A Bittersweet Solution This Holiday Season

When Your Belly Protests, Consider a Natural Blend of Potent Bitters

Every winter, as the days draw down to the shortest and darkest of the year, we celebrate by eating, drinking, partying, and spending. We indulge in dinners, drinks, travel, feasts, festivities, office parties. We’re tempted by everything from chocolate chip cookies to sweet potato pie, glazed ham and roast chicken, chocolate croissants, pudding and eggnog and spicy gingerbread, cheese plates,and hot buttered rum and, of course, melt-in-your-mouth stuffing. ‘Tis the season to give, receive, and suffer through crowds, shopping, stress, packed plane flights, family turbulence…and then, more eating and drinking.

The average adult gains a pound from over-indulging each holiday season, but many never lose it, packing on pound by pound as the years go by. Those who are already overweight can gain as much as five pounds over the holidays.

By the time January arrives, we’re trudging into the new year ready to set our resolutions for diet, exercise, and detox. But herbal bitters can help support us all through the holidays and beyond. But when you’ve overindulged, you might consider a natural approach that cultures have used since antiquity: bitters. They aren’t just cocktails, digestifs or aperitifs. Bitters are crafted from therapeutic, aromatic botanicals that can soothe and support your entire digestive system.

We have about 10,000 tastebuds on our tongues, tuned to the five tastes of sweet, sour, salty, umami and bitter. Bitter is critical to health: when our tongue tastes bitters, our brain releases the hormone gastrin, which stimulates enzyme-rich saliva, stomach acid, bile flow, pepsin (an enzyme that helps break down large proteins) and a compound called intrinsic factor, which is necessary for the absorption of vitamin B12. Bitters wake up the entire GI tract. In fact, as herbalist Jim McDonald puts it in a monograph called “Blessed Bitters”: “No traditional culture could have imagined a diet virtually (if not absolutely) devoid of any bitter foods—as we seem to have established in most modern diets…I am a firm believer in Bitter Deficiency Syndrome; a notion that posits that much of the health woes faced by modern folk has at its root a lack of bitter flavor in the diet.”[1]

Bitter concoctions date back to ancient Egypt, where medicinal herbs were infused into jars of wine. In the 19th century, the British added botanical bitters to Canary wine, and in Angostura bitters were promoted as a stomach remedy. In fact, certain bottles of bitters have reached collectible status today. Bitters can be consumed before a meal as well as after; either way, they help tonify and stimulate digestion and assimilation.

Bitters strengthen the tone of the whole digestive tract. Today, more than ever, we need bitters to offset the many sweet and salty processed foods in our diet. We no longer forage like our ancestors for herbs and roots with bitter qualities, such as roots, tubers, leaves, and barks, all with plant chemicals offering antioxidant, antimicrobial, and immune supportive properties.

Bitter taste receptors have been found on the liver, kidneys, skin, even reproductive organs, perhaps explaining why these versatile compounds can help support healthy blood sugar and optimal immune response as well.[2],[3],[4] Strong bitter botanicals such as gentian stimulate stomach acid and digestive secretions, while mild aromatic bitters such as sweet orange essential oil can calm and balance the digestive tract and nervous system.

Popular bitter blends often incorporate gentian, dandelion, myrrh, goldenrod (solidago), milk thistle, juniper burdock and other powerful plants as well as aromatic oils. Each has its own array of medicinal qualities, and a long history of use by herbalists to support digestion.

Gentian is one of the strongest herbal bitters, a potent modulator of stomach acid secretion. It is also liver protective, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial, and immunomodulatory.[5] Dandelion is a gentle and popular liver and kidney tonic.[6] It has been shown to relieve liver inflammation, increase antioxidant activity in the liver, and protect the liver from alcohol-induced oxidative stress.[7],[8] Milk thistle is a widely used bitter botanical and revered liver tonic. Silymarin is the most studied and prevalent compound in milk thistle, and has been shown to be a potent antioxidant, enhancing glutathione levels in both the gut and the liver.[9]

Myrrh is a bitter, golden yellow resin that is a mainstay in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine; the essential oil is one of the most widely used worldwide. The word “myrrh” comes from "murr," which means "bitter" in Arabic.[10] Myrrh oil contains terpenoids and sequiterpenes that are antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic.[11],[12] It is thought to remove stagnation and can help augment other bitter herbs in formulas.

