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Prescription 2014: Better Bitter Digestion

June 9, 2014 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

The word bitter has become synonymous with negative imagery. “That was a bitter pill to swallow.” “The night manager was bitter and spiteful about the way his supervisor treated him.” “In life you must accept the bitter along with the sweet.” The same is true of modern culinary trends. Recipes often call for the addition of sweet ingredients to temper the natural bitterness of popular foods – think hot cocoa, lattes and green leafy vegetables. But, what’s frequently lost in translation is that the bitter phytochemicals in common foods and herbs sometimes impart medicinal and/or therapeutic activity.

Throughout the world, bitter foods and herbal remedies are used to support digestive function and beyond. In France, it’s common to start and/or end a meal with an apéritif or salad composed of bitter greens. In Chinese and Indian (Ayurvedic) healing traditions, bitter foods are believed to assist with healthy weight management, improve constipation and stimulate appetite. The common link between bitter use in these disparate cultures is the documented effects bitters have starting in the mouth and extending throughout the intestines.

Now, at long last, modern science is beginning to explore why so many cultures use bitter extracts and foods as part of their meals. The answers researchers are finding comport with the longstanding practices noted above. Bitter tastes not only prompt saliva release in the oral cavity, but also induce bile flow from the gallbladder and gastric acid secretion in the stomach. What’s more, bitters support blood flow and motion or hemodynamics of the digestive system. The resulting effects lead to an enhanced ability to digest the macro components of food – carbohydrates, fats and protein.

My suggestion for accessing these numerous benefits is to start meals off with a salad consisting of bitter greens (arugula, kale, watercress) and a lemon-mustard vinaigrette. You can also use an extract of gentian, an intensely bitter herb which is included in many digestive formulas such as Angostura bitters. A combination of the two is fine as well. For instance, you can start meals with a bitter salad and end them with a teaspoon or two of gentian bitters mixed with flat or sparkling water. As a bonus, bitter greens are extremely nutrient dense and gentian has been shown to possess antioxidant and antimicrobial activity against Helicobacter pylori, a common pathogen found in the stomach.

Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!

To learn more about the studies referenced in today’s column, please click on the following links:

Study 1 – Current Opinion in Gastroenterology: Gastric Secretion (link)

Study 2 – Caffeine in Hot Drinks Elicits Cephalic Phase Responses Involving (link)

Study 3 – Functional Foods with Digestion-Enhancing Properties (link)

Study 4 – Minor Diterpenoids from Cascarilla (Croton Eluteria Bennet) and (link)

Study 5 – Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the … (link)

Study 6 – Dyspeptic Pain and Phytotherapy — A Review of Traditional and … (link)

Study 7 – Bitter Tastants Alter Gastric-Phase Postprandial Haemodynamics (link)

Study 8 – Free Radical Scavenging Activities of Yellow Gentian (Gentiana Lutea) (link)

Study 9 – In Vitro Susceptibility of Helicobacter Pylori to Botanical Extracts Used … (link)

Study 10 – Choleretic Activity of Gentiana Lutea ssp. Symphyandra in Rats … (link)

The Chemical Composition of Food Affects Digestion and Elimination

Source: Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. 2006 Aug;291(2):G171-7. (link)

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Posted in Alternative Therapies, Food and Drink, Nutrition

6 Comments & Updates to “Prescription 2014: Better Bitter Digestion”

  1. Leah Says:

    Hi JP –

    Wonderful article! I work for Urban Moonshine, an organic herbal tincture company specializing in digestive bitters. We too recognize the abundance of health benefits from bitters and are on a mission to bring bitters back into the homes and the diets of our modern society. Please take a moment to check out our website http://www.urbanmoonshine.com

    Have a wonderful week!

  2. JP Says:

    Hi Leah,

    Thank you! I really like your website. The visuals are great and there’s lots of useful content as well. Cheers!

    Be well!


  3. JP Says:

    Update 06/24/15:


    Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015;2015:670504.

    Bitters: Time for a New Paradigm.

    In plant-based medical systems, bitter tasting plants play a key role in managing dyspepsia. Yet when it comes to defining their mechanism of activity, herbalists and pharmacologists are split between two theories: one involves cephalic elicited vagal responses while the other comprises purely local responses. Recent studies indicate that bitters elicit a range of cephalic responses which alter postprandial gastric phase haemodynamics. Caffeine and regular coffee (Coffea arabica semen, L.) increase heart rate whereas gentian (Gentiana lutea radix, L.) and wormwood (Artemisia absinthium herba L.) increase tonus in the vascular resistance vessels. Following meals increased cardiac activity acts to support postprandial hyperaemia and maintain systemic blood pressure. The increased vascular tonus acts in parallel with the increased cardiac activity and in normal adults this additional pressor effect results in a reduced cardiac workload. The vascular response is a sympathetic reflex, evident after 5 minutes and dose dependent. Thus gentian and wormwood elicit cephalic responses which facilitate rather than stimulate digestive activity when postprandial hyperaemia is inadequate. Encapsulated caffeine elicits cardiovascular responses indicating that gastrointestinal bitter receptors are functionally active in humans. However, neither encapsulated gentian nor wormwood elicited cardiovascular responses during the gastric phase. These findings provide the platform for a new evidence-based paradigm.

    Be well!


  4. JP Says:

    Updated 11/06/15:


    Phytother Res. 2015 Nov 2.

