Here’s a great thing you can do to positively affect your digestion and the rest of your metabolism immediately: eat more bitter things.
Did you know that humans “taste” flavor in other parts of the body besides the tongue? Indeed! It’s been established (1) that we have taste receptors not only ALL along the digestive tube but also in organs not directly associated with it — e.g., the lungs, the kidneys, the thyroid and thymus glands, the heart and more!
The fact that there are taste receptors all over has consequences. For example, there are sweet taste receptors in the enteroendocrine — hormone secreting — cells in the gut and pancreas. When these taste receptors sense sugars they respond by releasing hormones. Consequently, you could be stressing your pancreas EVEN if you’re not eating actual sugar but the food is sweet — think artificially sweetened, for example.
Here’s where things get really interesting though: whereas we have three receptor genes for sweetness, we may have over 30 receptor genes for bitterness (2). This means you can potentially stimulate several systems in your body by consuming bitter foods and there is a growing body of scientific studies attempting to explain how (3).
The idea that bitter tasting foods have a positive effect on digestion might be old news to you. Both Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda — and other traditional medicine systems — regard the bitter taste as important for detoxification and to generally move one’s body out of a sluggish metabolism.
The bitter taste stimulates the production of gastric acid and digesting hormones in the stomach, the pancreas and the rest of the gut resulting in better motility, satiety and sugar management amongst other benefits (4).
There’s also a growing body of research on the effects of the bitter taste on the immune system. Bitter foods can help fight infection and they could be important in the treatment of autoimmune diseases (5).
All in all, interesting applications, aren’t they?
And since there are generally no downsides to expanding your food choices — particularly if that helps you stir away from sugar, lets talk about how you can get some more bitters into your diet.
There is one very common food that can provide bitter taste in your life. Can you guess which one? It is… COFFEE! Here we have to note that in order to benefit from the bitter taste, you need to actually taste the bitterness. That means you need to have your coffee black, with no sugar in order to benefit from it in this way. I realize coffee is not for everybody — including me. My body doesn’t handle caffeine well and it also triggers some of my autoimmune symptoms.
Incidentally, this whole bitter taste stimulation might be the reason why coffee provokes bowel movements in some people.
But even if you do drink black unsweetened coffee, you should consider adding a bitter tea to your rotation. Two of my personal favorites are dandelion tea and nettle tea. They are not too bitter so they can help retrain your tastebuds if you’re just learning to enjoy bitterness. Bitter teas like these have far reaching health benefits.
And, of course you can expand your use of bitter greens. Frisée, radicchio and endive are delicious in salads, whereas broccoli rabe, dandelion greens, escarole and mustard greens are all fantastic sautéed. Here’s a good introductory recipe for dandelion greens — which can be quite ahem, bitter, to the novice palate.
Lastly, there are powerful bitter tinctures and other herbal preparations, but those you should only try with the help of a knowledgeable professional.
OK! I hope I’ve made you curious about the bitter flavor. Now excuse me while I go make some of my new favorite tea: one third green tea, one third dandelion, one third nettle. Cheers!