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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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November 07, 2017

Bitters: A Primal Primer

By Mark Sisson
41 Comments

Inline_Bitters_11.07.17I have a German friend who, after one of her fantastic meals, breaks out her Kräuter and fills aperitif glasses for everyone. To her it’s simply tradition. For the rest of us it’s a pleasant extension of her unmatched hospitality—and a welcome end to a heavy dinner.

Digestive bitters have been used for centuries as a highly effective way to boost digestive capacity, and naturally occurring digestive compounds in foods have been an integral part of our ancestral diets since day one. My friend says bitters are the secret to a hearty constitution. Knowing the science—and seeing her example, I’m unlikely to argue there.  

And it’s not just about before or after dinner drinks…. In fact, great Kräuter aside, alcohol isn’t the point at all.

We possess the ability to distinguish (at least) 5 different flavors from the foods we eat: sweet, sour, salty, umami, and bitter. We tend to gravitate towards sweet or salty flavors, but sour can be tasty. Umami, especially for a Primal type (and German food), is a given.

But what about bitter? Most people avoid bitterness in food like the plague. It even comes out in embodied phrasing like “leaving a bitter taste in one’s mouth.” 

But it hasn’t always been that way…. 

Setting the Scene: Bitter Taste Receptors

Let’s first look at the diverse roles of T2Rs—bitter taste receptors—in the human body.

Initially, scientists knew about the existence of T2Rs and understood that their role was to detect bitterness in the foods we wittingly eat or the compounds we unwittingly swallow. But until recently, they didn’t have the foggiest regarding exactly how those taste receptors were able to encourage more efficient digestion.

Thanks to research over the past 15 years or so, we now know that the bitter taste receptors in our mouths release neurotransmitters that stimulate, via the vagus nerve, an increase in intracellular calcium concentrations. It’s thought that this action then encourages secretion of the intestinal hormone cholecystokinin, thereby initiating the release of digestive enzymes and bile.

So…bitter compounds in the mouth trigger the release of digestive compounds via an autonomic hormone release. Fair enough. But there’s actually a lot more to it. It turns out that T2Rs are by no means limited to the tongue and oral cavity. In fact, they’re turning up in the most unlikely of places, including the stomach, intestines, pancreas, respiratory system…even on the heart.

When we consider just how widespread T2Rs are in the body, the significance of bitter consumables amplifies considerably. Those that reside in our intestinal lining, for example, are known to trigger the release of hormones involved in appetite regulation, nutrient absorption, and even insulin sensitivity. In our GI tract, bitter taste receptors can simultaneously promote the absorption of “safe” bitter compounds and the excretion of toxic ones, thereby preventing overexposure to the many low-grade food-borne toxins we eat every day.

The T2R defense system continues in our respiratory system, where taste receptor cells have been shown to monitor the bacteria in our tissues and initiate an innate immune response if pathogenic species are detected. The mechanism by which they do this is pretty darn cool: gram-negative bacteria secrete acyl-homoserine lactones—compounds that are similar in taste to bitter plants like angelica or dandelion, thereby activating T2R cells and triggering a release of antibacterial compounds into epithelial cells.

It gets better.

As sugar consumption increases, the risk of bacterial overgrowth shoots up. But with increasing bacterial sugar consumption is a corresponding rise in metabolic by-products (bacteria poop), which activates the same immune responses in T2Rs as those found in the respiratory tract. Essentially, those bitter taste receptors are trying to save you from your sweet tooth. It’s a thankless task, apparently.

Lousy digestion? It Might Be a Job For Bitters

Based on the above, it’s fair to say that a diet rich in bitter compounds is probably a good thing. Bitter foods activate those T2Rs in the mouth and GI tract, setting off a chain reaction of good vibes and jumped-up digestion that’s bound to improve your relationship with food…in the short term, at least.

But here we have a problem…. We’ve all but banished bitter foods from our modern diet. These days, pre-packaged foods, with their overdose of sugar, salt, MSG, or all of the above, have most people unattuned and resistant to anything else.

Even those of us who eat Primal may not necessarily be that much better off. Even a diet rich in whole foods doesn’t provide nearly the same bitter elements as yesteryear. With increasing agricultural cultivation, we’ve seen a slow decline in bitter compounds, meaning that unless you’re primarily consuming wild-foraged foods, you’re unlikely to come close to Grok’s intake. Sadly, indulging in today’s meagre collection of bitter foods, like dark chocolate, olives, and coffee, isn’t enough for most people.

