(NaturalHealth365) Today, you’ll discover how eating bitter herbs can help to resolve digestive issues like, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Causing indigestion and heartburn, GERD currently affects 15 to 30 percent of the American population. Yet, unfortunately, most people are never told about the natural ways to fix gut health problems.
First, it’s important to know: GERD can have serious consequences.
In fact, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases reports that a shocking 4.7 million people were hospitalized for GERD in the year 2010 alone. Fortunately, recent research is showcasing the surprising ability of an ancient natural remedy – bitter herbs – to improve digestion and treat conditions such as GERD.
For a long time, herbal medicine experts have used ‘bitters’ – an assortment of extracts from bitter herbs and spices – not only to promote digestive health, but to detoxify the body and boost energy. In addition, bitter herbs can be used to treat a range of issues, including Candida overgrowth, thyroid problems and inflammatory conditions such as asthma and eczema.
Step one: Understanding the value of compounds found in bitter herbs
Bitter compounds exist in plants as a deterrent against being consumed by insects and animals. Humans (and many animals) instinctively avoid bitter-tasting foods because they are equated with poisonous qualities.
The fact is: the sharp, biting taste of many bitter herbs is actually an indication of their high concentration of disease-fighting flavonoids and antioxidants.
Of course, some naturally bitter plants are, in fact, poisonous. However, appropriate amounts of edible bitter greens, spices and herbs can provide important health benefits, and should be included in the diet.
Research has shown that bitter compounds have potent antifungal, antibacterial, antiseptic, anti-parasitic and even anticancer properties. They also have tonic and stimulating effects to muscles and organs.
By the way, plant compounds classified as “bitter” include: iridoids, sesquiterpenes, lactones, alkaloids and many volatile oils.
A mere “taste” of bitters initiates a biochemical chain reaction
The beneficial effects of bitters begin as soon as they contact the tongue.
The process starts with the release of gastrin, a hormone that stimulates the liver, stomach, gallbladder, pancreas and intestines. In other words, gastrin “tells” these organs that it’s time to “wake up” and begin the process of digestion.
The bitter taste also triggers the release of saliva – which is designed to break down carbohydrates in the mouth – and promotes the release of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. Hydrochloric acid, despite its toxic-sounding name, is indispensable for breaking down proteins and fats – and even performs the valuable service of killing pathogens and microbes that can cause food poisoning.
Bitters also spur the release of protein-digesting enzymes, such as pepsin, while stimulating the release of bile from the liver. And, as you may know, bile is responsible for breaking down fats, and aids the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
Bile also helps to neutralize toxins and to clear fat and cholesterol from the liver – meaning that bitters can be helpful in easing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Bitters also benefit the pancreas by facilitating the further breakdown and absorption of nutrients, thereby preventing gas and bloating. In addition, bitters stimulate the pancreas to produce insulin, the hormone needed to regulate blood sugar.
And, finally, bitters stimulate the smooth muscle of the intestine – which promotes efficient gastric emptying.
How bitter herbs offer relief for those suffering with GERD or ‘leaky gut syndrome’
Although people with GERD may reflexively avoid bitter foods, the surprising fact is that bitter compounds could actually be helpful in alleviating the condition.
Bitters work against GERD by facilitating the movement of food along in the intestines – which helps to prevent stomach contents from “backing up” into the esophagus. And, their tonic, or tightening, effect means that they also help to contract the esophageal sphincter muscle – an important step in reducing uncomfortable GERD symptoms.
Bitter herbs may also work to improve ‘leaky gut syndrome.’
Also known as increased intestinal permeability, leaky gut results when gaps in the membrane of the intestinal wall allow undigested food and bacteria to enter the bloodstream, triggering inflammation, allergic reactions and even autoimmune disease.
Bitters have been found to help repair damage in the intestinal wall, thereby reducing the inflammatory response that accompanies leaky gut.
As if that weren’t impressive enough, the use of bitters may also help alleviate food allergies – which are caused by the reaction of undigested proteins with immune cells. By helping complete the breakdown of proteins, bitters reduce the opportunities for this damaging inflammatory response.
And, yes, scientific research does support the benefits of bitters.
In a review published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, researchers credited bitter compounds with the potential for treating GERD and gastric ulcers.
Another study, published in the journal Molecules, found that bitter herbal teas made from iridoid-rich Siberian gentians safely and effectively alleviated digestive disorders such as heartburn and nausea.
Improving your gut health by eating bitter greens
Eating fresh, organic, bitter greens – such as watercress, mustard greens, chicory, arugula, radicchio and endive – is an ideal way to get bitter compounds into your diet.
In addition to their status as leafy greens, these foods are also cruciferous vegetables rich in sulforaphane – a particularly powerful bitter constituent with anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects.
Bitter greens are also rich in nitrites, which promote cardiovascular health by boosting the production of beneficial blood pressure-lowering nitric oxide.
Lastly, bitter leafy greens contain chlorophyll, which binds to toxins and helps flush them from the body.
As a healthy suggestion, you can combine bitter greens to make a refreshing salad – using milder-tasting greens (such as stem or Boston lettuce) to balance out the flavors. To increase antioxidant power even further, drizzle olive oil and balsamic vinegar or lemon juice onto your favorite salad.
You can also add bitter greens to scrambled eggs or omelets, blend them into green smoothies or using them to enliven wraps, sandwiches and soups. Or, you can sauté them with extra virgin olive oil – and enjoy them as you would any other cooked vegetable.
As an added ‘bonus:’ A variety of kitchen spices – including cinnamon, turmeric, thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano and bay leaves – contain beneficial bitter compounds as well.
Bitters are also available in the form of tinctures derived from bitter herbs and spices, with a formulation known as Swedish Bitters receiving particularly high marks from many natural health experts and holistic healers. If using bitters in the tincture form, take them half an hour or so before eating.
As always, caution and common sense must prevail when taking bitter tinctures. Keep in mind, at high doses, bitters can cause unwanted side effects. So, take them only as directed by an herbal medicine expert or integrative physician.
Experts have been warning us (for a long time) that our ‘modern diet’ is generally too low in the bitter foods that our ancestors consumed to promote optimal health. But, the good news is clear: we can correct this deficiency by simply eating more bitter herbs – on a regular basis.
Sources for this article include:
Food & Nutrition
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