Bitter Substances: Effect And Application

Bitter substances are natural plant substances with great effects. They stimulate the digestive system, contribute to deacidification, stop cravings, and much more. However, bitter substances can also be toxic. We explain which bitter substances you can take in which way. Because bitter substances are enormously effective but are less and less common in modern nutrition.

Why you should take bitter substances regularly

Most people grimace when they eat bitter-tasting foods – they find the taste unpleasant and therefore avoid it. To ensure that originally bitter foods remain marketable, the bitter content of many vegetables was reduced by breeding. Because endive salad, radicchio, or chicory used to taste much more bitter – in other words, they contained a lot more bitter substances back then.

Flavor enhancers and sweeteners in foods have also contributed to changing consumer taste perception. As a result, we mainly taste salty and sweet foods, and we prefer to stay away from bitter ones.

Many medicinal plants, root and leafy vegetables, which contain a high proportion of bitter substances, have largely disappeared from our plates and cups: for example dandelion, plantain, yarrow, and many other wild plants. Yes, many people no longer recognize these plants in nature. That’s a pity because in this way they miss out on important protective and healing substances. Why you should use more bitter substances again and how you take them will be our topic below.

Harmful and healthy bitter substances: the difference

It’s no wonder that we grimace at bitter foods. Because the bitter taste once served as a warning signal against poisonous plants, which often taste very bitter. This warning system is even more pronounced in children than in adults – they are particularly sensitive to bitter tastes. Their detoxification system isn’t well developed yet, so it makes more sense for them to spit out potentially dangerous things rather than swallow them in the first place.

However, there is a difference between the extreme bitterness of plants that are actually poisonous (which can lead to poisoning) and the moderate and desirable bitterness of plants that were once common food plants (like the wild plants mentioned above).

Then there are bitter plants, which are healthy in small quantities – and are therefore used in this form as a remedy – but would be inedible in larger quantities precisely because of their high bitter substance content, e.g. wormwood, gentian, centaury, etc.

The definition of bitter substances

The definition of bitter substances is very simple: bitter substances are substances that taste bitter. The only thing these botanicals have in common is their bitter taste. This means that bitter substances can be completely different substances from different substance groups. As soon as a substance tastes bitter, it can be called a bitter substance. For example, there are bitter substances among flavonoids, polyphenols, terpenes, peptides, amino acids, and alkaloids.

The effects of bitter substances

In the body (edible) bitter substances do a lot of good. The best researched are the positive effects of bitter substances on digestion. In naturopathy, bitter substances have long been used to relieve digestive problems, whether in Ayurveda, in traditional Chinese medicine or in Europe (gentian, wormwood, mugwort, etc.). The most important effects of bitter substances are the following:

  • Bitter substances stimulate digestion, promote the formation of digestive juices and support gall and liver functions.
  • Bitter substances regulate the appetite and thus help to lose weight.
  • Bitter substances stop cravings and thus support the exit from sugar addiction.
  • Bitter substances help with detoxification.
  • Bitter substances contribute to deacidification.
  • Bitter substances help fight Candida and regulate the intestinal flora.
  • Bitter substances help to lower high cholesterol levels.
  • Bitter substances can possibly improve the symptoms of histamine intolerance.

Bitter substances can therefore be an important component of any holistic therapy and prevention program. Although not all of the effects mentioned have been scientifically proven, they are known from herbal medicine and empirical medicine.

In recent years, bitter substances have become the focus of science, so further promising research results can be expected in the future. Below we present the current status of bitter substances.

Bitter substances stimulate digestion

Bitter substances already start to have an effect on the mouth: When chewing, the bitter substances contained in the food irritate the nerves on the tongue. This stimulates the production of saliva. The enzymes in the saliva now begin to break down the food – i.e. pre-digest it.

The stomach, in turn, begins to produce gastric juice. As soon as the chewed food has reached the stomach, it can immediately start digesting it. On the other hand, if the food contains hardly any bitter substances, digestion takes longer.

The bitter taste not only stimulates the stomach, but also the liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and intestines, which then start secreting digestive juices and digestive enzymes. The liver, for example, is supported in detoxification.

For this reason, bitter substances can help with many complaints such as flatulence, lack of stomach acid, constipation, and a feeling of fullness, but also irritable bowel syndrome, gastritis, and even chronic inflammatory bowel diseases.