Arguably, digestive bitters can fill in some of those dietary gaps. The mechanism by which they stimulate boosted digestive capacity is wondrously simple: the bitter taste receptors on our tongue and other areas of the mouth register that a bitter compound has entered your body. This triggers a chain reaction of T2Rs all the way down your digestive tract, revving up your digestive organs for a new wave of half-chewed food.

As I explained in the previous section, bitter compounds elicit improved digestion not by directly stimulating stomach acid secretion, but by stimulating the different digestive organs themselves via the nervous system.

Upon tasting something bitter, your T2Rs send out advance notice: the salivary glands begin pumping out enzyme-rich saliva, the stomach begins to produce gastrin, which in turn stimulates HCl secretion, and the esophageal sphincter contracts, preventing the movement of digestive acids upwards (where they don’t belong).

The bitter messengers continue to carry out their humble work, activating the smooth muscle of the stomach which increases the rate of gastric emptying (depending on the bitter compound in question), thereby preventing the accumulation and fermentation of foods in the stomach post-meal. At the same time, the pancreas begins pelting out enzymes and innate probiotics willy nilly, the gall bladder dispenses bile to break down fats, and other areas of the intestines ready themselves for the task ahead.

Not bad, I’d say.

Bitters: Getting Your Hands On the Good Stuff

The modern equivalent of bitters was likely born in the 16th century, purportedly created by physician and alchemist Paracelus to cure a wide range of ailments. During the reign of King George II (1727-1760), bitters became a popular way to avoid alcohol sales taxes by drinking herb-infused booze under the umbrella of a “medicinal” beverages. In 1824, Angostura bitters, still well-known today, were given life by a German physician to support the digestive tracts of Venezuelan freedom fighters and as a cure for sea sickness. Invariably, the stuff went down as a treat in the nautical community, and soon apothecaries and medicine makers across Europe were jumping on the bitters bandwagon. In short order, bartenders found that medicinal bitters were surprisingly effective in mellowing the harsh liquors of the time, giving rise to the modern cocktail.

Until the 1880s, any cocktail would henceforth contain bitters—the very definition of a cocktail was a spirit mixed with sugar, water, and bitters. Bitters then lost some of their mojo with the onset of Prohibition, but began to re-emerge again in the mid-twentieth century as researchers started probing their digestive capacity and attempting to validate many of the earlier claims of bitters as a “cure-all.” In a 1967 article published in Planta Medica, for example, extracts of gentian and vermouth were shown to stimulate gastric secretion and intensify digestion of proteins and fats after a meal.

These days, an increasing bitters “renaissance” among the cocktail-wielding hipster masses has been accompanied by a smaller, yet more substantive movement towards better digestion within the alternative health community.

But not all bitters are created equal. Different compounds elicit varied responses in the central nervous system, digestive system, and even cardiovascular system, so it’s worthwhile doing your research to know which bitters formulation suits your needs best. Caffeine and coffee, for example, increase heart rate whereas gentian and wormwood decrease vascular workload.

Bitters can also be prepared in different ways. Back in the day, “bitters were generally ethanol extracts of plant or mineral material, for example, Dr Henley’s Wild Grape Root Bitters or Brown’s Iron Bitters.” Today, alcohol is still the most popular way to ensure the most potent and stable bitter brews, but there’s also formulations like this one from Urban Moonshine, which replaces alcohol with apple cider vinegar—the added bonus being the increased stimulation of stomach acid from the ACV contingent.

While mineral bitters appear to have dropped off the public radar, there’s been a huge surge in the popularity of herbal-based digestive bitters in recent years. These formulations are created using plants that are generally very common in many other herbal remedies: dandelion and burdock for food sensitivities and sugar cravings, chamomile and ginger for morning sickness and heartburn, artichoke and fenugreek for blood sugar regulation and bile production. Even herbs commonly associated with other pursuits, such as hops, are used as potent herbal ingredients for digestive bitters.

Then there are the bitters used in cocktails, aperitifs and digestifs. Aperitifs and digestifs like Campari, Vermouth, madeira and Aperol are firmly entrenched as tradition in European countries, respectively taken before or after a meal to encourage both appetite and digestion. And there’s a good reason why these drinks remain a fundamental part of those culture: like digestive bitters, these cocktail bitters really do elicit the same beneficial response as their medicinal counterparts (as my experience at my German friend’s dinner parties suggests). They might not all be as potent, but they’re certainly a good option if you enjoy a post-meal tipple.

