Bitter Substances

Bitter compounds are powerful, all-natural plant chemicals. They help to deacidify the body, stimulate the digestive system, reduce cravings, and much more. But bitter things can also be poisonous. We describe how and which bitter substances you can consume. As a result of the fact that the proper bitter chemicals are extremely effective yet are becoming increasingly rare in modern nutrition.

Why you should take bitter substances regularly

When eating bitter-tasting foods, the vast majority of people grimace – they find the taste unpleasant and therefore avoid it. In order for originally bitter foods to remain marketable, the bitter substance content of many vegetables was reduced by breeding. This is because endive salad, radicchio, or chicory used to taste much more bitter – so they contained much more bitter substances at that time.

Flavor enhancers and sweeteners in food have also contributed to changing consumers’ taste perceptions. As a result, we mainly like salty and sweet foods, but we prefer to keep our hands off bitter ones.

Many medicinal plants, root and leafy vegetables, which contain a high proportion of bitter substances, have also largely disappeared from our plates and cups: for example, dandelion, plantain, yarrow and many other wild plants. Yes, many people no longer recognize these plants in nature. This is a pity because in this way they miss out on important protective and healing substances. Why you should make more use of bitter substances again and how you take them will be our topic below.

Harmful and healthy bitter substances: The difference

It’s no wonder that we grimace at bitter foods. Because the bitter taste once served as a warning signal against poisonous plants, which often taste very bitter. In children, this warning system is even more intense than in adults – they are particularly sensitive to bitter tastes. Their detoxification system is not yet well developed, so it makes more sense for them to spit out potentially dangerous things better and not swallow them in the first place.

However, there is a difference between the extreme bitterness of actually poisonous plants (which can lead to poisoning) and the moderate and desirable bitterness of plants that were once part of the everyday food crops (such as the wild plants mentioned above).

Then there are bitter plants that are healthy in small quantities – and are therefore used in this form as remedies – but would be inedible in larger quantities precisely because of their high bitter substance content, e.g. wormwood, gentian, centaury, etc.

The definition of bitter substances

The definition of bitter substances is quite simple: bitter substances are substances that taste bitter. The only thing these botanicals have in common is their bitter taste. This means that bitter substances can be completely different substances from different groups of substances. As soon as a substance tastes bitter, it may be called a bitter substance. For example, there are bitter substances among the flavonoids, polyphenols, terpenes, peptides, amino acids and alkaloids (2).

The effects of bitter substances

In the body, (edible) bitter substances do a lot of good. The positive effects of bitter substances on digestion have been best researched. In naturopathy, bitter substances have long been used to alleviate digestive problems, whether in Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine or even in Europe (gentian, wormwood, mugwort, etc.) (3). The main effects of bitter substances are the following:

  • stimulate digestion, promote the formation of digestive juices and support bile and liver functions.
  • regulate appetite and thus help you lose weight.
  • stop food cravings and thus support the exit from sugar addiction.
  • help with detoxification.
  • contribute to deacidification.
  • help fight Candida and regulate the intestinal flora.
  • contribute to the reduction of elevated cholesterol levels.
  • may improve the symptoms of histamine intolerance.

Bitter substances can therefore be an important component of any holistic therapy and prevention program. Although not all of the effects mentioned are scientifically proven, they are known from herbal medicine and empirical medicine. In recent years, bitter substances have become the focus of science, so further promising research results can be expected in the future. In the following, we present the current state of affairs in terms of bitter substances.

Bitter substances stimulate digestion

Bitter substances already begin to work in the mouth: When chewing, the bitter substances contained in food irritate the nerves on the tongue. As a result, the production of saliva is stimulated. The enzymes in the saliva now begin to break down the food – so they are already digesting it.

The stomach, in turn, already begins the production of gastric juice. As soon as the chewed food has reached the stomach, it can immediately start digesting. If, on the other hand, the food contains hardly any bitter substances, digestion takes longer.

The bitter taste stimulates not only the stomach but also the liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and intestines, which then begin to secrete digestive juices and digestive enzymes. The liver, for example, is supported in detoxification.

