Healthy Hildegard recently shared the following that bitter foods and herbs have a long and well-documented history as a digestive aid. The use of bitters for their digestive benefits is consistent across many different cultures and medicinal systems. Based on our review of research on bitters and digestion, as well as the traditional uses recommended in Traditional German Medicine here are our 6 Reasons to Try Bitters for Digestion.
The subject of Hildegard’s medicine, specifically cancer, is well touched upon in the film, The Unruly Mystic: Saint Hildegard during an interview with Dr. Wighard Strehlow, from the Hildegard Center in Germany whom I visited with for the film.
Watch about Saint Hildegard.
1. Bitters May Improve Nutrient Absorption
We know from the research above that when our bitter taste receptors detect bitterness, they signal the brain to increase gastric secretion and decrease gastric motility during digestion.
The research above also indicates that bitter flavors can increase blood circulation to your digestive tract in as little as five minutes after you ingest bitter foods. So you can still get the benefits of bitters whether you take them before, during, or after your meals.
Increased gastric secretions of digestive enzymes and bile coupled with slower motility means improved breakdown of nutrients and slower delivery of nutrients (including sugar) to the bloodstream.
2. Bitters May Reduce After-Meal Glycemia
Research shows that bitter substances can slow down the digestive movement of carbohydrates into the small intestine, which can help reduce after meal blood sugar spikes, or glycemia.
When food enters your digestive tract it is broken down into macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and proteins) by gastric juices and digestive enzymes.
The carbohydrates (sugar) that are derived from your food enter your blood stream in your small intestine. Slowing down this progression seems to also spread out the duration of sugar entering the blood stream.
One of the problems of a high-sugar diet is the resulting “spike” in post-meal blood sugar. Diabetics and pre-diabetic people with insulin sensitivity are particularly prone to these spikes. Over time, repeated blood sugar spikes are associated with developing metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
3. You May Feel Full Sooner (and for Longer)
The same reduction in gastric motility that helps with nutrient absorption and in the reduction of blood sugar volatility also helps you feel full – and for longer after meals.
The feeling of fullness, or satiety, is an important part of appetite control that helps regulate caloric intake. The earlier into a meal you feel fullness, the less you will eat. So bitterness may help prevent some overeating and post-meal snacking.
4. Bitters May Reduce Gas, Bloating, Acid Reflux, and Digestive Discomfort
Using bitters for digestion to help prevent gas, bloating, and other discomfort like cramping is one of the oldest and most reliable indications. Research seems to back this up. When the bitter receptors on our tongues detect bitterness, they immediately signal the brain to release oral and gastric secretions.
The increased secretions help break down food more efficiently. This, coupled with the increased blood flow and slower gastric movement, seem to significantly reduce indigestion, gas, and acid reflux.
5. Bitters May Help With Appetite Control & Weight Loss
Much like how bitterness can slow gastric motility to help promote the feeling of satiety, bitter flavors can also activate the enteroendocrine cells in our digestive tract.
When these cells detect bitterness, they release peptide YY (PYY) and glucagon-like-protein 1 (GLP-1), which are the hormone-like substances that make us feel full.(11)
This is fascinating not just because it can shut down hunger and make us feel full, but also because the unique nature of the receptor cells means that the reaction does not have to operate through the central nervous system. This means that bitters may act directly as localized hormone triggers to control appetite and other metabolic functions in digestion.
These hormonal triggers in the GI can reduce appetite and increase satiety, which leads to a reduced caloric intake and thus potential weight loss.
6. Bitters Can Help Promote A Healthy Gut Biome
The beneficial bacteria found in our digestive tract is responsible for a number of essential functions that affects nutrient absorption, immune system health, mood, sleep, and more. Maintaining a healthy gut is foundational to overall health and wellness.
Research indicates that certain herbal bitters, loosely known as “nutritive bitters”, contain meaningful amounts of prebiotic starches that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria and can have beneficial effects on regulatory bowel function.(12) Examples of nutritive bitters include dandelion, chicory, angelica, and burdock.
Some researchers speculate that the increase in beneficial bacteria may also improve the gut hormone signaling associated with proper appetite regulation.
Additional Thoughts on the Benefits of Bitters
The interrelated actions of bitter substances on our bitter receptors play a role in many important functions. So it’s not just bitters for digestion, but also bitters for better health.
The widespread effects of bitters for digestion we’ve covered above are just one small part of the growing body of research on the health benefits of bitters. There is great potential for bitters as a means to prevent and treat a wide variety of ailments, or just to maintain our overall health and wellness.
Here are some emerging areas of research that may lead to some amazing benefits of bitters.
Please read more on the Healthy Hildegard website.