Dosage: What to Know

It’s important to remember that digestive bitters are extremely potent, so a little goes a very long way. This is particularly true for folks who expose their tastebuds to very few bitter flavors in their everyday diets. Dark (at least 85%) chocolate, strong unsweetened coffee, dandelion greens, and heritage grapefruit are all good examples of bitter foods. People who don’t eat much of these may initially at least respond all the more aggressively to digestive bitters.

Whether you take your digestive bitters before or after a meal is up to you. It’s true that logic implies taking them 5-10 minutes before eating might make the most sense. That way, you’re giving those digestive organs ample time to ramp up their operations. And how about the claims that you should hold the digestive bitters on the back of your tongue for maximum effect? Turns out the whole tongue map thing is a myth, meaning your tastebuds will effectively register the bitter flavor pretty much anywhere on the tongue.

As far as dosage, that will depend on the bitters formulation, however a 1/4 teaspoon seems to be a good starting point for most people. Some digestive bitters also come in droppers. Half a dropper usually equates to around 1/4 of a teaspoon, just FYI.

Bear in mind there’s almost certainly a dose-dependency when it comes to taking bitters. Low concentrations appear to cause contraction of smooth muscle in the stomach, whereas higher concentrations lead to relaxation of the same muscles. This means that taking lower doses might make more sense when heartburn or reflux is likely to be an issue. Just a suggestion of bitters on the tongue is enough to ensure contraction of the esophageal sphincter, thereby locking in those acidic digestive juices. At the other end of the spectrum, indulging in a large dose of bitters following a particularly gluttonous meal might ease that bursting sensation. 

Interestingly, it appears there are no half measures either: diluting the sensation of bitterness with something sweet, for example, dampens the medicinal effect of the bitter compounds. Clearly, a little bit of taste receptor toughening is in order.

As far as side effects go, you’re unlikely to experience anything too adverse unless you get a bit crazy with the dosages. (I will say it’s important to talk to your doctor, particularly if you’re pregnant, nursing, have a serious medical condition, or take medication.) Perhaps of more concern is when bitters are taken for too long or too often. A study conducted on 1000 Southwest Nigerian college students found that 22% of students experienced dizziness from bitters use, 21% experienced loss of taste, and close to 10% experienced nausea and vomiting.

Another study conducted in the same region, where something called “Febi super bitters” is a popular herbal cure-all, found that regular consumption of the stuff elicited a considerable inflammatory response. Their conclusion? “Daily consumption of Febi super bitters as a blood tonic or immunomodulatory agent is not recommended.”

Fair point, and one which should probably apply to bitters consumption across the board. These should be modest—and maybe occasional—go-tos for assisting in the digestion of extra-hearty meals or when infrequent digestive issues arise. Constantly swigging back on bitters is likely to build digestive reliance and overload neuronal pathways. Remember, these compounds are surprisingly powerful, and their effects are widespread.

Finally, is it worth continuing to take your enzyme or bile supplements if you’re investing in a good digestive bitters? Probably not. The beauty of bitters is that they simply nudge the GI tract into producing digestive compounds it was already producing anyway—including it’s very own digestive enzymes and of course upping the bile ante. To me, that’s probably a better solution for most people than “topping up” enzymes or digestive acids with supplemental sources.

Final Take-Aways…

Ultimately, this is another scenario where highly beneficial effects can be achieved with strategic supplementation. It’s clear that we need more bitter foods in our life, and if we need to get those bitter compounds from a herbal formulation, so be it. I’ll continue enjoying them at my friend’s dinner parties, and I’ve been known to have them at home in the past, but I’ve never taken them every day. 

Personally, my preference has always been to balance things out via whole-food means wherever possible. In the realm of bitter compounds, this means seeking out more foraged or heritage varieties of edible plants, plenty of ultra-dark chocolate, unsweetened home-ground coffee, and maybe the odd shot of “Kräuter” to wash things down every once in a while.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Do you take bitters—in any form? What have you noticed in terms of effect? Favorite options or recipes you’d care to share? I’d love to hear your feedback.

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41 Comments on "Bitters: A Primal Primer"

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Mimi
Mimi
6 months 18 days ago

What a great article!! Thank you. Mimi

Nocona
Nocona
6 months 18 days ago

I love Rocket greens.

Been making my own bitters for over a year now. Charred Cedar, Cherry-Hazelnut, Coffee-Pecan and Pear. Other added ingredients to these bitters include devil’s club root, schizandra berries, chinchona bark, cassia chips, star anise, wild cherry bark, cacao nibs, peppercorns, orange peel, lemon and orange zest, vanilla bean, ginger, callamus root and many more.

