In modern herbal medicine, bitter principles occupy a central place in herbal therapeutics beating the acrid constituents. Most people consuming herbal medicines complain about the bitterness of the medicines prescribed. This is the only defining attribute of herbal medicine and the only feature to set it apart from other therapies.
The bitter principles work by stimulating the bitter receptors of the tongue and increasing saliva secretion. Thus, it is always advisable to taste and chew the herbs for making them most effective. The bitter principles also bring about an increase in the secretion of digestive juices, thereby increasing appetite. They protect the tissues found in the digestive tract, boosts up the bile flow and strengthens the pancreas.
Their chemical composition includes a complex pattern of molecular structures. Since they act upon the bitter receptors of the mouth, thereby producing the bitter taste in the mouth, their stimulation do not produce any electrical changes on the surface of the cell. Instead, the bitter molecules bring about intracellular biochemical changes by acting on the cell membrane receptors. This facilitates an increase in calcium concentrates within the cell and signals the gustatory nerve.
The bitter substances are mostly of terpenoid structure, especially the sesquiterpene lactones, monoterpene iridoids and the secoiridoids. Iridoids are responsible for the chief bitter constituents of the plant family Gentianaceae, Cichorium intybus (chicory), dandelion, Valeriana officinalis (valerian), wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa), and quassia bark.
Sesquiterpenes account for the bitter taste of the Artemisia plants, or wormwood genus, Cnicus benedictus (blessed thistle), and ginkgo biloba (ginkgo). Other components which add to the bitterness are diterpene bitters, found in columbo root (jateorrhiza palmata) or white horehound (Mar.rubium vulgare). Triterpenoids are the cause of bitterness for the Curcubitaceae family of plants, which includes pumpkin, cucumber, colocynth, marrows and the bryonies.
Many alkaloids also contribute to the bitter taste as in the protoberberine isoquinoline alkaloids of golden seal (Hydrastis canadensis), and Berberis, the morphine alkaloids, the quinoline alkaloids of quinine and angostura and the purine alkaloids ( in coffee). In addition to this, many miscellaneous compounds like ketones and amino-acids are responsible for the bitterness, as found in hops.
Bitters are indispensable when it comes to counter a heavy meal. Sometimes, chicory and dandelion roots are mixed with coffee beans to produce a bitter drink usually taken after meals. The drink vermouth is the good example of an appetizer which gets its name from bitter herb wormwood. The traditional beer that is brewed with hops can also be used as a digestive remedy due to its bitter principle. Even nowadays, bartenders are faced with the enquiry of a tot of Angostura Bitters (Cusparia angustura) which is commonly used to shoo away a hangover. What's common to all these practices is the belief that a bitter medicine can balance a heavy or rich meal and can be the basis of excellent tonics. Our grandpas used to believe that medicines that didn't please our tongue were the best of all. When we go through the records of traditional plant medicine we find a reflection of this notion. All the bitter medicines are cited as ‘genuine stimulants' and the real panacea for all.
With the passage of time, we have come to discover and understand some more features of the bitter medicines. It is accepted that bitters stimulate only a certain type of taste receptors. Thus, they will have no effect if they are taken in capsules or by intra-gastric tube. The bitter taste buds are thus the mediators in the way of making the responses happen. This is one of the best examples of a reflex response which takes place when a small stimulus initiates a complex reaction. As soon as the bitter taste bud is stimulated, it releases the gastrointestinal hormone gastrin. If we study the common physiological actions of the gastrin, we find a close similarity with the traditional remedies of the bitters. We can therefore tally the actions of bitters with that of gastrins.
Basically speaking, gastrins are beneficial in numerous ways. Researches over the years have established that it increases gastric acid and pepsin secretions, hepatic bile surge, hepatic bicarbonate production, intestinal juice production, pancreatic digestive secretions and intrinsic factor secretion. At the same time, gastrins help in enhancing the flow of Brunner's glands secretions, insulin, glucagon and calcitonin release, helps muscle tone of lower oesophageal sphincter and muscle tone of stomach and small intestine, augments cell division and growth of gastric and duodenal mucosa as well as helps in cell division and growth of the pancreas.
This information will now help us to explain the role of bitters in the herbal medicine. Let us examine them one by one.
Bitters act as appetizers
Gastrin is known to be very effective in increasing the appetite. It acts directly on appetite centers in the hypothalamus and indirectly through increased stomach motility. As we have seen earlier, bitters have also been used as key elements in aperitifs or for increasing appetite during convalescence. They can be very useful indeed in treating anyone for whom anorexia is posing an obstacle to recovery. Sometimes, lack of appetite is the body's own signal to prevent overstuffing. But this type of anorexia should be distinguished from other harmful types that reduce the strength of an individual. Administering bitters then comes in quite handy and especially in case of anorexia nervosa where bitters are a very helpful tool to counter the problem.
