bitters bitter herbs

Welcome to the holiday season! Get ready to face countless opportunities to indulge in the most enticing, mouth-watering comfort foods and treats. The truth is, in spite of our iron will, we will (and should) give in from time to time – it’s inevitable. However, it is possible to keep our bodies clean and healthy, despite the occasional hot toddy, slice of pumpkin bread, fried turkey or scoop of candied yams.

The Damage: The body is designed to digest, absorb, detoxify and eliminate the foods that we eat. And typically, it does that with grace and efficiency, unless, of course, we overload it with unhealthy, body-burdening foods made with toxic oils and fats (trans fats, margarine, GMO oils, fried foods), refined sugars (white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup), white wheat flour, MSG, conventional dairy, preservatives and artificial colors – as well as any foods that are highly heated and processed. To give you a hint, this includes most all traditional holiday fare.

Eating these foods, especially often or in large amounts, overwhelms the body and hinders our ability to properly process these foods, leaving them to rot in the body. And that results in auto toxicity: the condition where the body cannot clear the toxins resulting from poorly digested foods. These toxins cause a plethora of symptoms and conditions (many of which we are all too familiar with) such as bloating, fatigue, brain fog, acne, eczema, constipation, inflammation, depression, anxiety and insomnia – just to name a few. Over time these symptoms can turn into more serious conditions, ones that linger far beyond the few hours that follow a coma-inducing meal.

The Solution:Take digestive bitters. Digestive bitters are a class of aromatic herbs, bark, roots, and/or fruit that are used for their digestive and cleansing properties. They stimulate all digestive secretions – saliva, acids, enzymes, hormones and bile – improving digestion and elimination. By supporting and improving these processes, bitters can benefit the body in countless ways. They can inhibit the growth of pathogens, protect against oxidation (damage to cells), reduce inflammation and improve energy and vitality. But the most important health benefit of bitters? They help offset the damage done by eating naughty foods.

How they work: Bitters can improve many fundamental aspects of our health, from the ability to breakdown and assimilate the nutrients from our foods, to the clearing of disease-promoting toxins. When a bitter substance is consumed, a chain of events ensues known as the “bitter reflex.” This happens as soon as they reach the taste buds in our mouth. The bitter reflex innervates the stomach and pancreas, stimulating the production of digestive juices, encouraging proper digestion, and the release of enzymes, HCL and insulin. Bitters also enliven the liver, prompting the breakdown of food and detoxification, and prepare the gallbladder for the release of bile. Bile is necessary for the proper digestion of fatty foods and the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, D and E. Healthy bile flow is utilized as an elimination pathway for nutrients, hormones and toxins released by the liver, which clears waste products, such as cholesterol and hormones (preventing gallstone formation, high cholesterol, and hormone-related disorders and cancers) and eases the passing of bowels.

The Benefits of Bitters:

Reduce inflammation: lower inflammatory markers, reducing systemic inflammation

Heal the GI tract: tonifies and strengthens the GI tract

Support detox at the liver and gallbladder: encourages the flow of bile stimulating the release of toxins

Digestion of fatty foods: improves bile flow, which acts as an emulsifier, breaking down fatty foods

Vitamin and mineral absorption: properly digests foods allowing the body to absorb their nutrients

Soothe gas, bloating, constipation and food allergies: stimulates the release of all digestive secretions improving digestive health on all levels

Balance blood sugar: encourages the proper release of pancreatic enzymes managing insulin levels

Heartburn/GERD relief: innervates the stomach to release hydrochloric acid (HCL) which is needed to prevent heartburn

Encourage digestive enzymes, bile release and HCL production: triggers the brain to start the digestive process

Strengthen gut-mediated immunity: by targeting digestive functioning, the health of the gut improves. The gut is directly connected to the immune system so the healthier the gut, the stronger the immunity.

Getting them down: Traditionally, bitters were a foundational part of the meal, incorporated for their medicinal value. Wild greens such as endive, mustard greens, radicchio and chard were eaten before a meal. Alcoholic beverages brewed with herbs, known as apéritifs, or bitter teas and coffee were sipped at the start or the end of each meal. Each component was orchestrated to stimulate and encourage digestion, improving the overall experience of eating. Nowadays these component still exist, but lack the same astringent, bitter flavors needed to be truly therapeutic. In addition, the foods that we are consuming are becoming more burdensome, resulting in the need for stronger bitter herbs.

The easiest way to take advantage of bitterness is to incorporate bitter ingredients into your food. The trick is adding them into the three main meals. Consider making salads using bitter greens such as chicory, dandelion, arugula and kale. Try this Smoky Kale Salad with Toasted Almonds, or this Asian Arugula Salad with Ginger Apple Pear Butter. Slowly increase their proportion by crowding out the less astringent greens such as Iceburg and Romaine lettuce. This will build your tolerance while increasing their therapeutic value. Next up, start adding bitter roots and herbs, such as dandelion or burdock, to your recipes. Try this Nettle Omelette, or these Pink-Pickled Turnips.

Partial to liquid libations? Try whipping up a bitter apéritif or cocktail like this Citrus Margarita made with homemade orange bitters. As always, avoid the pre-made cocktail mixes and refined simple syrups and stick to fresh ingredients and natural sweeteners. And if you really want to dig in deep, try using a bitters herbal tonic supplement. We are loving the herbalist-owned botanical company Urban Moonshine. They use only organic and locally sourced herbs in their line of therapeutic bitters. Our personal favorite is the Organic Maple Digestive Bitter Spray. The maple syrup takes the edge off the bitter flavor, making it a breeze to get down. It also comes in a convenient purse-sized spray bottle, perfect for carrying around throughout the day.

So get ready for the holidays ahead and start exploring the world of bitters – whether it’s a bowl of greens before dinner, muddled dandelion in your happy-hour cocktail or Urban Moonshine bitters straight up – it’s a sure way to boost your holiday cheer!

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