by Gary Gran, CYT, DAy.
“That sure was a bitter pill to swallow,” said the man who had just been turned down for a transfer.
“Yes, but it’s no reason to become cynical,” said his friend. “Try to think of it as a reality check. Did you really think that requesting a transfer was a good idea to begin with?”
“Well, I guess you’re right. It was kind of a pie in the sky notion, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, I think this way you’ll be better off in the long run.”
There is a saying in ayurveda that “bitter is better”. The bitter taste, whether from a food, an herb or an experience, has a strong clearing and cleansing effect. The resulting purification can leave a person better able to perceive reality. Let’s explore the ramifications of this saying by studying what the Ayurvedic texts have to say.
The sage Atreya, in the classic text called Vagbhata Hridaya (VH), tells us that bitter taste originates from the elements ether and air. Ether is cold, dry, light and subtle. Air is also cold, dry, light and subtle, but also reducing, moving and dispersing. Together, they create the image of wind (air) moving through space (ether). Students of ayurveda will recognize this as the image of vata, one of the three doshas. Therefore, bitter taste will strongly increase vata dosha. Or to put it another way, bitter taste has a strongly cooling, drying, reducing, moving and dispersing effect.
“The bitter taste clears one’s palate and inhibits one’s sense of taste” (VH 1.10.4). Bitter taste is first experienced in the mouth and is said to overpower or correct all the other tastes. This makes bitter taste one of our best sources of medicine. When we say that bitter corrects the other tastes, we are saying that bitter corrects the effects of over-doing the other tastes. For example, if you have been over-indulging in sweets you may be feeling a bit heavy, dull and slow. You can lay off the sweets and take some bitter herbs instead to clean out.
“The bitter taste is unpleasant on its own” (VH1.10.14). Let’s just say that bitter is an acquired taste and one that is often lacking in the average diet. The most common bitters are salad greens like endive or radicchio. Coffee can also be bitter. That’s probably why it is not always taken “on its own” but combined with cream and sugar.
“It overcomes a loss of appetite” (VH1.10.14). Another common use of bitters is as an aperitif. Digestive bitters are popular in liquid form. There are various recipes which usually include bitter herbs and roots like gentian. The theory is that the bitter taste strongly stimulates the tongue and causes the digestive system to counter or react by releasing digestive juices. Try a few drops on the tongue or mixed with water about 10 minutes before eating.
“It overcomes worms (bacteria, parasites, etc) and poisoning” (VH1.10.15). As medicine, bitter herbs can be strongly anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-parasitical due to their strong drying effect. The strategy is to dry out the environment within which the microbes are living, making it a less hospitable place. And bitters can counter-act many poisons and environmental toxins as well. We can think of bitters as strongly anti-fire and toxins as toxic fire.
It can be noted that most modern pharmaceutical medicines are extremely bitter, a sign of their strong medicinal action, and also a sign of their potential side effects.
Depending on one’s constitution, bitter taste should not necessarily be taken “on its own”. Often pungent and sweet herbs are added to bitter herbs to provide some heat and moisture respectively. Vata types (cold, dry, thin, nervous) need to be most careful. Pitta types (hot, oily, wiry, inflamed) don’t need to add heat. Kapha types (cold, damp, heavy, congested) don’t need to add moisture.
“Bitter taste overcomes skin disease, fever, burning sensations and pitta” (VH1.10.15). Pitta is the combination of fire and water and is usually recognized by heat symptoms and conditions such as skin diseases (the burning, irritated, red kinds), fever and burning sensations in general. Bitter taste is the strongest of the cooling tastes (the other two being sweet and astringent) and therefore the best when a medicinal corrective anti-fire action is needed. Bitter herbs that help clear the skin are known as alteratives or blood purifiers.
“Bitter taste overcomes fainting, nausea and kapha. It dries up moisture, fat, grease, marrow, faeces and urine. It is light (easily digestible) and increases intelligence. It is cold, dry and clears the throat and breastmilk” (VH1.10.16) This verse tells us that bitter taste is corrective to kapha conditions (cold, damp, heavy, sluggish, dull, slow, congested). It does this by virtue of its drying and reducing power. Please note that bitter is cold just like kapha. For this reason, as stated above, bitter and pungent herbs are often combined to correct kapha imbalances. Also note that bitter taste “increases intelligence.” Due to its subtle and clearing qualities, bitter taste can help clear the mind. Most of the herbs used to support mental function have a strong bitter component.
“If it is used too much, it makes the body tissues shrivel, and causes diseases of the wind” (VH1.10.16). Because of its strong cooling, drying and reducing effects, bitter taste can easily aggravate vata (“wind”) which shares the same qualities. This is according to the basic principle that like increases like. Typical vata disorders are constipation, dry skin, emaciation, palpitations, nervous twitches, shooting pains, dizziness and a scattered mind.
To summarize, bitter is an excellent corrective for pitta and kapha types and should be encouraged in the diet and as medicine. Vatas can use small portions of bitter but must be very careful to mix and balance the bitter taste with other tastes.
Some herbs are almost completely bitter in taste. They are considered to have the strongest action. Others have secondary tastes which makes them more palatable and balanced in their action. There are some special herbs that exhibit a combination of 4 or 5 tastes which makes their harmonizing and healing potential the greatest in and of themselves. Single, double and triple taste herbs can be combined to provide a more balanced action.