For this reason, bitter substances can help with many ailments such as flatulence, lack of stomach acid, constipation, and bloating, but also irritable bowel syndrome, gastritis, and even inflammatory bowel disease.

Digestive problems due to too few bitter substances

Too few bitter substances in the diet can lead to sluggish digestion and digestive problems, such as flatulence, stomach pain and heartburn (reflux), but also fatigue and sluggishness.

In addition, due to a poorly functioning digestive system, nutrients cannot be properly absorbed and utilized and toxins cannot be completely eliminated. The intestinal flora gets out of balance and pathogenic germs can get out of hand. The toxins are eventually deposited in the body and promote diseases – because digestion also influences all other bodily functions.

Complaints that are directly related to a poorly functioning digestive system are: chronic stomach or digestive problems, liver and gall bladder problems and problems with the pancreas. For example, it is assumed that a diet low in bitter substances is at least involved in many civilization and autoimmune diseases, such as obesity, allergies, diabetes and gastrointestinal diseases.

These diseases do not necessarily have to occur if too few bitter substances are ingested. However, if other factors are added, such as an overall low-fiber and low-nutrient diet with many sugar- and flour-rich foods, the risk increases.
If you have digestive problems, always remember that even the wrong posture on the toilet can cause discomfort. With the natural squatting posture, many digestive problems often resolve themselves.

Bitter substances from wormwood root in Crohn’s disease

Bitter substances can even be helpful in severe intestinal diseases such as Crohn’s disease: In a small study, 20 people with Crohn’s disease took three capsules of 250 mg wormwood powder twice a day for 10 weeks. The wormwood root is rich in a bitter substance called absinthin (7).

During these 10 weeks, the previous medications continued to be taken, with the exception of corticoids. The corticoids (e.g. cortisone), on the other hand, were slowly reduced and stopped taking from week 10.

In the wormwood group, 65% of the subjects had almost no symptoms after week 10. Even after the wormwood capsules were no longer taken, the effect persisted over the follow-up period of another 10 weeks, so the subjects no longer had to take corticoids during this time. In contrast, symptoms worsened after 10 weeks in 80% of people in the control group who took a placebo.

The wormwood capsules were the herbal preparation SedaCrohn® from the USA. However, the researchers pointed out that the wormwood capsules did not work at all in five patients – so the treatment is not successful for everyone.

Bitter substances for heartburn due to too little stomach acid

Among other things, heartburn is often attributed to too much stomach acid that flows into the esophagus and causes irritation there. What is less well known is that heartburn can apparently also occur due to too little stomach acid. The reason for this is apparently that the undigested food begins to ferment in the stomach, which can lead to a backlog in the esophagus.

In holistic medicine, bitter substances are used in this case, as they stimulate the production of gastric juice and can thus compensate for the lack of gastric acid. Causes of too little stomach acid can be, for example, treatment with stomach acid-inhibiting drugs ( acid blockers ), chronic gastritis or stress.

Bitter substances for heartburn due to too much stomach acid

In naturopathy, it is known that bitter substances support deacidification by stimulating certain glands in the digestive tract that contribute to the body’s base production. As a result, excess acids in the body are converted into bases, and excreted, and thus the acid-base balance is balanced.

However, opinions differ as to whether bitter substances should also be used specifically for heartburn, which occurs due to an excess of stomach acid. In some places, there are warnings about this, as the symptoms could worsen.

Especially when taking bitter substances for heartburn, it is therefore important to pay close attention to the body, because heartburn can be triggered by an excess but also by a lack of stomach acid. If your symptoms intensify after taking bitter substances, it is better to switch to other natural measures against heartburn.

Bitter substances in food cravings

Bitter substances can also help you lose weight because they regulate appetite, which is especially helpful for food cravings:

A study was able to show that bitter substances stimulate the release of a hormone called cholecystokinin in the gastrointestinal tract. Cholecystokinin inhibits appetite. This reaction has been important for humans in the course of evolution because poisonous plants often taste bitter. The hormone cholecystokinin signals the brain to stop eating and sets about neutralizing the toxins that may have made it into the digestive system (8).

