Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Wisdom Wednesday: Bitters

Dr. Ronda Nelson recently wrote a blog about bitters that prompted me to do some research. She is one of my mentors and I have attended several of her seminars in the last few years.

The literature is very confusing about the original and use of bitters. This is primarily because the medicinal use of bitters morphed into a social practice for drinking alcohol in the eightieth century Europe.

The earliest reference to bitters I could find was about 1500 BC in Ayurvedic medicine in India. Certain herbs, like wormwood were extracted in alcohol and used for medicinal purposes. The use of alcohol in herbal preparation is the basis for Western herbal medicine today. However, the term “bitters” is used to describe a specific group of herbs generally taken before meals to stimulate and aid in digestion.

Today, it is still very popular in England to have “bitters” with afternoon tea in preparation for the evening meal.

Italy and France developed specific bitters for social consumption. In Turin, Italy, 1796, Antonio Carpano created the first recipe for vermouth – probably the most commonly known aperitif. Later this was called sweet vermouth as the French developed a dry vermouth a few years later. The word aperitif comes from the Latin word aperire, meaning “to open”. Aperitifs have a bittersweet flavor that “opens up” the appetite, preparing your taste buds for a delicious meal.

Clinically, I use a combination of herbs as an aperitif to aid in digestion. Medi-Herbs produces a product call DiGest Phytosynergist that stimulates gastric juices, cleanses the liver, enhances immune function and promotes a normal response to environmental stress.

If you have read some of my blogs on liquid herbs, you will be familiar with some of the ingredients: Chamomile flower, Dandelion root, Echinacea root, Milk Thistle seed and Gentian root.

I much prefer the use of bitters to digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes are normally produced by the body and supplementing digestive enzymes is enzyme replacement therapy, much like hormone replacement therapy. Short term use is sometimes beneficial, but long term supplementation of digestive enzymes will suppress the body’s enzyme production.

Most often, it is a lack of enzyme release rather than a lack of enzyme production that is at fault. This is typically due to thickening of the bile in the gallbladder and/or spasticity of the bile duct. Without adequate bile flow, there is no trigger for the pancreas to release pancreatic enzymes and digestion grinds to a halt.

Adequate gastric juices are also needed to trigger bile release. As the food bolus leaves the stomach and dumps into the small intestine, the lower pH of the gastric juices stimulates contraction of the gallbladder releasing bile. If the gastric juices are low, the pH is higher resulting in little or no bile release.

The Bottom Line:
Bitters can be an effective supplement to improve digestion and even stimulate appetite when used prior to a meal. Although I prefer DiGest Phytosynergist, aperitifs have become quite popular again with more than ten small-scale operations producing bitters both for home and pubic consumption. Ask the bartender to recommend an aperitif the next time you go out for a good meal.

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