The Brilliance of Bitter

In food as in life, there’s often a good reason for everything. There are hidden teachings and gifts waiting to burst forth from the most unlikely places. If you’re like most people, you’ll tend to appreciate sweet life experiences much more so than the bitter ones. You’ll also tend to gravitate towards the sweeter foods rather than the edibles that are bitter to the tongue. Of course, this makes perfect sense. Personally, I’d much prefer the sweet life, the fun stuff, the goodies, and anything that puts an automatic smile on my face. Likewise, if something leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, then it’s clearly the kind of food or experience that I’m not interested in repeating. But might there be a nutritional value to bitter? Is it possible that there’s even a brilliance to bitter that can not only fuel our personal potential, but our metabolic potential as well?

Bitter has some beautiful secrets to tell, some powerful wisdom to teach us, as well as a special impact on our chemistry. Here’s what I mean:

Bitter Taste

The concept of bitter is made quite real and literal in the biology of the body. Taste buds that directly fire upon sensing a bitter food are directly wired into our neurologic and gustatory physiology. Because evolution generally has a wisdom that seems far greater than what we could imagine, we can assume that if the body is built to distinguish bitter, then there’s a good reason for it.

And indeed, there is. First, if you encounter any poisonous food in nature, chances are it’s going to taste bitter or pungent. There are absolutely no sweet foods or plants in nature that can kill you in an instant. So it’s wise for the body to distinguish such things, and to be hyper attentive to bitter substances as there’s a chance they can poison us, and permanently so.

But as nature and biology also know, the dose makes the poison. Meaning, things are only harmful or lethal to human biology at a specific threshold dose. And in fact, there are many substances, particularly plants, that are quite bitter, but in reasonable and moderate doses – have some positive and profound healing properties.

Bitter Herbs

Simply put, bitter as a taste not only informs us of what might be poisonous, it also informs us of bitter substances that are powerfully nutritive for the body. The ancient, wise, and time-tested systems of Ayurveda and Chinese Five Element Theory have lots to say about the profound impact of various bitter foods herbs on health. Both of these well-articulated approaches to healing see the various tastes, including bitter, as necessary to human health and to biological function. In these worldviews, tastes such as sweet, salty, sour, bitter and pungent are literally seen as “nutrients.” If we are lacking in these nutritive substances, then illness and/or disease is predictable. Traditional cultures across the globe weather in Europe, Asia or Africa also place value in specific herbs of a bitter nature.

As modern science bears out, bitter herbs can work such metabolic wonders as stimulating healthy digestion, powerfully aiding in the detoxification function of the liver, improving kidney function, participating in blood sugar regulation, stimulating immune function, improving nutrient assimilation – especially via gallbladder function and bile release, assisting as a natural laxative, functioning as an anti-inflammatory, and much more.

Such bitter herbs and substances include nettles, dandelion, horseradish, watercress, parsley, radish, milk thistle, aloe, gentian, cilantro, goldenseal, arugula and many more. These contain classes of chemical such as alkaloids, terpenes, flavonoids, phenols, saponins, catechins, isothiocyanates and others that contribute to the chemical magic that these plans can make.

Many nutritionists, herbalists, and health experts believe that far too many modern industrialized humans are deficient in bitter substances, which in part contributes to our epic rise in digestive related illnesses, inflammatory conditions, immune challenges, diabetes, and more.

Bitter Life

Just as a little bit of bitter helps the body function in a more optimal way, it seems that we need some bitter in other aspects of life as well. It’s no coincidence that in the Old Testament, the first reference to a bitter herb, of which there are many, occurs in the book Exodus. In this part of the story, the Israelites are instructed to remember to eat bitter herbs on a specific holiday occasion to remind them of the bitterness of their enslavement.

Life has its bitter moments. Some such experiences can kill us, or come close to it. Chances are, if you’re reading this, then the bitterness of life has not kept you down. Our bitter experiences are often here to teach us, to help us grow, and to give us the juxtaposition that’s often necessary so we can appreciate the good times a heck of a lot more. There’s something oddly nutritive about life events that leave a bitter taste in our mouth. This bitterness that lingers just a little tends to leave us wiser, more alert, more vigilant, more humble, and more willing to celebrate the sweeter times. Biology is a beautiful mirror for our life’s journey. As things work within us, so too do they work on the outside. Meaning, a little bit of bitter is part of the divine recipe that keeps the body healthy, and keeps our soul and character constantly evolving.

The liver, which is temperature-wise the hottest organ in the body, is particularly charged with the task of detoxifying some of the most harmful substances that enter the body through air, water, food or skin. Think of the liver as a valiant warrior that ceaselessly handles that which the body considers poisonous and unacceptable. Interestingly, it’s certain bitter herbs that powerfully stimulate and even regenerate the liver and help it do its function long-term. Milk thistle is one of the few substances known on planet Earth that can literally regenerate hepatocytes – our liver cells. If there was a pharmaceutical drug that can do this, it would be one of the biggest money makers in the industry. The point here, is that the very organ that’s responsible for handling so many of the poisonous or “bitter” substances that challenge us is itself enlivened by the genetic intelligence of herbs that are literally bitter. And perhaps an equally compelling point is that the intelligence and integrity of the natural world dramatically dwarfs that of the pharmaceutical industry.