So if you eat something bitter instead of sweet or salty the next time you have cravings, you will quickly notice that cravings will decrease in the long term. In addition, foods that contain bitter substances are usually healthier than sweet and salty snacks. This can be very helpful, especially for sugar addiction.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to go back to something bitter instead when you’re in the mood for sweet or salty. Keep in mind, however, that this will retrain your sense of taste and reduce cravings in the future. Because just as you can get used to the bitter taste of coffee and beer, you can do the same with other foods. This, in turn, benefits your health – see this as your motivation (24).

Bitter substances are also said to be helpful for fat digestion, because they stimulate the function of the liver and gallbladder. As a result, the liver produces more bile, which is responsible for fat digestion. In the gallbladder, bile is stored and passed into the duodenum when ingested. Fewer food cravings and better fat digestion can, in turn, lead to weight loss.

Bitter substances help with skin problems

Bitter substances also have an important function for the skin: Used externally, e.g. as a cream, they bind to bitter substance receptors of the skin, whereby proteins such as collagen are formed. These proteins play an important role in building the skin barrier. Furthermore, the bitter substances stimulate the formation of lipids. Lipids are fatty substances that protect the skin from environmental influences and dehydration. If the skin barrier is damaged, this promotes infections, which in turn can lead to acne and neurodermatitis (1) (9).

In addition, bitter substances also showed anti-inflammatory properties when applied externally: In studies on cells, they inhibited the production of the inflammatory marker TNF-alpha. This could have a major impact on the treatment of inflammatory skin diseases, such as psoriasis (10) (11).

The bitter substances examined were salicin from willow bark and amarogentin, a substance from gentian root. Amarogentin is considered one of the most bitter substances found in nature.

Not all bitter substances are the same

In herbal medicine, the bitter substances are divided into various bitter agents, so-called amara (Latin for bitter), according to their mode of action:

  • Amara tonica: The bitter substances from these plants are pure bitter substances (the difference only becomes clear in comparison to the other categories). For example yellow gentian, centaury
  • Amara aromatica: These include plants that, in addition to the bitter substances, also contain a lot of essential oil, which also contributes to the effect. For example angelica, yarrow, wormwood
  • Amara acria: In addition to bitter substances, these plants also contain pungent substances. For example ginger, galangal, cardamom
  • Other plants: Of course, many other plants also contain bitter substances. Since this classification according to Amara goes back to the Middle Ages (but is still used in naturopathy today), other bitter substance plants are often listed separately. For example dandelion, milk thistle, turmeric

Amara are also called bitter substance drugs. Compared to other plants containing bitter substances, such as arugula, they are not consumed in large quantities because they simply taste too bitter and can also have side effects in larger quantities. In small quantities, however, they are enormously healing and are therefore used in bitter preparations or teas. In the next paragraph, you will find some of these Amara in comparison.

Bitter values of medicinal plants in comparison

The following medicinal plants are among the best suppliers of bitter substances. How bitter plants or substances taste is determined by the bitter value. The bitterness of the taste increases with a higher bitterness value:

  • Medicinal plants/estimation of bitter levels
  • Gentian root: 10,000 – 25,000
  • Wormwood: 10,000 – 25,000
  • Devil’s Claw Root: 5,000 – 15,000
  • Artichoke leaves: 5,000 – 15,000
  • Fever clover leaves: 4,000 – 10,000
  • Centaury: 2,000 – 10,000
  • Horehoundwort: 3,000
  • Benedictine herb: 1000 – 2500
  • Cinchona bark: 1000 – 2500
  • Dandelion root: > 100

Furthermore, the following medicinal plants are rich in bitter substances (but there are no bitter values):

  • Mugwort herb
  • Bitter ribbon flower
  • Milk thistle
  • Yarrow
  • Galangal
  • Angelica (also called angelica root)

These foods contain bitter substances

In addition to the amara, vegetables, fruits and herbs also contain bitter substances – but in smaller quantities, as some of the bitter substances have been bred out.

