Bitters: A Primal Primer


I 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.  

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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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