Bitters increase secretion of digestive juices
Bitters are known to expedite the process of digestion by boosting the stomach and pancreatic enzyme secretions. In those cases where these secretions are irregular or malfunctioning, bitters can help a lot towards speedier digestion by breaking down the food material. Digestive secretions sterilize the food material inside the stomach and break down protein and other large molecules that threaten the body's immune system.
There is a paradox with food. It is certainly the most important source of nourishment for the body, but it also poses the greatest immunological threat to it. This is reflected in the presence of lymphoid tissues in the digestive tract. The digestive juices denature the antigenic material that prevents the situation from going out of control.
Sometimes, a low rate of secretion arises due to enteric infections, or if any suggestion is found of antigen penetration through the gut wall. This may occur in case of a food allergy or any autoimmune problem that contains the symptoms of reduced digestive abilities.
Herbal therapeutics point out that a fall in digestive secretion can damage the body to a great extent. It should always be corrected immediately as and when encountered. Besides enteric infections and food allergies, such reduced ability to digest can be understood by the symptoms of a nauseous feeling, or feeling bloated even after taking a little food. Passing small malodorous stools is another sign.
As modern food items contain an increased percentage of adulteration, the risk of depressed digestion has increased greatly, and the only measure is to administer bitter remedies.
Since the bitters increase the destructive components of digestive secretions, their use is generally not advised in cases of hyperacidity or those with peptic ulcerations. But it also raises the secretions of protective fluids, such as bicarbonate from pancreas and liver and from the Brunner's glands. This is not the case for the acrid constituents. The bitters expedite the whole digestive process. For other reasons, they are not prescribed in hyperacidic conditions.
Bitters offer protection to the gut tissues
In cases of heartburn, hiatus hernia or oesophageal inflammation, the reflux of corrosive stomach contents into the oesophagus is prevented by bitter remedies. This task is achieved by increasing the tone of the gastro-oesophageal sphincter. The bitters also decrease the harmful effects of the digestive juices and dietary toxins by enhancing the already rapid rate of mucosal regeneration in the stomach and duodenum. This acts as a healer in the case of ulceration or an infection. Similar action, if performed on the matrix of the pancreas might as well help in pulling through a pancreatic disease.
Bitters enhance bile flow
Bile juice is secreted by the liver. It is also considered as the excretion of liver. The liver contains extremely dynamic flow of juices. If pictured, each cell can be seen as being in a stream of a mixed nutrient-rich portal blood from the gut and oxygen-rich arterial blood from the general circulation. These fluids disseminate through the cell, and are subjected to heavy dispensation that is a part of the liver function. The metabolic products that are born out of this activity move from the liver cell into the outgoing blood flow. Some of the most important, however, are channeled into a separate exit that drains into the biliary system. The liver thus self-cleanses by its own mechanism.
This is the organ which suffers from all the harmful effects of binge eating, defective digestion or ill health by being overloaded with toxins or the deposition of waste material. The fluids which pass through the liver cells may not be enough to wash out the toxins. This poses a threat to the liver making it prone to liver pathology or more common range of functional disorders. An improved flow of bile juice will definitely not allow such waste material to accumulate. Bitters play this role very effectively. With the consumption of toxic materials increasing, this is certainly one of the advantages.
The bitters have been proven to be effective in curing all allergic, metabolic and immunological conditions where the diagnosis points to the digestion. The liver exerts an influence over the immunological system as well. Even in case of herbal therapies for migraines, hepatic remedies are suggested, most of which use the bitter.
The use of bitters leads to a greater production of biliary elements and dilutes the bile as well by increasing the bicarbonate content. In case of gallstone formation or gall-bladder disease, that is formed by the over deposition of bile, bitters are known to work wonders. Along with lemon juice which dilutes the bile as well, bitters are also an effective and accepted treatment of these diseases.
Bitters improve pancreatic functions
Gastrin helps pancreatic secretion and also increases the secretions of insulin and glucagons, the two main hormones the pancreas produces. However, these are conflicting in nature. There is a possibility of a 'state dependent' effect. This is a response to gastrin that varies according to the condition of mutual and simultaneous secretion of the two hormones.
Bitters act as tonics
All the above contributions of bitters make it easy to understand that they can boost your health to a great extent. Their primary role is to stimulate all the above mentioned digestive functions. The digestive processes are the platform where the nourishment requirements of the body are met. This is the place where the body examines the materials it is fed with and most calorific and metabolic processes are regulated. Depending upon the extent to which this platform is in danger under the modern living conditions, it might or might not respond to the bitter remedies.
Bitter remedies were mainly resorted to in old age or in a convalescent state in order to be able to improve the quality of nourishment to the body. However, in the modern age, as illnesses become chronic in nature and more frequent, attacking persons of all ages, it is advisable to resort to bitter remedies. Food has also become less wholesome and more prone to indigestion. Bitter remedies can definitely offset the harmful effects of adulteration to a great extent.