Bitter substances in vegetables and fruits

The following fruits and vegetables contain bitter substances:

  • Sugarloaf Mountain (a winter salad, Cichorium intybus var. foliosum, which is related to the chicory and radicchio, but looks more like a mixture of Chinese cabbage and romaine lettuce)
  • Cultivated dandelion
  • Chicory
  • Radicchio
  • Endive
  • Rocket
  • Cabbage vegetables, e.g. Brussels sprouts, kale, etc.
  • Olives
  • Grapefruit
  • Pomelo

Bitter substances are sensitive to heat, which can affect the bitterness content of food. In order to benefit from the bitter substances in the best possible way, these foods should therefore be eaten raw or only steamed briefly. In our library, you will find a few delicious recipes with which you can easily include bitter substances in your diet!

Bitter substances in herbs and spices

The following herbs and spices contain bitter substances, but are usually only used in small quantities for cooking:

  • Parsley
  • Coriander
  • Oregano
  • Peppermint
  • Sage
  • Lavender
  • Turmeric
  • Black cumin
  • Cardamom
  • Ginger
  • Cinnamon
  • Mustard seed
  • Pepper

Bitter substances in tea

Many medicinal plants, herbs and other plants rich in bitter substances can be used as tea: for example, artichoke leaves, angelica, wormwood, centaury, dandelion or gentian root.

Ready-made tea blends from these medicinal plants can be bought in stores. Of course, you can also pick the plants yourself or plant them in the garden.

Green tea also contains bitter substances and gastrointestinal tea is also often made from plants rich in bitter substances. However, when buying tea, you should always make sure that it does not contain sugar, sweeteners, artificial flavors or other additives. In the meantime, bitter substances have become so popular that there are even bitter substance teas to buy.

To ensure that the bitter substances are not lost through the heat, they should only be infused with hot water for preparation as tea, but not boiled in hot water. Then you should not let the tea steep for more than 10 minutes.

Bitter substances in coffee

Probably the best-known bitter substance in coffee is caffeine – the drink also contains many other bitter substances that influence the taste, e.g. mozambioside, caféstol and kahweol. The content of bitter substances in coffee, in turn, differs according to coffee beans and roasting.

Many people like to drink a coffee or espresso after meals because of the digestive stimulating effect – others react sensitively to coffee, which can then manifest itself in diarrhea or stomach pain, for example.

Whether the positive or negative effects on health outweigh the negative effects of coffee consumption is generally controversial in research. In 2019, for example, a study was published that showed that caffeine harms the joints. So it’s probably not a good idea to drink a lot of coffee to get some bitter substances.

Bitter substances in alcoholic beverages

However, it is undisputed that alcohol is harmful to health. Nevertheless, many people swear by the digestive effects of alcohol and drink, for example, a glass of wine with a meal or a digestive liquor afterward.

In fact, certain alcoholic beverages contain bitter substances: hops in beer, tannins in red wine and a wide variety of bitter substances in herbal liqueurs. However, a small study at the University of Zurich with 20 subjects showed that the more alcohol the subjects drank, the worse digestion worked (28).

Alcoholic beverages should also not be used for the intake of bitter substances. However, many bitter substance preparations contain alcohol as a solvent. Doesn’t the alcohol also have a negative effect on digestion? No, because, unlike alcoholic beverages, the bitter substances in preparations are much more concentrated, so you only consume a few drops of them.

Beware of bitter substances from these vegetables

However, it is not without reason that the bitter substances from some vegetables have been bred out: certain bitter substances can have a toxic effect. For example, the bitter substances from zucchini and pumpkin or the solanine from potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant (22).

Cucurbitacins are the name given to the bitter substances in cucurbits (zucchini, pumpkin, cucumber, melon): therefore, test a small piece of the raw vegetable before preparation. Avoid eating anything that tastes bitter.

The bitter substance solanine can be found in potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants. You can prevent solanine formation by storing potatoes in a cool, dark and dry place and generously removing green spots and germs before cooking. As a rule of thumb: Stop eating potatoes with germs that are over 1 cm long. Allow unripe tomatoes and aubergines to ripen, cut out the base of the stem.

