You’ve got your savory vegetables, roasted meats, smooth & buttery starches, sweet & decadent desserts... but is bitterness represented at your holiday table? We should mention we’re referring to bitter taste, for that might change your answer. If the answer is no, we don’t blame you! Why choose to add something bitter to your meal? We think it’s important to enjoy amazing, satisfying, and comforting foods during the holiday season, but discomfort and drowsiness can come after the indulgence. Adding something simple like a few drops of a bitter herbal mixture before your meal may decrease your discomfort, making your feast more enjoyable for your mouth, gut, AND metabolism.
The physiology behind bitter: level 1
We can be so turned off to bitter taste for a good reason: identifying bitterness has helped us to recognize toxic and spoiled foods for as long as we’ve existed. However, there are a lot of highly nutritious and non-toxic foods that are bitter, like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. These all contain one of the main naturally occurring bitter compounds found in foods: “isothiocyanates” (ice-o-thigh-o-sigh-uh-nates). Some herbs, appropriately named “bitters”, also contain these and other bitter compounds. But non-toxic bitters don’t simply exist to make food a little less palatable, they actually help your metabolism.
You won’t be surprised to hear that there are taste receptors for bitterness in your mouth. There are bitter taste receptors on taste buds on your tongue and on the palate (roof) of your mouth (1,2). What might be surprising is that these bitter taste receptors are also found in the intestines (aka the gut) (1,2). All bitter taste receptors are called “type 2 family taste receptors” (T2Rs, for short), and they influence different things that control your digestion, including hormones related to metabolism. This is in contrast to the “type 1 family taste receptors” (T1Rs, for short) which allow you to taste carbohydrates (sugars), proteins, and umami (2).
The physiology behind bitter: level 2
We’ve made a helpful little infographic which we hope will help you navigate and conquer level 2. Let’s begin: When bitterness is detected by T2Rs (remember, these are your bitter taste receptors) in the gut, there is an increase in the hormone which makes you hungry (1,2). This hormone is called “ghrelin” (greh-lin)--think hungry gremlins. The effect is that bitters increase your appetite, preparing you for the meal ahead.
Bitters then improve digestion during your meal by increasing another hormone, cholecystokinin (coal-e-sis-toe-ky-nin) or CCK (1). CCK aids in fat and protein digestion (by releasing bile and digestive enzymes). Furthermore, CCK keeps food in the stomach for longer, which tells your brain that you’re full and satisfied from your meal, preventing you from eating too much.
To summarize what we have so far: bitters taken before a meal 1) increase your appetite for the meal ahead, 2) improve digestion of your meal, and 3) enhance the sensation of fullness so that you can avoid feeling “stuffed” after your meal.
The physiology behind bitter: level 3
Did you start reading this blog for a solution to post-holiday meal discomfort? Perhaps now you’re seeing that the benefits of pre-meal bitters could be helpful long-term. If so, let’s kick it up one more metabolic-notch. We know how bitters support digestion, but do they play a role in the metabolism of what we ate (aka, the body turning our food into usable energy like blood sugar, “glucose”)? Research is finding that they do.
Just like there are many different types of, say, televisions, there are many different “types” of T2Rs. Different T2Rs in the gut are correlated with differences in the body’s ability to control blood sugar levels, development of obesity, and risk for diabetes (2). Furthermore, your gut will have a mix of T2Rs (bitter) and T1Rs (sweet). Currently, the thought is that we inherit the types of T2Rs and T1Rs in our gut from our parents which then influences our food preferences (2). Basically, if our gut’s taste receptors prefer simple sugars (overabundance of T1Rs), we eat more simple sugars. Okay, so does that mean we’re at the mercy of our sugar-loving gut which we inherited from our sugar-loving parents?
Luckily, research is discovering that in addition to your inherited types of T2Rs and T1Rs, there can be a change in the amount of each in the gut based on stimulation, aka, based on what you decide to eat (2). This is a big deal. This means by eating more bitter-tasting things, you can train your gut to have more bitter-detecting T2Rs. This increase in T2Rs influences your food preferences towards more bitter-tasting things and away from sweeter-tasting things.
Let’s summarize again: working bitters into more of a daily routine may support your body’s ability to control blood sugar levels and could decrease risk for disease by influencing the taste receptors in your gut, what you crave, and what you eat.
The bitters we love!
Dr. Froehlich’s Favorite Store-Bought Bitters
Gentian or yarrow tincture
Dr. Naman’s Favorite Store-Bought Bitters
Swedish bitters by NatureWorks
We offer access to exclusive practitioner quality bitters (and other herbs and supplements) to our clients. Make your appointment today!
Favorite bitter herbs and foods:
Cabbage (green or red), broccoli, brussel sprouts, endives, kale, dandelion greens, green tea
Bitters are perceived by receptors in the mouth and throughout the gut. Taken before a meal, bitters increase appetite, support efficient digestion & optimal digestive metabolism, and facilitate a feeling of fullness and satiety. Bitters may also support better blood sugar control, and with continual use, may play a role in a feedback loop that shifts dietary preferences. Essentially… eating bitter = eating better!
Are you curious about how bitters can aid in improving your health? This is something that our doctors are happy to discuss with their clients as one of many possible recommendations, of course, depending on your individual concerns and needs.
Call us at 732-704-4877 if you’re interested in learning more about how our doctors can help you improve your health naturally!
1. Raka, Fitore, et al. "Metabolic control via nutrient-sensing mechanisms: role of taste receptors and the gut-brain neuroendocrine axis." Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab, vol. 317, 16 July 2019, pp. E559-E572.