    Treatment of Mild Gastrointestinal Disorders with a Herbal Combination: Results of a Non-interventional Study with Gastritol® Liquid.

    A combination of extracts from chamomile, silverweed, licorice, angelica, blessed thistle and wormwood, Gastritol® Liquid, is registered for the use of indigestion and gastrointestinal spasmodic complaints. To gain data on the experience in practice, a non-interventional open study was conducted in ambulatory patients including diabetics which were treated for 2 weeks. The efficacy of treatment was assessed by medical examination and evaluation of typical symptoms by patients. A total of 149 patients was enrolled, 90 without and 59 with diabetes. The treatment led to relevant improvements in all symptoms in both study groups. The most notable improvements were seen for the symptoms vomiting (-66.7%; diabetics: -63.9%) and retching (-52.2%; diabetics: -53.6%). An overall improvement was rated by about 90% in both study groups. In seven patients adverse events had been reported (5 times temporary nausea after intake, one time gastric spasm and one time oral burning sensation), all of them of mild nature. The global tolerability was assessed as good or very good in more than 80% by practitioners and patients. Under the conditions of this open study method Gastritol® Liquid had been shown to be safe and effective in the treatment of mild gastrointestinal disorders, including diabetic patients.

    Be well!


  5. JP Says:

    Updated 11/15/16:


    Br J Nutr. 2016 Nov 10:1-10.

    Microencapsulated bitter compounds (from Gentiana lutea) reduce daily energy intakes in humans.

    Mounting evidence showed that bitter-tasting compounds modulate eating behaviour through bitter taste receptors in the gastrointestinal tract. This study aimed at evaluating the influence of microencapsulated bitter compounds on human appetite and energy intakes. A microencapsulated bitter ingredient (EBI) with a core of bitter Gentiana lutea root extract and a coating of ethylcellulose-stearate was developed and included in a vanilla microencapsulated bitter ingredient-enriched pudding (EBIP). The coating masked bitterness in the mouth, allowing the release of bitter secoiridoids in the gastrointestinal tract. A cross-over randomised study was performed: twenty healthy subjects consumed at breakfast EBIP (providing 100 mg of secoiridoids) or the control pudding (CP) on two different occasions. Blood samples, glycaemia and appetite ratings were collected at baseline and 30, 60, 120 and 180 min after breakfast. Gastrointestinal peptides, endocannabinoids (EC) and N-acylethanolamines (NAE) were measured in plasma samples. Energy intakes were measured at an ad libitum lunch 3 h after breakfast and over the rest of the day (post lunch) through food diaries. No significant difference in postprandial plasma responses of gastrointestinal hormones, glucose, EC and NAE and of appetite between EBIP and CP was found. However, a trend for a higher response of glucagon-like peptide-1 after EBIP than after CP was observed. EBIP determined a significant 30 % lower energy intake over the post-lunch period compared with CP. These findings were consistent with the tailored release of bitter-tasting compounds from EBIP along the gastrointestinal tract. This study demonstrated that microencapsulated bitter secoiridoids were effective in reducing daily energy intake in humans.

    Be well!


  6. JP Says:

    Updated 05/31/17:


    J Ethnopharmacol. 2014 Jul 3;154(3):719-27.

    Bitter tastants alter gastric-phase postprandial haemodynamics.

    ETHNOPHARMACOLOGICAL RELEVANCE: Since Greco-Roman times bitter tastants have been used in Europe to treat digestive disorders, yet no pharmacological mechanism has been identified which can account for this practice. This study investigates whether the bitter tastants, gentian root (Gentian lutea L.) and wormwood herb (Artemisia absinthium L.), stimulate cephalic and/or gut receptors to alter postprandial haemodynamics during the gastric-phase of digestion.

    MATERIALS AND METHODS: Normal participants ingested (1) 100 mL water plus capsules containing either cellulose (placebo-control) or 1000 mg of each tastant (n=14); or (2) 100mL of water flavoured with 500 or 1500 mg of each tastant (a) gentian (n=12) and (b) wormwood (n=12). A single beat-to-beat cardiovascular recording was obtained for the entire session. Pre/post-ingestion contrasts with the control were analysed for (1) the encapsulated tastants, in the “10 to 15” minute post-ingestion period, and (2) the flavoured water in the “5 to 10” minute post-ingestion period.

    RESULTS: Water, the placebo-control, increased cardiac contraction force and blood pressure notwithstanding heart rate decreases. Encapsulated tastants did not further alter postprandial haemodynamics. In contrast gentian (500 and 1500 mg) and wormwood (1500 mg) flavoured water elicited increased peripheral vascular resistance and decreased cardiac output, primarily by reducing stroke volume rather than heart rate.

    CONCLUSIONS: Drinking 100mL water elicits a pressor effect during the gastric-phase of digestion due to increased cardiac contraction force. The addition of bitter tastants to water elicits an additional and parallel pressor effect due to increased peripheral vascular resistance; yet the extent of the post-prandial blood pressure increases are unchanged, presumably due to baroreflex buffering. The vascular response elicited by bitter tastants can be categorised as a sympathetically-mediated cephalic-phase response. A possible mechanism by which bitter tastants could positively influence digestion is altering gastric-phase postprandial haemodynamics and supporting postprandial hyperaemia.

    Be well!


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