In early 2017, I found myself contemplating the bitter end. The upcoming changing of the guard in Washington, D.C. felt shocking and, at the least, uncertain. Then, on the day that a new president – in every way the opposite of his predecessor – was sworn into office, we picked up our Malaysian exchange student from the airport. My fear of the new political reality mingled with pleasure in being able to welcome a student from a Muslim country. Although he was not Muslim, his chances of being here had already been diminished because of his country of origin. It was a bittersweet moment (more bitter than sweet), and I wrote the following in my blog chronicling my herbal journey:
“So I find myself at this bittersweet, nay, just plain bitter moment in our lifetimes. And it makes me think about the nature of bitterness and how we always shy away from it, but that it is actually vital to our bodies in herbalism. True, if an herb is bitter, it can be a warning not to eat it. But the bitter taste is also one of the green world’s best gifts to us. Herbs that are bitter-tasting such as dandelion and Oregon grape root are excellent for maintaining normal digestive function, improving absorption of the nutrients, and encouraging peristalsis.
Additionally, mood-related compounds like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and natural benzodiazepines are created in the gut. Many people who have sluggish digestion also feel ungrounded, uncentered, anxious or depressed. Bitters have a more calming and grounding effect on the nervous system (which is why many bitter-tasting herbs like skullcap are also known as nervines).
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the bitter taste is associated with Summer or Fire. TCM herbalists use bitters to help balance “overexpressed” Fire energy or symptoms. Bitters typically have a cooling energy that balances Fire when there is too much Heat in the body. (TCM capitalizes the elements, conditions like Heat, and organs. These have specific meanings in TCM and aren’t necessarily a one-to-one correlation with western medicine.) Bitters are also diaphoretics, which open the skin pores and disperse out excess heat from the body. Because they are excellent Liver cleansers, bitters also help clear up skin conditions. If your Liver is backed up and not doing its elimination job, your skin will act as a back-up elimination organ. Thank you. I do my own word plays.
American culture is notorious for having eliminated almost all bitters from our collective diets. Having been raised on high fructose corn syrup and processed-everything, we crave sweet. And not traditionally “sweet” foods like oats or milk. We want super-sugary and artificially-sweetened foods. Other cultures have retained the bitter taste in their regular diets. For example, in Europe, bitter aperitifs and digestifs are served before and after meals to aid with digestion (and just be cool in general). In Asia, bitter plants like mustard greens are consumed daily.
Because he is so often my willing test case, Byron has begun taking bitters before meals. (I’m more of a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of gal, but I’m working on it.) He also has begun taking bitters before he goes to bed at night because he will wake up hungry even though he eats a big snack right before bedtime. Bitters are also mild appetite-suppressants so they’re good to have with you when you get an attack of the ‘hangrys.’ “
My favorite purchased bitters are from Urban Moonshine, which also has a short quiz for determining the best bitter blend for you. You can buy bitters in many grocery stores in the health food section (or sometimes in the alcohol /spirits section, although these tend to be booshie in my opinion). If you are interested in a less expensive alternative, homemade bitters are easy to make and customize. The following bitters recipe is by Juliet Blankespoor via Mountain Rose Herbs. I will personally be using more bitters and giving thanks for its gifts – not least of which is the reminder that bitterness can be healing.
Dandy Orange Bitters
Makes about 8 to 12 ounces.
- 2 oz. organic dried dandelion root or 10 oz. fresh dandelion root
- 2 Tbsp. organic dried orange peel or the peel from one organic orange
- 10-14 oz. vodka (80 proof)
- If you are using fresh roots, wash and finely chop. Coarsely chop the citrus peel.
- Place the dandelion root and orange peel in a pint jar and fill remainder of the jar with vodka.
- Secure the lid on the jar and label.
- Infuse for one week, shaking daily.
- Strain out and discard solids, bottle infused liquid, and label.
Want to learn more about bitters? Here is a link to Blessed Bitters by jim mcdonald (he prefers no caps – like most herbalists, I suspect he has a big non-conformist streak). I especially like his discussion of “Bitter Deficiency Syndrome.”