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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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