliary ducts, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn's disease , or other digestive disorders. Some precautions also exist for avoidance if one has kidney disease. Since bitters are known to be drying, caution is also advised regarding dehydration, and avoidance of the simultaneous use or overuse of alcohol products, which are also known to be drying.
In general, bitters may cause dehydration in children, and uterine bleeding and miscarriage in women. Individual ingredients may also produce undesirable side effects. For example, angelica root may cause hormonal imbalances in children. It may also cause skin sensitivities, especially for persons with psoriasis , when used with prolonged exposure to sunlight. Senna may cause severe abdominal cramping. Both angelica root and senna are the herbs found in a noted bitter herb tonic. One source advises the universal precaution of paying particular attention to dizziness, nausea , or skin rashes , especially if they occur within several hours of taking a product.
To limit or avoid side effects, sources recommend following the directions of the manufacturer, one's healthcare professional provider, and general health guidelines.
The following interactions pertain to the use of bitter herb formulas.
Herb-alternative drug favorable interactions
Formulas using dandelion root and leaf as part of the treatment for liver or gall bladder disease, are reported to be facilitated by supplements that contain methionine , choline and inositol, and N-acetylcysteine (NAC). Assistance from a healthcare professional is recommended.
Formulas using dandelion root and leaf as part of the treatment for kidney disease, are reported to be facilitated by supplements. Assistance from a healthcare professional is recommended.
Herb-drug unfavorable interactions
Formulas using any of the berberine compound herbs such as goldenseal, oregon grape root (Berberis aquifolium ), or barberry (Berberis vulgaris ), for example, are reported to be contraindicated with the use of tetracycline antibiotics.
Formulas using dandelion root or leaf are reported to be contraindicated with potassium sparing diuretics, such as amiloride.
Formulas using sedatives such as hops are generally contraindicated with antidepressants, smoking cessation prescriptions, or sedatives, and are specifically contraindicated with bupropion and buspirone.
Herb-food unfavorable interactions
No specific unfavorable interactions have been found. However, precautions exist against potential interactions between bitter herb formulas and nonprescription, over the counter (OTC) drugs containing caffeine or an alcohol base. Sources recommend following all label advisories.
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Katy Nelson, N.D.