Digestive bitters and bitter herbs have played an active role to help balance appetite since antiquity. But, what does the balance of appetite really mean? And, if bitter herbs also serve to stimulate appetite, why have monks and nuns relied on bitters to support their fasting regimen?
The internet is full of lists showing the benefits of bitters. Bitters are known to stem sugar cravings, balance appetite, promote cleansing, strengthen the liver, and moderate digestion. Among all of these lists, it’s the subject of appetite that seems to get garbled.
Bitter Herbs actually do both: Promote and Curb Appetite
When it comes to appetite the matter of bitters seems unresolved. Do digestive bitters stimulate appetite, or do they suppress appetite? This happens to be a rare case where the real answer seems to actually be that they do both.
Bitter Herbs Dual Impact on Appetite
In traditional German herbal medicine bitter herbs are generally known to stimulate appetite and improve digestion. The before-dinner drink, or aperitif, using bitter herbs had its origin in the Roman practice of drinking wine with bitter herbs, to help process food with maximum efficiency and counteract the effects of overeating.
Modern science reveals that bitters promote appetite in the short-term, typically within 30 minutes after consuming bitters. However, in the long-term, typically around 4 hours, bitters preserve a feeling of fullness.
The net effect of consuming bitters before eating is a reduction in food intake. In mice studied, those who consumed bitters before eating showed a 49% lower food intake, as compared to mice without bitters.
The Dual Effects of Bitters on the Body
Modern studies focus on the interaction of bitters on both: (i) our taste buds; and (ii) our gastrointestinal tract. Recognizing a bitter flavor in our mouth stimulates our bitter taste-receptors, and triggers a toxic response. The interaction of bitters on our taste buds induces the secretion of a hunger hormone in our stomach, called ghrelin. This causes a short-term sense of hunger, usually within 30 minutes of consuming bitters.
Interestingly, after consuming bitters, a long-term decrease in appetite follows the temporary increase. The decrease in appetite results from the gastrointestinal tract’s response to bitter substances. In the GI tract, our bitter taste response acts to delay gastric emptying (bowel movements), to prevent the intake of more “toxic foods”.
The Short-term and Long-term Effects of Bitters
The long-term response to bitters of slowing the process of gastric emptying serves the body, by preventing the absorption of any perceived toxic components. In addition, this process prolongs the feeling of satiation, and reduces further food intake.
Thus, the body responds to bitters in two phases. First, our taste receptors promote a short-term sense of hunger. Next, our gastrointestinal tract signals the brain to prolong the presence of food in the stomach, leading to a long-term sense of satiety.
The Balance of Bitters and Hildegard
Where does Hildegard fit-in with the beauty of bitter flavors? Hildegard of Bingen regularly relied on bitter tasting foods and bitters within the framework of her monastic medicine, particularly via herbal tinctures. Hildegard used bitter-tasting foods and herbs for health conditions resulting from digestive disorders.
The taste of bitters appears present within the primary elements, that Hildegard primary bodily juices. For Hildegard, bitter flavor represents a fire element, which works in opposition to earth elements. The sweet flavor serves as a primary example of the earth element in food.
To preserve Hildegard’s ideal of balance, and to promote the principle of Hildegard’s food medicine, meals should contain all flavor profiles in order to nourish the body completely, and to prevent cravings.
Bitter Herbs for Fasting
Hildegard emphasized balance in achieving Viriditas. In fact, she coined a term for her brand of balance, which she called Discretio. In short, Discretio is the practice of living in balance and bringing the union of the divine and man into order.
Since the age of antiquity, bitter roots and herbs were used by nuns and monks, as a means to support fasting. Hildegards guide to fasting includes a recommendation to use bitter herbs.