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Remember to Take Your Bitters!
Great Grandma's Longevity Plan

 by Thea Summer Deer

Bitter Herbs - Thea.jpg

Life can be bittersweet, with tears of joy and tears of pain. But when it comes to the bitter flavor, that is one taste we have not learned to appreciate. Foods and herbs that are bitter are also highly nutritive and have profound healing properties. No wonder our grandparents and great-grandparents used herbal bitters as part of their longevity plan.

So, I take my bitters first thing in the morning, just like Grandma used to do. My mouth begins to water, and the digestive juices start to flow. They are best taken as a tonic, consistently over time. And as one of my mentors would say, “Bitters make everything in the body that likes to squirt – to squirt!” Think of squeezing a squishy, rubbery ball. Bitter works by astringing (squeezing) and toning our glands and organs, like salivary glands that squirt saliva and the gallbladder that squirts bile. It’s a fun way to visualize how the bitter flavor tones these body parts.

Bitter is a substance with an astringent taste, stimulating the flow of saliva (sialagogue), gastric juices, the digestive process, and the appetite. For this reason, it must be tasted on the tongue to stimulate a cascade of reactions that begin in the mouth with salivation and get the juices flowing. Bitter receptors on the tongue send a message to the brain to stimulate a physiological response. Some bitters include bitter alteratives, tonic-astringents, mild bitters, aromatic bitters, bitter demulcents, bitter anodynes, and bitter laxative tonics. Different kinds of bitter receptors are widely distributed in human tissue, including the digestive tract, pancreas, respiratory tract, placenta, white blood cells, heart, brain, thyroid, skin, and testes. We don’t yet know the role of all these bitter receptors, but we see the effect of digestive and dietary bitters, which have been widely studied.

Bitters promote the secretion of digestion hormones and the production of stomach acid that prepares the gut to receive a meal. They increase appetite, peristalsis, and digestive secretions in the stomach and intestines. Bitter herbs and foods have formed the bedrock of herbalism since ancient times. Every natural healing system recognizes them as an essential category of herbs, “food as medicine.” Bitter is the most common flavor found among medicinal herbs. And while bitterness is generally unpleasant, it can also warn of potentially toxic constituents. These are strong medicines and why they have become commonly used in herbal medicine.

The ancient, wise, and time-tested Chinese Five Element Theory system has much to say about the profound impact of bitter foods and herbs on health. Bitter is seen as having nutritive value, and if we lack this “nutrient,” then dis-harmony and disease become predictable. Modern science bears out that bitter herbs can work metabolic wonders in stimulating healthy digestion, aiding the liver's detoxification function, improving kidney function, participating in blood sugar regulation, stimulating immune function, improving nutrient assimilation, and assisting as a natural laxative.

Bitter is the most deficient flavor in the modern diet. That, in part, contributes to the epidemic rise in inflammatory conditions and chronic illness. The bitter flavor cools inflammation and an overheated liver, the organ responsible for detoxifying some of the most harmful substances that enter the body through air, water, food, or skin. Certain bitter herbs can even help the liver regenerate itself. No pharmaceutical can do that. All pharmaceuticals overheat the liver. Milk thistle is an example of an herb that supports and protects the liver (hepatoprotectant).

In the wisdom of the Chinese Five Elements, the bitter flavor corresponds to the Fire Element and the summer season. The bitter flavor is essential in summer as a yin tonic because it clears excess heat caused by yin (Water Element) deficiency. More people today have excess heat symptoms due to a deficiency of cooling yin fluids (blood, lymph, hormones, all secretions, intracellular fluids, etc.). The bitter flavor helps to restore the deep yin of the Water Element (Kidneys & Adrenals).

The heart and small intestine are the organ system that corresponds with the Fire Element. Most heart problems involve deficiency. The heart in Chinese Medicine refers to Western medicine's nervous and circulatory system. It is impacted by the constituents (alkaloids and glycosides) commonly found in bitter herbs, which include their antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory actions. In the case of a fever (excess Fire), bitter roots like goldenseal are considered antipyretic and anti-inflammatory, helping to clear the heat of infection and reduce fever. The bitter flavor can neutralize heat symptoms that arise in any season.

