This week is also going to be an ode to Rebecca at King's Road Apothecary, who inspired this post. Rebecca lives in California, and wildcrafts her herbs from the deserts and mountains where she lives. She offers a seasonal surprise box with medicines and products she makes by hand in small batches, and they are phenomenal. She also writes a thoughtful newsletter every week or two about specific herbs or families of herbs she's been thinking about, and a recent newsletter was about bitters. So I'll be drawing from that, in addition to recommending some other great places to get bitters from when you're ready to take the plunge.
So, why subject yourself to a flavor you might hate at first? The answer lies in the question. The bitter flavor, which announces the presence of alkaloids in a plant, is an irritant. Most poisons found in nature taste bitter. So our bodies taste that flavor, and kick into action to move the irritant along as quickly as possible, in case it's poison. Our stomachs release more acid to speed up digestion, our livers secrete bile to do the same with fats and toxins, and our pancreases release enzymes to prepare for sugars to convert. Even peristalsis, the undulating motion that moves food and liquid through our guts, begins as soon as the tongue receives bitter signals. And this, remember, all takes place when you place even a drop of bitters on your tongue. You haven't even had a bite to eat yet. For anyone with sluggish digestion, who suffers from gas, bloating, a full feeling all the time, or, surprisingly, who is hungry all the time due to blood sugar spikes and valleys, this is a dream come true. Bitters will wake up your digestive system like nothing else. Because you have started the digestion process before eating a bite, you will also digest the food you do eat better, and draw out nutrients more effectively. The gnarly flavor is starting to sound worth it now, right?
To highlight something I mentioned in passing, bitters are helpful for both people who feel full and sluggish AND those who feel hungry and are constantly craving snacks, particularly sweet snacks. Bitters, due to their actions on the pancreas, help stabilize blood sugar. If you find your mood, energy, and appetite cresting and crashing several times a day, I can't recommend bitters highly enough.
So what plants are often used as bitters, and where can you find bitters of your own? Right this moment, in the Northern Hemisphere, spring is springing, which means it's dandelion time. And, SURPRISE! Dandelion leaves are one of our best-loved bitters. If you're picking them, make sure the plant is young and the leaves are still tender- the older plants will have tough leaves that are difficult to chew on top of being bitter. And, of course, be sure to pick away from any areas where dogs might hang out, and at least eight feet away from any roadway where cars are traveling. Other wonderful bitter plants include gentian (which you'll recognize if you add Angostura bitters or Aperol to your cocktails), artichoke leaf, wormwood (found in absinthe), and blue vervain.
Here's a digestive bitter formula by Rosemary Gladstar, made in tincture form (which we learned how to make in the last post!)
2 parts fennel
1 part artichoke leaf
1 part dandelion root
1 part organically cultivated gentian*
1/2 part ginger
Combine the herbs to make a tincture. Let sit for 4-6 weeks. Strain, reserving liquid. Take 1/2 to 1 tsp before and after meals.
* Gentian is an endangered plant, so this is NOT one you want to wildcraft, and you don't want to buy it if it's marketed as such. The specific language of "organically cultivated" means it was grown and harvested organically in a controlled environment, like a farm, meaning it did not detract from the wild population.
Other Herbalists making bitters I love:
Deep Green Wellness - Silver Spring, MD
A Balanced Life - Reston, VA (BETSY IS THE QUEEN OF BITTERS. I'm currently on Maple Chai. Going to try coffee next. Mmmmm.)
King's Road Apothecary - Los Angeles, CA
So be cruel to be kind to your digestion, and learn to love the sweet life of bitter herbs. To your health!
-As mentioned, Rebecca's beautiful newsletter. (If you sign up now, you get 10% off your first surprise box!)
-Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health; Rosemary Gladstar
-Flavor wheel, Learningherbs.com
Legalese: In our society, only MDs get to say they are "treating" disease. As such, this blog post has not been analyzed by the FDA, and the advice within has not been scientifically proven to diagnose, treat, or cure disease. Please see a health practitioner for medical treatment.