Digestive problems due to insufficient bitter substances

Too few bitter substances in the diet can lead to sluggish digestion and digestive problems such as flatulence, stomach pain, and heartburn (reflux), but also exhaustion and sluggishness.
In addition, due to a poorly functioning digestive system, nutrients cannot be properly absorbed and utilized and toxins cannot be completely excreted. The intestinal flora gets out of balance and pathogenic germs can get out of hand. Ultimately, the toxins are deposited in the body and promote disease – because digestion also influences all other bodily functions.

Complaints that are directly related to a poorly functioning digestive system are chronic stomach or digestive problems, liver and gallbladder problems, and problems with the pancreas. It is assumed that a diet low in bitter substances contributes to many lifestyles and autoimmune diseases, such as e.g. As obesity, allergies, diabetes, and gastrointestinal diseases, is at least involved.

These diseases do not necessarily have to occur if too few bitter substances are ingested. However, if other factors are added, such as a diet that is generally low in fiber and nutrients with lots of foods high in sugar and flour, the risk increases.

If you have digestive problems, always remember that the wrong posture on the toilet can already cause the symptoms. In the natural squatting position, many digestive problems often resolve themselves.

Bitter substances from wormwood root in Crohn’s disease

Bitter substances can even be helpful for severe intestinal diseases such as Crohn’s disease: In a small study, 20 people with Crohn’s disease took three capsules containing 250 mg of wormwood powder twice a day for 10 weeks. Wormwood root is rich in the bitter substance called absinthine.

Over the course of these 10 weeks, the previous medication was continued to be taken, with the exception of the corticoids. The corticoids (e.g. cortisone), on the other hand, were slowly reduced and were no longer taken after week 10.

In the wormwood group, 65% of subjects had almost no symptoms after week 10. Even after the wormwood capsules were no longer taken, the effect persisted over the follow-up period of 10 weeks, so the subjects no longer had to take corticoids during this period. In contrast, 80% of people in the control group who took a placebo had worsened symptoms after 10 weeks.

The wormwood capsules were the herbal preparation SedaCrohn® from the USA. In addition to the 250 mg wormwood powder, the capsules also contain 100 mg rose, 40 mg cardamom, and 10 mg mastic resin. However, the researchers pointed out that the wormwood capsules didn’t work at all in five patients – so the treatment isn’t successful for everyone.

Bitter substances in heartburn caused by too little stomach acid

Among other things, heartburn is often attributed to too much stomach acid, which flows into the esophagus and causes irritation there. What is less well known is that heartburn can also appear to be caused by too little stomach acid. Apparently, the reason for this is that the under-digested food begins to ferment in the stomach, which can cause a backlog to form in the esophagus.

In holistic medicine, bitter substances are used in this case, as they stimulate gastric juice production and can thus compensate for the lack of gastric acid. Causes of too little stomach acid can be, for example, treatment with gastric acid-inhibiting medication (acid blockers), chronic gastritis, or stress.

Bitter substances for heartburn caused by too much stomach acid

In naturopathy, it is known that bitter substances support deacidification by stimulating certain glands in the digestive tract that contribute to the body’s base production. As a result, excess acids in the body are converted into bases and excreted, thus balancing the acid-base balance.

However, opinions differ as to whether bitter substances should also be used specifically for heartburn, which occurs due to excess stomach acid. There are warnings in some places that it could make the symptoms worse.

It is therefore important to pay close attention to the body, especially when taking bitter substances for heartburn because heartburn can be triggered by both an excess and a lack of stomach acid. If your symptoms worsen after taking bitter substances, it is better to switch to other natural measures against heartburn. See the previous link for a detailed article about it.

Bitter substances in cravings

Bitter substances can also help with weight loss because they regulate appetite, which is particularly helpful in the event of cravings:

A study was able to show that bitter substances stimulate the release of a hormone called cholecystokinin in the gastrointestinal tract. Cholecystokinin inhibits appetite. This reaction was important for humans in the course of evolution, because poisonous plants often taste bitter. The hormone cholecystokinin signals the brain to stop eating and sets about eliminating any toxins that may still have made their way into the digestive system.

So if you eat bitter substances instead of sweet or salty things during the next craving attack, you will quickly notice that the craving will go away. In addition, foods that contain bitter substances are generally healthier than sweet and salty snacks. This can be very helpful, especially if you are addicted to sugar.

Admittedly, it is not easy to go for something bitter instead when you feel like eating something sweet or salty. However, keep in mind that this will retrain your sense of taste and result in fewer cravings in the future. Because just as you can get used to the bitter taste of coffee and beer, you can also get used to other foods. This, in turn, benefits your health – think of this as your motivation.