Bittersweet

Isn’t it interesting how we have a word such as “bittersweet?”  We don’t use the term bittersalty or bittersour, but somehow bittersweet has found its way into our vocabulary. Perhaps it’s because these are two natural and complementary opposites in life. Pleasure and pain are complimentary. We can’t know one without the other. Life has a habit of occurring to us in paradoxical ways. People who get divorced often feel the bitterness of the relationship, but the sweetness of finally being separate. We have bittersweet partings, bittersweet memories, moments, and more. Being the hopeful humans that so many of us are, we often await the sweeter times that follow the bitter ones. It’s natural and necessary to believe that the more pleasant tasting moments in life are right around the corner. But in every moment, we can access pleasure or pain, bitter or sweet, hope or despair, fear or love. Life is often hurled at us as a climax of feelings, sensations, details and decisions.

Don’t forget the bitter. Remember to take your bitter herbs to stimulate your metabolism and activate your nutritional-genetic potential. And remember the bitter times, just a little, so we can better appreciate the blessings that surround us each day.

What has been your experience with the bitter in your life?

Warm regards,
Marc David
Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014

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  • Lindsay Young

    Hello All!

    Lindsay here from IPE.
    We had some server issues last week — which means we received none of your comments on this article.

    Please know that we read and respond to comments!
    If there was any question you asked of Marc, or experience you would like to share, we invite you to reach out again!

    Thanks so much for your understanding.
    We love to hear your thoughts!

    Warmly,
    IPE Staff

  • Kashif Ansari

    bitter foods such as various leafy veggies (fenugreek and spinach) are excellent blood cleaners. they have a tonic-like effect on the body and are the food of adults who are mature and don’t go for sweet mushy foods such as children enjoy in their childishness. the hallmark of being an adult is that you enjoy high states of eating such as black coffee in the form of a demitasse or bitter gourd stuffed with mincemeat. bitter herbs go well with meat and black olives too are an acquired taste. enjoy the sophistication of life by choosing bitter foods so that you appreciate the occasional sweet treat. and that is all it ought to be: a treat for occasional times.

    • Lindsay Young

      Great Points, Kashif –
      I’ll have to try the bitter gourd stuffed like that someday. 😉
      Thanks for sharing your ideas!

      Lindsay + IPE Staff

  • Simona

    Yes, bittersweet as jin-jang. We need that balance, I see, and variation 🙂
    Sugar – sweet – is considered highly jin, and in today’s society which is driven mostly by speed, activity, productivity, stress etc. = that is extreemly jang quality – I no longer wonder why so many reach for jin sugar foods in hope that it could add a bit (artificial) stillness to their life! It has a sedative effect and so does medication (another form of jin!
    Nobody think of bitter only when trying to avoid it! 🙂 Remember doctor’s bitter herbal syrup for cough? What child would want to eat that! 🙂

    I noticed my body loves to feel “even”/balance when eating the whole spectrum of tastes. I am remembering it now more and may bitter makes us better = sweet 🙂

    • Hi Simona,
      Thanks so much for giving us a more in-depth exploration of the power of taste!

      Warmly,
      Marc

  • alice

    Can you share more ideas on how to add bitters to our eating? Is it an herb combination for a tea to drink? Foods? I heard that we need both sour and bitter once a day … ??

    thx.

    • Hi Alice,
      Thank you for reaching out. Let’s open this up to everyone! Does anyone have some suggestions for Alice?

      Warmly,
      Marc

      • Innocent Moose

        Gentian Root is very bitter. Soak it in Vodka for best effect. You won’t need much, just a taste. Have a little about twenty minutes befoe a greasy meal. Your body will love you for it.

        Interestingly, my female friends love it, and male friends hate it !?

  • Innocent Moose

    Bitters make your gall bladder to empty completely into your stomach, in preparation, (hopefully for rich foods to follow), and also producing pain relief.

    All pain killers are bitter….

  • Thanks so much for posting this great tip, Innocent Moose! Warmly, Marc

About The Author
Marc David
Founder

Marc David is the Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, a leading visionary, teacher and consultant in Nutritional Psychology, and the author of the classic and best-selling works Nourishing Wisdom and The Slow Down Diet. His work has been featured on CNN, NBC and numerous media outlets. His books have been translated into over 10 languages, and his approach appeals to a wide audience of eaters who are looking for fresh, inspiring and innovative messages about food, body and soul. He lectures internationally, and has held senior consulting positions at Canyon Ranch Resorts, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the Johnson & Johnson Corporation, and the Disney Company. Marc is also the co-founder of the Institute for Conscious Sexuality and Relationship.