Because of the balancing action of multiple tastes, it is not recommended to extract the most medicinal compound from an herb or food to make a medicine as is routinely done in modern medicine. The idea of isolating the active principle may increase the action of the medicine, but also may increase undesirable side effects. Most herbalists feel it is better to go with nature. The natural compounds which bind together with the active principles are there for good reason. The action may be slower but it will be safer.
Single taste bitter herbs include bhringaraj, blessed thistle, cascara sagrada, chaparral, chicory, chiretta, eyebright, gentian, gotu kola, gymnema, jasmine, neem, nettles, oregon grape, passion flower, pau d’arco, pokeroot, rhubarb root, senna, skullcap, usnea, vervain and willow bark.
Bitter herbs with a secondary sweet taste include blue cohosh, chickweed, chrysanthemum, dandelion, honeysuckle, manjishta, milk thistle, red clover, sarsaparilla and wild yam. The secondary sweet taste makes these herbs better choices for vata and pitta types.
Bitter herbs with a secondary pungent taste include andrographis, barberry, black cohosh, boswellia, bupleurum, burdock, calendula, chamomile, cilantro, coriander, cumin, dill, echinacea, elder flowers, eupatorium, forsythia, guduchi, hops, horehound, hyssop, motherwort, myrrh, osha, picrorrhiza, rue, St. John’s wort, tansy, tarragon, thuja, tulsi, turmeric and vitex. The secondary pungent taste makes these herbs better choices for vata and kapha types.
Bitter herbs with a secondary astringent taste include crampbark, devil’s claw, ginkgo, goldenseal, peony, self-heal, tea, wild cherry and yellow dock. The secondary astringent taste makes these herbs better choices for kapha types.
Good digestive bitters are barberry, cilantro, coriander, cumin, dill, gentian and tarragon.
When an alterative or blood cleansing action is needed choose from barberry, burdock, chaparral, chickweed, chicory, chrysanthemum, dandelion, forsythia, gentian, goldenseal, gotu kola, honeysuckle, manjishta, neem, nettles, oregon grape, pau d’arco, pokeroot, red clover, sarsaparilla, self-heal, turmeric and yellow dock.
Good women’s herbs for cleansing the blood and balancing the menstrual cycle and hormones are black cohosh, blessed thistle, blue cohosh, chamomile, crampbark, dandelion, jasmine, motherwort, myrrh, peony, red clover, rue, tansy, turmeric, vitex and wild yam.
For antibiotic action, choose from andrographis, chiretta, echinacea, forsythia, goldenseal, honeysuckle, oregon grape, osha, pau d’arco, picrorrhiza, tulsi and usnea.
For anti-viral action, choose from chiretta, echinacea, elder, goldenseal, honeysuckle, hyssop, osha, St. John’s wort and thuja.
Neem and barberry are anti-parasitical and pau d’arco and usnea are anti-fungal.
For colds and flus choose from these bitter herbs: andrographis, chiretta, echinacea, elder, eupatorium, forsythia, goldenseal, honeysuckle, horehound, hyssop, myrrh, oregon grape, osha, poke, st. john’s wort, thuja, tulsi, usnea and willow bark.
Gymnema is known as gurmar or sugar destroyer as it blocks the sweet taste. It is an excellent tonic for diabetics as it helps control blood sugar.
Good anti-inflammatory bitters are bhringaraj, boswellia, bupleurum, chiretta, devil’s claw, eyebright, gentian, guduchi, honeysuckle, myrrh and turmeric.
Good bitters for the liver are barberry, bupleurum, burdock, chrysanthemum, dandelion, eclipta, milk thistle, neem, sarsaparilla and turmeric.
For a laxative or purgative action, choose cascara sagrada, rhubarb and/or senna. Please note that bitter laxatives are habit forming and only recommended for occasional use.
Several bitters have special action on the nerves and the mind. They include chamomile, chrysanthemum, gotu kola, ginkgo, jasmine, passion flower, skullcap, tea and tulsi.
Some bitter herbs are favored for food use. Coriander, cumin and turmeric are used in masala for their balancing and flavoring action. Cilantro, dill and tarragon are used as potherbs. Burdock root, chicory, dandelion and nettles are used as vegetables.
Other foods which have some bitter taste include artichoke, arugala, bitter gourd, bitter melon, bok choy, brocolli, brussels sprouts, coffee, collards, cress, cucumber, eggplant, endive, escarole, kale, lettuce, mesclun mix, parsley and radicchio.
Addendum: Here is a translation from the “Charak Samhita” 1.26.43 concerning bitterness for further study and comparison: “Drugs and diets having bitter taste are by themselves not delicious but when added with other things they promote deliciousness. They are antitoxic and germicidal. They cure fainting, burning sensation, itching, obstinate skin diseases...and fever. They promote firmness of the skin and muscles. They promote carmination and digestion, purify milk, cause drying and help in the depletion of moisture, fat, muscle-fat, marrow, lymph, pus, sweat, urine, stool, pitta and kapha. They are rough, cold and light.
In spite of all these good qualities, if used singly and excessively, by virtue of their roughness, coarseness and non-sliminess they deplete the plasma, blood, muscle, fat, marrow and reproductive fluids. They produce roughness in the circulatory channels, reduce strength, cause emaciation, weariness, mental confusion, giddiness, dryness of mouth and produce other diseases due to the vitiation of vata.”
References for further study: “The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from the Ayurvedic Classics” by Dominik Wujastyk, “Charak Samhita” by Charak, “Ashtangahrdaya or Heart of Medicine” by Vagbhata, “The Yoga of Herbs” by David Frawley and Vasant Lad