Traditionally bitter foods and drinks have been used to stimulate digestion and ease the effects of overeating. Bitter drinks taken before meals are still known as aperitifs, while herbalists call on the use of bitters to improve digestion, lethargy, and to control weight. Bitter foods include brussel sprouts, dandelion tea, mustard greens, cocoa, grapefruit, cabbage, kale, alfalfa, endive and chicory.
It has been widely accepted that bitter plants and herbs stimulate digestion but in recent research it has been discovered that they can do so much more. A study in the ‘American Journal of Physiology’ on genetically obese mice found that introducing bitter foods resulted in the mice eating less food and supported weight loss. Conversely in a study of people who were malnourished, bitters were shown to increase the appetite but fortunately didn’t tend to stimulate the appetite in healthy subjects. A Belgian study found the mechanism behind this was that bitter tastes stimulate the secretion of Grehlin (the hunger hormone) but also regulates gastric emptying and improves satiety (a satisfied appetite), therefore avoiding excess food intake.
Research reported in ‘The Journal of Ethnopharmacology’ and ‘The Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine’ both found the bitter herbs Andrographis paniculata and Bitter Melon have been shown to exert positive diabetic control and showed significant anti-diabetic activity in rats with Type II Diabetes. Yet another study found Gentian (Gentiana lutea) lowered blood glucose levels and had a positive effect on insulin secretion.
Because of its action on digestion, bitters can help reduce the incidence of food intolerances and allergies, as poorly digested foods and proteins can contribute to this common health issue. So there’s some pretty strong evidence out there supporting the long held view of natural medicine that bitters can be good for your health, and now you may better understand why naturopaths often encourage their use in therapy.