Let’s be honest, most of us are familiar with bitters as an ingredient at the bottom of a good Old Fashioned or seen swinging from some cute bartenders hands, not as an herbal remedy. But bitters are actually an herbal tonic and part of a larger family of herbal remedies our great-grandmothers once relied upon for simple wellness solutions. We’ve loved getting to know the folks at Urban Moonshine, a tiny company on a mission to reacquaint us modern fools with the simple, traditional tools of herbalism. We love learning about Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs and the like, but Urban Moonshine is all about reestablishing the use of the local, garden-variety herbs and tonics for good health at home.
We asked their founder, Jovial King, to break down a few basics of herbal medicine for us and especially love what she has to say about the importance of bitter herbs…
The chalkboard mag: Jovial, explain to us what falls under the umbrella of herbal medicine?
Jovial King: To me it means integrating plants into my life on a daily basis. Harvesting fresh herbs from the garden for dinner; drinking a cup of chamomile tea after a long day of work; picking flowers for the kitchen table – don’t fresh flowers just make you happy?! That’s the plants making you happy, which is herbal medicine in its simplest form! It’s a great tool for improving vitality, energy and our general wellbeing, but it’s also excellent for dealing with illness, cuts and scrapes and more serious health problems. For me it’s really a way of life.
TCM: What are some of the most common herbal remedies?
JK: Lots of people have a jar of herbal salve in their cupboard for cuts and scrapes – or at least they should! Echinacea and elderberry are common remedies for colds and flu, and bitters are good for an upset stomach – ask any bartender or old-school grandma.
TCM: Are there herbal remedies people should be growing in their own gardens? What, for example?
JK: Oh yes! Your garden and often your yard are the best medicine cabinet. Part of it is picking some great herbs to plant in the garden– garlic, thyme, sage, chamomile, peppermint, lemon balm and nettles are a few of my must haves – you can take care of a lot of basic issues with just those plants. The other part is getting to know the weeds that are already growing in your yard- dandelion, plantain, burdock, yarrow, they will vary depending on your climate. Aloe for example grows wild in a lot of warmer dry climates – what a wonderful medicinal to have right in your backyard!
TCM: In your tonics you use a lot of adaptogens. We normally associate adaptogens with Chinese medicine. Talk to us about the relationship there.
JK: A lot of the older systems of herbal medicine – Chinese medicine, ayurveda etc. – are really focused on vitality and staying healthy, and this is what adaptogens are used for. They knew the importance of prevention because in many ways it was the only tool they had, modern technological medicine didn’t exist. I think we need to really appreciate the tools that modern medicine offers, but not rely on them to keep us healthy, because they don’t. Medical doctors are experts at disease, illness and surgery (thank goodness!). Tonic herbalism is about health and wellness. Together they are a powerful combination, we need to embrace both. At Urban Moonshine we want to bring back the use of tonics in modern America. Prevention is always more powerful than reacting to symptoms.
TCM: We love the Original Bitters. Talk to us about why bitter flavors are so important?
JK: When the flavor of bitterness hits your tongue it triggers a reflex action that tells your body food is coming and the body juices up in anticipation. It’s actually a challenging flavor for the body and it is that challenge that is so important because challenge is what keeps us fit and strong and healthy. Bitters are the gym for the digestive system.
TCM: Sweet has become a dominant flavor in our modern diet. Why is it important to eat bitter foods and herbs?
JK: Because bitter flavor is the flavor of real food! When you eat something and it completely lacks any bitterness or a strong flavor in general it means that it has been deeply altered or processed from its original form. Even carrots are a great example. When I was a kid eating carrots out of our family garden they were sweet and also a little bitter! The pre-peeled baby carrots you buy in the stores these days are practically candy! I really believe that bitter is the antidote to sweet.
TCM: What’s the best way to use bitters (other than for amazing cocktails)?
JK: You can use bitters before a meal to optimize digestive function and regulate the appetite or after a meal to settle an upset stomach, gas, bloating or a feeling of being overly full. It also helps you keep your mind off of what’s for dessert, since bitters are great at curbing sugar cravings. But the key to taking bitters is that you really want to taste that bitter flavor, don’t dilute it in too much water. But I have absolutely nothing against a great bitter cocktail.
TCM: Is there another product you think is really exceptional that exemplifies the best of what herbal medicine is capable of?
JK: Our Joy Tonic is out of this world. You have to try it to believe it.