Some recipe ideas for bitters could include broiled bitter grapefruit, bitter bar nuts, compound bitter butters, bitters vinaigrette, bitters glaze for ham and ribs, bitters whipped cream and bitters and balsamic macerated strawberries.

Donna Munro
Donna Munro
6 months 17 days ago

How do you make them? I’m especially curious about charred cedar bitters.

Andrea
Andrea
6 months 18 days ago

This is fascinating! I have an ancient bottle of Angostura bitters in my cabinet (inherited) and now I am curious to try them. It will be fun to explore. Thanks!

Andrea
Andrea
6 months 17 days ago

Update: In honor of my Scottish roots, I made a Rob Roy cocktail (“perfect”, meaning half an ounce each of sweet and dry Vermouth with two ounces Scotch, and two dashes of bitters). My husband and I split it, and we thought it was interesting, tasty, although probably not our favorite libation. But now I know how to make one!

Animanarchy
Animanarchy
6 months 9 days ago
I’ve never used bitters properly, I suppose. I used to drink Angostura diluted for the alcohol sometimes. Seems like it would be pricey but I was getting it for free. 45% alc. if I remember and you can get it right from a grocery store beverage shelf! That was back in the day when I was running more risks.. I thought it tasted like it had a lot of sugar so maybe . If you mix it with sparkling water it makes a decent drink. I also mixed it with coffee sometimes, and other drinks. Kind of reminds me of… Read more »
Animanarchy
Animanarchy
6 months 9 days ago

oops, got distracted.”I thought it tasted like it had a lot of sugar so maybe” should have been followed by something like “it’s not a very effective brand, at least for pharmacological action via taste bud stimulation”.

NaturalGirl
NaturalGirl
6 months 18 days ago

Bitters!

Ion Freeman
6 months 18 days ago

There are a lot of kale adherents. When they hear you were promoting bitter foods and didn’t mention it, I reckon there’s going to be trouble. You should get Google to delist your site temporarily.

HealthyHombre
HealthyHombre
6 months 18 days ago

The Kale Fanatics can become quite bitter when they’re ignored Ion. 🙂

Rémy ROCHE
Rémy ROCHE
6 months 18 days ago

Great article! It makes me wanna do those alcohol-infused orange peels again!

Ant
Ant
6 months 18 days ago

Very interesting read. Thanks

katerina smith
6 months 18 days ago

everything green is beautiful

Anna
Anna
6 months 18 days ago

Bitter tea made from artichoke leaf, birch leaf, olive leaf, enzian root, dandelion root powder, to mention a few

A ghost
A ghost
6 months 18 days ago

Isn’t artichoke leaf tea much the same thing as the water an artichoke is boiled in? It would be really convenient if it turned out to have health benefits, since one ends up with such a lot of it everytime one boils an artichoke. Well, it is decidedly green and artichoke-flavoured, so something must have leached out.

2Rae
2Rae
6 months 18 days ago

I like to take bitters for a “bitter stomach” so I have some Swedish bitters in the fridge just in case. At first they are quite an assault to your senses if you are not eating other bitter things but after the first few times it’s actually a nice taste and I no longer mix them with water or anything else. It’s just intense!!!

Jack Lea Mason
Jack Lea Mason
6 months 18 days ago

Don’t over look bitter gourd/bitter melon and tamarind as bitter foods. Tamarind is great in beef marinades. Bitter gourd is almost impossible to eat. I slice it and boil if before stir frying it with ground pork and shallots. I’m going to have to save the boiling water for a bitter aperitif. Also dried tangerine peels steeped in red bush tea is a good Angostura substitute. When I’m not drinking alcohol I order club soda with bitters the amber hue makes it a good mock tail.

dxx
dxx
6 months 18 days ago

grapefruit, rucola and other salads, some roots like radish. no need for anything fancy

wildgrok
wildgrok
6 months 16 days ago

good I was going to ask about radishes, no need now 🙂

A ghost
A ghost
6 months 18 days ago

Now of course I had to go buy some grapefruit, which got me thinking about citrus pith, which is usually quite bitter. Does that mean you can take a few bites of orange peel to get the health benefits of bitter foods? I fancy that I have heard something somewhere about pith being good for blood sugar control. It would be pretty convenient too, since it is uniquitous and comes free with every orange you buy.

PrimalPlum
PrimalPlum
6 months 17 days ago

Back in my youth when I was plagued by bloody noses, I was told that the pith also contains a good amount of rutin, which helps with blood vessel integrity, apparently. I wonder how much of this we’d have to eat.