Bitter is useful in dishes and diets to control excess Fire or tonify Water. Celery is a mildly bitter food for clearing heat, cleaning arteries of cholesterol and fats, and helping lower blood pressure. This is one of the reasons we have seen the recent rise of its popularity for juicing. Chamomile is also a mild bitter and a tonic when taken daily as a tea. But beware! It will become unpalatably bitter if you leave it steep for too long. The strongest bitters are in the herbal realm, including burdock root, dandelion root, yellow dock, motherwort, and many more. Yellow dock is incredibly supportive of stubborn anemia and helps increase hemoglobin levels in the blood.







In Chinese Medicine, Fire and Water are two ends of the same spectrum and have a symbiotic relationship. Water’s coolness keeps the heart’s fire in check, while fire’s heat keeps the Water Element from freezing or becoming stagnant. The bitter flavor is the most underused and needed due to the widespread excesses of the Wood Element (liver & gallbladder) and overconsumption that leads to an overheated liver. Fire fed by excess Wood burns hot and out of control, depleting of the deep, watery feminine yin, which is at the root of most imbalances, including hormonal imbalances.

Yin deficiency symptoms typify the modern person who is uneasy and anxious with abundant energy that is mostly appearance and, in reality, lacks the deep, watery yin reserves. This deficiency is evident not only in people and the institutions they create but in the Earth itself as high-quality food and water sources dwindle. Actions that build a substantial yin foundation for an individual are the same ones that restore the planet.

Yin deficiency and adrenal burnout, caused by an overheated liver and the excesses of our overachieving Western society, are epidemic. The imbalances are far-reaching and evidenced by global warming, fires, flooding, mass extinctions, and environmental systems collapse. Restoring the deep feminine yin contains the potential for planetary restoration.

Our ancestors, particularly our great-grandmothers, understood the significance of herbal bitters as a pre-meal tonic. When taken before a meal, these bitters stimulate metabolism, aid in digestion, and contribute to overall health. Unfortunately, the most vital and bitter parts of whole foods are often refined away. These crucial components, rich in cooling minerals like magnesium and selenium, offer protective and rejuvenating benefits. It's no surprise that the lack of these vital elements contributes to the widespread lack of vitality in people today.

Bitter herbs can work wonders for restoring bodily systems. They stimulate healthy digestion and immune function, increase bile production, improve nutrient assimilation, aid in liver detoxification and regeneration, improve kidney function, assist in blood sugar regulation, provide a natural laxative, and reduce inflammations. SO REMEMBER TO TAKE YOUR BITTERS!

Most common bitter foods are actually combinations of bitter and other flavors, and are listed below.

Bitter Foods: Amaranth, arugula, asparagus, bitter melon, carrot top, celery dandelion greens, endive, escarole, orange peel, rhubarb, romaine lettuce, oat, quinoa, rye, and watercress.

Bitter Herbs: Alfalfa, angelica, aloe, black walnut, boneset, burdock root, cascara sagrada, California poppy, chamomile, chaparral Chaparro armagosa, chickory root, dandelion root, echinacea root, elecampane, hops flowers, horsetail, milk thistle seeds, motherwort, mugwort, Oregon grape root, pau d’ arco, red root, rhubarb root, turmeric, valerian, vervain, willow, wormwood, yarrow and yellowdock.

Bitter and Sweet: Amaranth, artichoke leaf, asparagus, celery, chicory root, elderflower, lettuce, papaya, quinoa, turmeric, and turnip.

Bitter and Sour: Blackberry leaf, orange peel, and vinegar.

Bitter and Pungent: Angelica, citrus peels, radish leaf, scallion, turnip, and white pepper.

Bitter Roots: Burdock, dandelion, gentian, goldenseal, echinacea, Oregon grape root, red root, yellow dock, and yellow root.

Bitter Chinese Herbs: Andographis, coptis, gardenia, gentian, phellodendron, pulsatilla and skullcap.

Bitter Grains (The bitter aspect of grains is in their germ and bran): Farro, quinoa, rice, spelt, and wheat.

Note: Severely deficient people cannot tolerate intensely bitter food or herbs for any length of time.

Learn more in Thea’s classes at Wise Woman School:
Love Your Liver: Spring & the Wood Element
Learn more here

Heal Your Heart: Nervous System Health & the Fire Element
Learn more here

"Summer heat creates heat in the heavens and fire on Earth; they create the heart and the pulse within the body, red color, the ability to express laughter, bitter flavor and emotions of happiness and joy"
~ Inner Classic

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