Essential oils of sweet orange, myrrh, juniper, and clove all contain active compounds that function in part as bitters. Sweet orange essential oil is derived from the pleasantly bitter yet fragrant. outer peel of the orange. Sweet orange essential oil has been observed to have antibacterial, antifungal, and antioxidant effects.[13].

Burdock is commonly used as a blood cleanser. The root contains powerful phenolic acids as well as both quercetin and luteolin, antioxidants that help counter inflammation. It has been shown to help the liver heal from damage done by alcohol, boosting the ability of the liver to flush out toxins.[14]

A proprietary blend of bitters can be enhanced by a phospholipid liposomal delivery system, which allows the bitters to enter circulation as soon as they land on the tongue. Collectively, and together, bitters support digestion and detoxification and may just be your best herbal friends this holiday season.

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[1]McDonald, J. Blessed Bitters. Available at: http://www.herbcraft.org/bitters.pdf Accessed 11-28-2018.

[2]Shaik FA, et al. Bitter taste receptors: Extraoral roles in pathophysiology. Int J Biochem Cell Biol. 2016 Aug;77(Pt B):197-204

[3]Jaggupilli A, et al. Analysis of the expression of human bitter taste receptors in extraoral tissues. Mol Cell Biochem. 2017 Feb;426(1-2):137-147

[4]Lee RJ, Cohen NA. The emerging role of the bitter taste receptor T2R38 in upper respiratory infection and chronic rhinosinusitis. Am J Rhinol Allergy. 2013 Jul-Aug;27(4):283-6.

[5]Lian LH, et al. Gentiana manshurica Kitagawa reverses acute alcohol-induced liver steatosis through blocking sterol regulatory element-binding protein-1 maturation. J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Dec 22;58(24):13013-9. View Abstract

Wang AY, et al. Gentiana manshurica Kitagawa prevents acetaminophen-induced acute hepatic injury in mice via inhibiting JNK/ERK MAPK pathway. World J Gastroenterol. 2010 Jan 21;16(3):384-91. View Abstract

[6]Schütz K, Carle R, Schieber A. Taraxacum--a review on its phytochemical and pharmacological profile. J Ethnopharmacol. 2006 Oct 11;107(3):313-23.

[7]Davaatseren M, et al. Taraxacum official (dandelion) leaf extract alleviates high-fat diet-induced nonalcoholic fatty liver. Food Chem Toxicol. 2013 Aug;58:30-6.

[8]You Y, et al. In vitro and in vivo hepatoprotective effects of the aqueous extract from Taraxacum officinale (dandelion) root against alcohol-induced oxidative stress. Food Chem Toxicol. 2010 Jun;48(6):1632-7.

[9]Schütz K, Carle R, Schieber A. Taraxacum--a review on its phytochemical and pharmacological profile. J Ethnopharmacol. 2006 Oct 11;107(3):313-23.

[10]The Essential Oils Complete Reference Guide,” January 2017

[11]Ashry KM. Oxidative stress and immunotoxic effects of lead and their amelioration with myrrh (Commiphora molmol) emulsion. Food Chem Toxicol. 2010 Jan;48(1):236-41.

[12]Lee K et al. Anti-biofilm, anti-hemolysis, and anti-virulence activities of black pepper, cananga, myrrh oils, and nerolidol against Staphylococcus aureus. Microbiol Biotechnol. 2014 Nov;98(22):9447-57.

[13]Geraci A, et al. Essential oil components of orange peels and antimicrobial activity. Nat Prod Res. 2016 Aug 18:1-7.

[14]Ahangarpour A. Antidiabetic, hypolipidemic and hepatoprotective effects of Arctium lappa root’s hydro-alcoholic extract on nicotinamide-streptozotocin induced type 2 model of diabetes in male mice

Avicenna J Phytomed. 2017 Mar-Apr; 7(2): 169–179.

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