Andrea
Andrea
6 months 17 days ago

I was wondering the same thing about citrus pith. I love “pithy” things. 🙂

Clank
Clank
6 months 17 days ago

Been saying for years – Bitter is the new sweet.

JerryN
6 months 17 days ago

The mention of wormwood as a bitter reminded me of a (almost exclusive) Chicago phenomena — Malort Liquor. It is wildly popular there due to both it’s incredibly disgusting taste and it’s hilarious fan marketing:

https://facesofmalort.wordpress.com/about/slogans/

and yes, I have tried it!

Tracey Holekamp
Tracey Holekamp
6 months 17 days ago

I use Urban Moonshine bitters.

Pat Browne
6 months 17 days ago

Great info Mark. I eat small amounts of 100% cacao and love it.

One thing gardeners often overlook is that while lettuce is bitter after it bolts (goes to seed), it’s not necessarily time to compost it. I enjoy the bolted lettuce as a bitter green.

bearsfeat
bearsfeat
6 months 17 days ago

I am always amazed at the bitterness of a banana peel. Does that count? It sounds like anything that tastes bitter will activate the T2R cells. I couldn’t peel my grapefruit this afternoon because my fingernails were too short, so I bit it and got a nice dose of bitter!

A ghost
A ghost
6 months 17 days ago

I’d like to know that too.

Jenny
Jenny
6 months 17 days ago

Are there any bitters that don’t use Senna leaf?

Marc
Marc
6 months 17 days ago

I was stoked years ago when I learned I would never have to eat nasty kale again because the phytotoxins would kill me. I guess I have to rethink …

Jeb
Jeb
6 months 16 days ago
Well, that sets me up for a good day of reading. The folks I know taking blood pressure medication end up with digestion or heartburn problems and feeling of bloatedness even after a small meal and/or sudden urgency or diarrhea-like issues. I speculated that if those meds can soften up blood vessel contraction, what would stop them from softening up the sphincter tightness in the throat/stomach meeting or the rectal area. Then they go on heartburn meds, then they get colonoscopies and so on and so on. I was not motivated enough to look into the connection at the time,… Read more »
wildgrok
wildgrok
6 months 16 days ago

Just curious:

Would a nice IPA beer qualify for bitter?

(please please say yes)

Marge Fiore
Marge Fiore
6 months 14 days ago
“diluting the sensation of bitterness with something sweet, for example, dampens the medicinal effect of the bitter compounds” If that is the truth, then what good are the bitters that are used in cocktails, or used as digestives? All of them that I am aware of are sweetened. And this article says nothing about bitter greens. I have always thought that bitter greens were a bit of a superfood. This would explain why. Mustard greens, dandelion, chicory, broccoli rabe, endive, radicchio, escarole, turnip greens, arugula … these all have a bitter component, and all would affect these T2Rs. Personally, I… Read more »
Matthew Zastrow
6 months 9 days ago

I found that lemon water, Apple Cider Vinegar + water, Dandelion greens, or sauerkraut works well… actually any fermented product with the beneficial acids seem to help.

Matthew Zastrow
6 months 9 days ago

Even Mustard!

Ems
Ems
6 months 8 days ago
Hoorah for bitters. This is the reason tonic water works on restless legs and cramping – the bitter component of the tonic activates those receptors and the small amount of quinine hits that superhighway along the nervous system and relieves cramping in minutes. Quinine is mostly off the market now except for in homeopathic or herbal doses due to all the side effects…like heart failure. I use low dose tablets now which work by the same principle but without all the sugar of tonic water. Would love more research to go into this – dopamine, nerve damage, hormonal issues, heat… Read more »
Karrie Licatesi
Karrie Licatesi
6 months 3 days ago

I have Urban Moonshine and I love the taste. My functional medicine doctor who told me to take UM said it will taste awful, go figure.
It helps if I feel bloated after a meal, sometimes when I have hearturn (but after reading the article , I suspect I know why it doesn’t always qork for heartburn), or even when my stomach just feels weird always fer a meal. I love this stuff!

Karrie Licatesi
Karrie Licatesi
6 months 3 days ago

? guess I didn’t proofread…

Gentleman Jak
5 months 28 days ago

I once tasted some of that bitter spray used to keep dogs from chewing up stuff and whew-wee! That stuff is bitter! Does that count? Haha!

IanB
IanB
5 months 8 days ago

We use a product called Swedish Bitters at home. It’s in liquid formand a great help if you have indigestion.

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