6 tastes

Why So Bitter?

As a culture North Americans are generally adverse to the taste of bitter. We love sweet and hate bitter, sure there are some exceptions such as some types of beers or dark coffee without all the added cream and sugar, but for the most part it is a flavour that is missing from our diets. So why do I say that this “gross” flavour is missing from our diet? Don’t we have it right in eradicating it from our foods? Well let me explain.
The Role of Stomach Acid
As you may or may not know, we have stomach acid or hydrochloric acid (HCl) to help us break down the food that we eat. The HCl along with numerous enzymes help digest the food into tiny particles that we can absorb through our intestines. These particles consist of an array of macro and micro nutrients such as proteins, vitamins, and minerals. HCl activates pepsin, which is a proteolytic enzyme necessary for protein digestion. So it isn’t a far leap to see that without HCl we may run into some nutritional deficiency problems.
As we age our HCl levels naturally decrease, this can lead to the condition hypochlorhydria, or too little stomach acid. The term achlorhydria refers to the absent of stomach acid. When we have less stomach acid than needed many problems may arise.
First off, with less HCl we will have impaired digestion and less absorption of nutrients from the food we eat. This compounded with our nutrient depleted, processed foods, it is no wonder why we are deficient in an array of vitamins and minerals.
Secondly, the stomach pH becomes more alkaline with insufficient stomach acid thus leading to a more hospitable environment for bacteria and fungus. Studies show those suffering from low stomach acid are at an increased risk of suffering from bacterial infections (PMID:4885396) and candida overgrowth (PMID:6141973) in the GI tract. Also, H. Pylori infections are commonly seen in those with insufficient stomach acid, leading to many of the symptoms seen below.

A variety of symptoms may be seen in the individual with insufficient stomach acid, these could include;

  • Stomach Pain
  • Acid Regurgitation (GERD)
  • Gas, Bloating
  • Chronic Diarrhea
  • Eczema, Rosacea
  • Asthma

  • Muscle Cramping
  • Diabetes
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Depression
  • Fatigue

A common issue seen by Naturopathic Doctors is the habitual use of acid suppressing drugs such as proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) and antacids. These interventions neutralize or suppress stomach acid and typically aren’t meant to be used long term. Not only could the adverse effects of low stomach acid for an extended period of time be seen in those taking these medications, but additional associated risks are possible. Problems such as osteoporosis, GI tract permeability and aluminum toxicity, to name a few.

Now Let’s Get Bitter
To put it simply, bitters stimulate HCl production. The addition of bitters into the diet or by supplementation may be enough to increase HCl and resolve many of ones issues. If a person has achlorhydria and cannot produce any HCl, say due to the autoimmune destruction of the parietal cells in the stomach, then adding bitters will not help to increase HCl. In this situation we may want to supplement with betaine HCl as a substitute for stomach acid.
Bitters are useful for constipation as they can stimulate bile from the liver. If there is a lack of HCl and bile, the transit time of your intestines is decreased possibly leading to constipation. Plenty of water, soluble fiber, and bitters can help many cases of constipation. Bitters can also be used for blood sugar regulation and cholesterol problems since they improve overall digestion function.
Consuming a diet that includes some bitter foods and drinks is a good idea for most people. To use bitters in a more therapeutic approach an herbal bitter is the way to go. There are a lot of herbs that are bitter and one that is comprised of non-alkaloid bitters are best for digestive purposes. I would recommend seeing a health care practitioner before supplementing with herbal bitters as they do vary in constituents and are applied by a case by case basis. Book in with me today to chat about which Bitter may be right for you, and get your digestion (and overall health) back on track!