How do bitters aid digestion?

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This is a video for a type of bitters, which usefully lists the benefits from taking bitters.  Essentially, taking bitters about 30 minutes before a meal primes the digestion pump.  It seems to be the bitter taste itself that sends a signal to the brain which, in turn, sends messages to the various gut departments about the upcoming – or maybe that should be incoming – food event.  More saliva is produced, the stomach wakes up and starts producing HCl, pepsin and gastrin to digest the incoming proteins, the pancreas responds with sending out digestive enzymes, the gall bladder is primed to squirt out bile to emulsify fats and overall peristaltic action speeds up.  Bitters also increase the tone of the lower esophageal sphincter or LES.  Actually, bitters will reduce flatulence, but it isn’t that particular sphincter that we’re going on about here.  The LES is the sphincter at the top of the stomach, that when weak and flabby is the major cause of heartburn – and a thriving anti-acid industry.  So if more people with heartburn chewed away on a bit of caraway seed before dins, maybe they would give their digestion a chance to work properly again.

The bitters in the above video are principally Gentian, one of the commonest bitters used in Western herbalism.  Also in the mix are bupleurum root, which is a Chinese herb and I have seen this used as part of a liver detoxification remedy.  Apparently it’s very good for helping calm anger.  And the preservative used is alcohol, which of itself, is stimulating to digestion – in depressingly small quantity.

To get the effects of bitters, we only need a small amount, which is a relief since these things have to taste bitter to work.  Bitters should be swilled about the mouth, ensuring they wrap round the root of the tongue.  And the longer we can stand the taste, the better the result.  Easy herbs to get hold of: Caraway, Dandelion, Fennel, Ginger, Globe artichoke, Hop flowers, Milk thistle, Peppermint, or Wormwood  – as well as Gentian, of course.  What I don’t know is if chewing on a peppermint leaf, for example,  will do the trick as well as buying a pot of bitters from a health food shop.  Drinking an aperitif like Campari or Absinthe will work, since there are many effective bitters in them – it only need be a tiny glassful.  Can’t be having too much fun, you know.

Bitters are less likely to work if the stomach is atrophied – or in a right mess.  When the stomach is like this, it can’t produce the digestive fluids, so trying to stimulate it is like hoping for grape juice out of a raisin.  Signs of an atrophied stomach will be a complete inability to stomach meat and probably fish too.  Food will take a long time to digest, and easy to digest foods will be favoured, like refined carbohydrates.  Usually these stomachs/digestive systems have a hard time digesting fat too, because no stomach acid means the rest of the digestive system is not signalled to do some serious work. Other signs of a stomach in distress are IBS, Chron’s Disease and Ulcers.  If interested, the best cure for the battered stomach is Zinc Carnosine, a chewable zinc tablet that coats the poor stomach and allows it to heal. See footnote for details of how to get hold of this stuff.1

I have written eleven blogs on the various parts of digestion, and if we don’t get the stomach right, none of the parts work properly.  People fondly assume they get all their nutrition from their diet – and indeed, we are told that a balanced diet will have us in the pink and all this supplementation is unnecessary.  As said many times before, the minerals zinc and magnesium have been largely leached from the soil by years of using agro-chemicals on the land, added with a diet rich in phytates – compounds found in grains (wheat, oats, rice) – that attach themselves to minerals like zinc and calcium in the gut and prevent them being digested – both of which results in zinc levels being very low.  I run a zinc tally test on new clients, and have never had anyone come anywhere near close to passing it.  Zinc plays a vital role in the manufacture of HCl, so low zinc levels in the body can only mean low HCl levels.  Low or no HCl means poor digestion, therefore we are not breaking our food down properly and our health slowly fails as a result.    So therefore the vast majority of people will get great benefits from HCl supplementation.  And if they also get their tongues around a wince making bitter taste before a meal, not only will they get a facial workout, they will also help re-prime their long suffering stomachs.

Apart from the excellent effect on the digestive system, bitters also have a cooling or anti-inflammatory property, so will help reduce inflammation.  They encourage the liver to self-clean, so aid detoxification.  And there is a great deal of interest in the positive effects of bitters on diabetes and appetite regulation.

So for a brief period of lip puckering, the rewards of taking bitters before a meal could be great.2 3

  1. Zinc Carnosine is not so easy to get hold of.  I stock the first rate Polquin version, called Primal Zinc.  It costs £31.80 for 60 chewable tablets.  Tastes nice – bit like a Rennies. []
  2. Plant as bitter.  Review.  Deshmukh D, Baghel VS et al.  Int jour of advances in pharmaceutical science.  vol 1, no 4. 2010. []
  3. Why stomach acid is good for you. JV Wright and L Lenard. []

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