Cucurbitacins and solanine have been bred out of supermarket vegetables, but stress factors such as heat and drought are said to be able to cause plants to fall back into old patterns and suddenly form bitter substances again. If hobby gardeners use their own seeds, the cucurbitacins can also reappear through spontaneous mutation or crossing with ornamental pumpkins. This risk can be reduced by not growing ornamental pumpkins near edible pumpkins (19).

Even a slightly bitter taste can be harmful here!

If the zucchini, pumpkin or cucumber taste bitter, you should not continue to eat them under any circumstances – because even a slightly bitter taste already indicates cucurbitacins in these vegetables. Even very small amounts can result in nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. At levels of 1 mg per kg of body weight, the cucurbitacins can cause death.

The solanine in potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants can lead to nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, cardiac arrhythmias and cramps from 1 mg per kg body weight. The lethal dose is 400 mg, which, depending on the solanine content, would correspond to several kilograms of potatoes (with skin).

Taking bitter substances: capsules or powder?

When it comes to the ingestion of bitter substances, this does not mean cucurbitacins or solanine, but the amara mentioned above. These are also available in the form of drops, powders, juices and capsules. A high-quality bitter supplement usually includes various types of plants containing bitter substances, for example, gentian, centaury, yarrow, dandelion, etc.

Until a few years ago, it was still believed that bitter substances had to be taken in such a way that they could work directly in the mouth. Capsules were discouraged. In the meantime, however, it is known that bitter substance receptors occur not only in the mouth but throughout the body, i.e. also in the stomach, intestines, even the brain, lungs, and skin. Bitter substances can therefore also be taken in capsule form, which is especially important for those people who cannot make friends with the bitter taste. Cravings, however, disappear faster if you let the bitter substances work in the mouth.

It is also interesting to note that there are 25 taste receptors for bitter tastes, while there are only 3 for sweet tastes. On the one hand, this is probably due to the warning effect described above, so that poisonous plants are quickly detected (4).

On the other hand, bitter plant substances also seem to be of such great importance for the body that it wants to benefit from their effects in the best possible way. This is because when a bitter substance docks onto a receptor, a whole signaling cascade is triggered, which can have completely different effects – depending on where in the body the receptor is located. However, science is still in its infancy when it comes to researching these complex reactions.

What preparations are available?

Below we compare the different supplements that contain bitter substances:

Bitter substances in liquid form

Bitter substances are most often offered in liquid form, for example as a concentrate with a drop applicator or pipette, as a spray or as a herbal elixir. Liquid products offer the advantage that their effect already occurs when they come into contact with the bitter substance receptors in the mouth.

In liquid form, the bitter substances are often dissolved in alcohol, but there are also products without alcohol. Also make sure that there are no artificial flavors, sugars, sweeteners or other additives – this information is in the synopsis.

For some, the bitter taste is a bit disturbing at the beginning. After a few doses, however, you get used to it, and the taste buds are retrained – away from sweet and salty, to bitter.

If you can’t get used to the taste at all, you could dilute the bitter substances with a little water at the beginning and then reduce the amount of water further and further in order to approach it slowly. Then the aversion to bitter substances will soon be a thing of the past. Another option is bitter substance capsules.

Bitter substances in capsules

Bitter capsules make it easier for people who want to avoid the bitter taste to take them. In the past, it was believed that bitter substances had to work in the mouth since bitter receptors were only present there. However, since corresponding receptors have now also been found in the rest of the gastrointestinal tract, nothing stands in the way of taking capsules. The oral mucosa and thus the bitter taste is bypassed, but the bitter substances still work, namely via the receptors in the stomach and intestines. Again, make sure that the capsules do not contain any additives such as fillers or release agents.

Bitter substances as powders

Bitter substances in powder form are the most natural, simplest and, in our opinion, the best form of bitter substances. It is optimal if you simply take a quarter of a teaspoon of it directly into your mouth – pure and without water. Saliva formation sets in quickly. Allow the bitter substances to soak in and swallow them after 1 to 3 minutes. Initially, the powder tastes very bitter. Stay strong and on the ball! After just a few intakes, you will notice how you get used to it – and at some point, you will love the bitter taste.

