In the early history of hunters and gatherers, food consisted mainly of bitter root vegetables, wild plants, leaves, and fruits. Wild foraging contributed to a healthy life, focused on physical performance. These early diets consisted of more natural bitter substances, which we know today stimulates the digestive system, strengthens organs, and helps detoxify the body.
Bitter, a Long Tradition in Herbal Medicine
Bitter tasting medicinal herbs play prominently in ancient health traditions such as Ayurveda. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460 to 360 B.C.) left record that 31 of the 260 medicines he used contained bitter substances. He prescribed them as a preventive measure for various health conditions.
Later, Hildegard von Bingen (1098 to 1179) directed her exploration of Monastic Medicine on bitter herbs. Similarly, Paracelsus (1493 to 1541) devised his famous “Elixir ad longam Vitam” (Elixer of Long Life) using a combination of several bitter herbs, including aloe, galangal and gentian root.
In the Middle Ages, the Elixer of Long Life became ubiquitous, and often was adapted and sold by pharmacists using slight variations on the original formula. The Swedish physician, Dr. Urban Hjärne (1641 to 1724) created a prototype in the 17th century, which ultimately became known as the famous Swedish Bitter. Swedish Bitter is a mixture of aloe, myrrh, senna leaves, camphor, rhubarb root, citrus root and angelica root.
With the advent of modern cellular medicine, and the accompanying dismissal of pre-modern medicine, the importance of bitter substances in healing declined through the 20th century.
Bitters became known only as aperitifs (pre-dinner drinks) to balance the appetite and stimulate digestion. More broadly, bitters were intentionally bred-out of vegetables in order to appeal to a universal palate with a growing appreciation for mild flavors.
Particularly in Germany, the start of the new millennium marked a new appreciation for bitter flavors. The discovery of our bitter taste receptors on the tongue and in the intestines marked a nascent renaissance of bitter foods, causing more health practitioners to pay attention.
Bitter Flavors in Nature
Generally, medicinal plants with bitter substances get classified as “Amara”, reflecting consistent qualities of bitter content and gastrointestinal stimulation. Today, we know of about 250 bitter-tasting medicinal plants.
Once considered the king of bitter herbs, Gentiana lutea ranks among the most bitter tasting plants. The roots of the yellow gentian contain amarogentin (0.02 to 0.04 %), which preserves a perceptibly bitter flavor up to a dilution of 1: 58,000,000. We’ve recorded more bitter foods and bitter herbs in our related posts, 17 Bitter Foods or 18 Bitter Healing Plants and Herbs.
The Discovery of Bitter Receptors
Although bitter substances have a long tradition as digestives, little was known about the physiology of taste until the end of the last century. It was only known that the function of taste concentrated on the tongue and in the mouth.
In 2010 an American research group showed that bitter substance receptors also form in the airways. Since then, increasing medical research has demonstrated the presence of bitter substance receptors beyond the upper digestive tract to the entire gastrointestinal tract and in almost all other organs outside the intestine.
Detection of Bitter Substance Receptors in the Epidermis (Skin)
In 2015, bitter substance receptors were first detected in the human epidermis. Bitter plant substances, such as amarogentin from yellow gentian, were shown to bind to bitter taste receptors located in the epidermis, where beneficial properties were released and processed.
The path for bitters unfolds on the skin, leading to the production of proteins such as keratin-10, which plays an important role in the development of a healthy skin barrier. Indications also show that bitter substances stimulate the synthesis of skin lipids, also contributing to the essential synthesis of our skin barrier.
Anti-aging Effects of Botanical Bitter Substances
Bitter substances stimulate the production of lipids and protective proteins in the skin. And, as we age, the intensity of our bitter substance receptors evolves. Studies show that the skin develops more bitter receptors as it ages in order to counterbalance the thinning outer layer of skin.
The increased formation of bitter substance receptors in the skin allows for the efficient use of bitter properties contained in food. The combination of bitters with bitter receptors found on the skin, leads to greater surface metabolism and a strengthened skin barrier. The skin continues a healthy regenerating process, resulting in natural anti-aging effects.
Bitter Substances for Skin Care
Ingesting bitter flavors contributes to efficient metabolism, and ultimately healthy skin. Similarly, the topical application of bitters to the skin, binds to the receptors of the epidermis. As a result, bitter substances applied topically help to treat the effects of aging and dry skin.
These discoveries go beyond our basic understanding of the use of bitters in digestion. We enter an entirely new and interesting space including bitters as active ingredients in cremes and lotions for skin care.
Bitter Substances for Skin and Health
The bitter substances contained in certain edible plants (see vegetables, or healing herbs) stimulate the secretion of digestive juices, especially bile flow. Bile gets produced in the liver, which is known as the primary organ for detoxification. The liver contributes to breaking-down those chemicals, drugs, and hormones the body no longer needs. Bitter substances promote a healthy liver, a basic requirement for a healthy and beautiful skin.
This includes extracts of yellow gentian, the active ingredients of which naturally fortifies medicinal plants schisandra, willow bark and liquorice.
The glycyrrhetinic acid contained in the liquorice root soothes sensitive skin prone to redness. Willow bark contains polyphenols (tannins, flavonoids), salicylic acid and salicin, which refresh and help clear the skin. Schisandra extract has an antioxidant effect, protecting connective tissue and soothing the skin with natural moisturising properties.