The bitter flavor and the bitter herbs: trust and embrace!

I had the opportunity recently to spend some time talking with Jovial, whom I've known for a while but who recently started the excellent herbal bitters company Urban Moonshine. The focus was often on the bitter extracts themselves (the tincture blend she makes is actually pretty tasty and mellow compared to some of the wormwood / artichoke / mahonia combinations I've made up for clients in the past), but we ranged off into more philosophical realms pretty quickly.
The discussion kept coming back to a few key points: the bitter flavor, when obtained through whole plants (and yes, I consider crude tinctures to be whole plant products), has a historical grounding in the culture of eating itself, and thus consuming it is a "well-connected" (relationship-rich) practice; it enables optimal digestion (and beyond) by relying on the physiology's innate wisdom and regulatory mechanisms; and it provides an essential challenge and avenue for growth for the human being. When habitually used, the bitter flavor turns the gut on, without second-guessing what it needs. And a happy belly, as any herbalist can tell you, is perhaps the most crucial element for overall vibrancy and health.
Bitter herbs and roots have myriad impacts on digestion and beyond. To review those was not the purpose of our discussions; for that, I refer you to Danielle's excellent article, published by the Weston Price Foundation. Right now, I simply ask you to take a step back, recognize that individuals are actually pieces of cultural and ecological webs, and think a little bigger.

As Michael Pollan astutely observed, the American culture lacks a rooted cuisine, a context in which meals are prepared and shared. This is evident in the food choices most commonly available: processed grains, proteins and fats with few vegetables and fewer whole ingredients, where both flavor and nutrition are reintroduced after the fact based on currently available nutrition science. It is no wonder therefore that the bitter flavor, most often found in whole plant ingredients and in the spices added to meals that are a part of a culinary context, is entirely absent from the American food offering: it is neither useful nor pleasureable to the typical food industry manufacturer, nor to the typical palate. Additionally, it is usually the secondary plant metabolites - such as flavonoids and iridoids - that are responsible for bitterness. These are, unfortunately, still seen as inconveniences to be removed (until they're labeled as "nutrients" or  "vitamins", at least).
In all traditional cuisines, bitterness features as both a part of the basic menu choices and also as the separate mealtime ritual of the aperitif or digestif. In the former case, we see the use of bitter greens, whole grains, and even spice selections that use the bitter flavor to complement and highlight the sweeter and saltier components of the meal. In the latter case, bitter is given its own starring role based on the consistent cultural awareness that it is important to spend some time before and/or after eating being mindful of the meal and of one's company, and that a digestif encourages these important connections through a shared ritual with a very real pharmacological basis. I remember this growing up in Italy. Definitely not too fond of the stuff at the time...

That pharmacological basis is rooted in the herbal bitter's ability to increase digestive and hepatic secretions at just the right time, i.e., when strong digestion is most important. For thousands of years humans have known this to be true (which is why we see it in all traditional cuisines); in fact, the use of bitters predates the arrival of the human species (witness the bear's springtime Osha ritual)! The fact that bitterness is essential in maintaining optimal digestive health and ameliorating all the inflammatory conditions associated with flagging digestion seems, however, lost on the American supplement industry: we are seeing an increased reliance on digestive enzymes and increasingly complex probiotic cocktails. This is not surprising, and simply another manifestation of the same "nutritionism" (quoting Pollan) that seeks to enrich white flour after the fact instead of advocating for a whole grain to begin with. Every year a new combination of these products appears on the market, purportedly based on the latest science; and while this may be the case, we are deluding ourselves if we ever believe that an artificial source of digestive secretions or flora will function with the wisdom and flexibility of our bodies' own juices. Time and time again this point has been driven home (just last year, for instance, we had no idea that gut flora falls into three distinct ecological "biomes" that vary person to person), but rather than turning to whole plants to balance our physiological responses, we keep pursuing supplementation from external sources without any trust in our bodies' innate abilities.

Why is this? Ultimately, since industrialization, humankind has pursued the goals of ease, comfort, and convenience with the idea that activities such as manual labor and foods such as coarse, whole-wheat bread are undesirable. These goals may, perhaps, be rooted in some misguided desire to achieve a species-wide "aristocracy", or at least the trappings thereof. This obviously hasn't worked, and food security is still a major (and growing) issue even in so-called "first world" countries such as the US. In the end, these pursuits have netted us one thing: they have removed the challenge from our daily physical lives. Intellectual challenge may still exist (though others might argue that television and media largely remove this, as well) - but some of the key daily challenges all animals must endure, such as physical exertion and the consumption of the bitter flavor, are all but gone. They have been purposefully removed, and we are only now beginning to see what that means for our culture and our species. Without challenge, life ceases to expand, to improve, to creatively build. And while the importance of exercise is beginning to be recognized, the crucial role of the bitter flavor as a "workout for your digestion" has been largely neglected. How can we use a digestive enzyme to supplement an unchallenging diet and an atrophied digestion? It is like using an anabolic steroid instead of exercise. Recent research is showing how, in conditions of diabetes and pancreatic insufficiency, external enzyme supplementation actually does more harm than good by disrupting the physiology's attempts to seek balance in an imbalanced world. This comes back yet again to the lack of trust in our bodies' innate ability to thrive when well connected to Nature.

Interestingly, when thinking about the balance of energy in the ecosystem we call Gaia, it is useful to pause and consider the lack of challenge to the average American's palate through the absence of bitterness. If a challenge is removed from one piece of the web of life, it is likely to show up elsewhere! When you stop to look at this fact, as Jovial pointed out to me, you can see that the pursuit of comfort and sweetness in our diets has shifted the costs our species should be enduring daily onto the rest of the ecosystem: a corn and soy based industrial agriculture is relentlessly polluting and depleting the ecology for a goal that, in the end, actually leaves both humanity and Gaia much weaker.

So, can the addition of bitters into the American diet on a daily basis provide a reconnection to Nature, sabotage the industrial food machine by shifting the palate away from flavorless simple sweet and salty, and re-enliven our tongues and stagnant, unchallenged bellies? It is certainly more complex than that - but the maligned Dandelion, with its unrelenting yellow flag, offers itself yet again as a catalyst for healing not only individual imbalances, but the wider ecological rifts we've seen develop over the last century. Perhaps it's time to start listening.