Of course, you can also incorporate the bitter powder into your diet if the bitter effect is not too strong for you, e.g. in smoothies, muesli or salad dressings.

Taking bitter substances correctly

In order for the bitter substances to have a positive effect on digestion, they are taken before or after eating: If they are taken 10 to 30 minutes before eating, they optimally prepare the digestive system for food processing; After eating, they help with bloating, flatulence or abdominal pain, so that you quickly feel active again and less exhausted.

Take the indicated amount of the liquid bitter substances (e.g. 25 drops, 5 sprays or one tablespoon) three times a day before or after eating. Keep the liquid in your mouth for about one to two minutes so that the bitter substances can already be absorbed through the oral mucosa.

When taking them, keep in mind that the bitter substances only have the effect on satiety described above if they are taken before eating.

You should also take the capsules three times a day – preferably with a glass of water before eating because their effect unfolds more slowly than that of the liquid products.

In the case of powders, it is best to dose the indicated dose with a spoon. Before you add the powder to the smoothie or muesli, you should test how bitter the powder tastes. You may not want to add the entire daily dose but divide the dose into several meals. Then you could, for example, add some powder to your cereal in the morning, a little to the smoothie at lunchtime, and a little to the salad dressing in the evening.

Bitter substance products differ according to the plants they contain, so the dosages given may differ. Therefore, read the recommendations for use on the products.

The bitter substance cure

Bitter substance preparations are suitable as home remedies for occasional intake, e.g., in case of a feeling of fullness after a hearty meal. Of course, it would be better here if you first took the bitter substances before eating, so that more digestive juices are formed in advance. Secondly, it would make sense to design the diet in such a way or to eat so slowly and chew so thoroughly that the meals cannot lead to feelings of fullness.

Even if digestive problems persist, bitter substance preparations can be integrated into the therapy – e.g. in the form of a bitter substance cure. To do this, take bitter substances up to three times a day for four weeks – a few minutes before meals. You can also extend the treatment if you wish. Who knows, maybe you don’t want to miss out on your daily dose of bitter substances and also get the desire to incorporate more bitter vegetables into your diet again.

When does the effect of bitter substances occur?

When the effect of the bitter substances occurs or when you notice something about it is of course very individual: Some people feel an improvement after the first intake, e.g. because the feeling of fullness after eating is absent or because you simply feel lighter and more alert.

Other people may only notice a change after a few weeks of regular use – depending on the condition of their own digestive system and the symptoms.

Side effects of bitter substances

Since bitter substances stimulate the digestive organs, which then work more efficiently, some people may experience a detoxification reaction, e.g. in the form of headaches, but this usually passes after a few days.

In sensitive individuals, bitter plant substances can have a laxative effect at the beginning or lead to abdominal pain and nausea. As described above, the body is no longer used to bitter substances and has to get used to them again. Therefore, slowly approach the dose that is good for you.

Bitter substances should also not be taken for stomach ulcers, duodenal ulcers, gallstones and an over-acidified stomach, as they stimulate the formation of gastric acid, which could worsen the symptoms.

Drug interactions

Since there are a wide variety of bitter substances, interactions with drugs cannot be ruled out. The bitter substances called naringin and furanocoumarin, for example, which are found in grapefruits and pomelo, are not compatible with some medications. For this reason, many medication leaflets warn of grapefruit interactions.

Bitter substance products also sometimes contain bitter plant substances from pomelo. To be on the safe side, these bitter substances should therefore not be taken with the contraceptive pill, calcium channel blockers or statins, because they could increase or weaken the effect of the drugs.

You can avoid these bitter substances by making sure that no citrus fruits are contained when choosing your product. However, interactions with other bitter substances cannot be ruled out – but the same risk is also taken when eating vegetables and fruits, as most interactions are still unknown today.

If you have any digestive issues – talk to us and we might be able to help 🙂

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