However, bitter substances are also said to be helpful for fat digestion, because they stimulate the function of the liver and gallbladder. The liver then produces more bile, which is responsible for digesting fat. Bile is stored in the gallbladder and transported to the duodenum when food is consumed. Fewer cravings and better fat digestion can in turn lead to weight loss.

Bitter substances help with skin problems

Bitter substances also have an important function for the skin: applied externally, e.g. B. as a cream, they bind to bitter substance receptors in the skin, whereby proteins such. B. collagen is formed. These proteins play an important role in building the skin barrier. The bitter substances also stimulate the formation of lipids. Lipids are fatty substances that protect the skin from environmental influences and dehydration. If the skin barrier is damaged, this encourages infections, which in turn can lead to acne and neurodermatitis.

In addition, bitter substances also showed anti-inflammatory properties when used externally: in studies on cells, they inhibited the production of the inflammatory marker TNF-alpha. This could have a major impact on the treatment of inflammatory skin diseases such as psoriasis.

The bitter substances examined were salicin from the willow bark and amelogenin, a substance from the gentian root. Amarogentin is considered one of the most bitter substances found in nature.

Taking bitter substances: capsules or powder?

Bitter substances from the Amara mentioned above are also available in the form of drops, powder, juices, and capsules. A quality bitter supplement usually includes different types of bitter-rich plants, such as gentian, centaury, yarrow, dandelion, etc.

Until a few years ago, it was still believed that bitter substances had to be taken in such a way that they could have an effect directly in the mouth. Capsules were discouraged. In the meantime, however, we know that bitter substance receptors are not only found in the mouth, but throughout the body, including the stomach, intestines, even the brain, lungs, and skin. Bitter substances can therefore also be taken in capsule form, which is particularly important for those people who cannot get used to the bitter taste at all. However, cravings disappear faster if you let the bitter substances work in your mouth.

It is also interesting that there are 25 taste receptors for bitter tastes, while there are only 3 for sweet tastes. On the one hand, this is probably due to the warning effect described above, so that poisonous plants are recognized quickly.

On the other hand, bitter substances also seem to be of such great importance for the body that it wants to benefit as much as possible from their effects. Because when a bitter substance docks onto a receptor, a whole signal cascade is triggered that can have completely different effects – depending on where the receptor is located in the body. However, science is still in its infancy when it comes to researching these complex reactions.

Below we compare the various dietary supplements that are offered around the bitter substances and explain how you can take them.

bitter substances in liquid form

Bitter substances are most often offered in liquid form, for example as a concentrate with a drop applicator or pipette, as a spray, or as a herbal elixir. Liquid products have the advantage that they take effect as soon as they come into contact with the bitter substance receptors in the mouth.

In liquid form, bitter substances are often dissolved in alcohol, but there are also products without alcohol. Also make sure that there are no artificial flavors, sugar, sweeteners, or other additives – this information is in the table of contents.

For some, the bitter taste is a bit disturbing at first. After a few doses, however, you get used to it, and your taste buds are retrained – away from sweet and salty to bitter.

If you can’t get used to the taste at all, you could dilute the bitter substances with a little water at the beginning and then reduce the amount of water more and more in order to slowly approach it. Then the aversion to bitter substances will soon be a thing of the past. Another possibility is bitter capsules.

Bitter substances in capsules

Bitter substance capsules make it easier for people who want to avoid the bitter taste to take them. In the past, it was believed that bitter substances had to work in the mouth since bitter receptors were only present there. However, since corresponding receptors have now also been found in the rest of the gastrointestinal tract, there is nothing standing in the way of taking the capsules. The oral mucosa and thus the bitter taste is bypassed, but the bitter substances still have an effect, namely via the receptors in the stomach and intestines. Again, make sure that the capsules do not contain any additives such as fillers or release agents.

Bitter substances such as a powder

Powdered bittern is the most natural, easiest, and, in our opinion, the best form of the bittern. It is best if you simply put a quarter of a teaspoon directly in your mouth – pure and without water. The salivation sets in quickly. Allow the bitter substances to soak in and swallow after 1 to 3 minutes. At first, the powder tastes very bitter. Stay strong and on the ball! After just a few doses you will notice how you get used to it – and at some point, you will love the bitter taste.

Of course, you can also incorporate the bitter powder into your diet if the bitter effect is not too strong for you, e.g. B. in the smoothie, in the muesli, or in the salad dressing.

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Written by Micah Stanley

Hi, I'm Micah. I am a creative Expert Freelance Dietitian Nutritionist with years of experience in counseling, recipe creation, nutrition, and content writing, product development.

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