Prior to attending Sarah Head’s workshops last year I had never thought there might be any reason why I should need to eat anything bitter, and as lots of other foods tasted better I didn’t bother to very often, grapefruits and rocket were probably it.
During the first workshop I attended at The Sanctuary, Sarah gave us dandelion root to try which I didn’t find a pleasant experience. A month later when we strained our dandelion vinegar we discovered that dandelion roots taste better pickled and had some in a forager’s salad, which was quite enjoyable. Since then I’ve learnt bitters are important for our digestive systems and have started to enjoy them more knowing they will do me good.
I have now started an apprenticeship with Sarah and our next task is about bitters. I was looking at my herb list for something bitter to research and remembered what our white hoarhound cough syrup tasted like. I found Richard Mabey’s bitter definition, which made me realise there might be more to bitters than digestion and I started to understand white hoarhound’s actions.
“Bitters Herbs containing a range of chemicals that have a bitter taste. Some are useful as appetite stimulants, others as anti-inflammatories, still others as relaxants.”
Mabey identifies hoarhound is one of the 5 bitter herbs to be eaten by Jews at the Passover supper. He says “The plant’s bitter principle, along with its expectorant properties, is responsible in part for the major medical use of white horehound for respiratory disorders.” This surprised me as I had only related bitters to digestion but he does go on to say a cold infusion is a bitter tonic for the digestive system. There is evidence to show that as marrubiin, the plant’s bitter principle, breaks down in the body it strongly stimulates bile production. The plant has been traditionally used as a reliable liver and digestive remedy.
Matthew Wood says that as a bitter, hoarhound promotes expulsion of thick secretions, allowing new mucous and new immune cells to be secreted. This allows the herb to work not by killing germs but by changing the environment so as to enable the body to kill the germs. This theory makes sense to me and has made me think differently about how herbs work.
The CU (Champaign-Urbana) herb society says that the bitter principle, marrubiim, does not exist in the living plant, but is formed during the extraction process. They also say that the bitter action of hoarhound stimulates the secretion of bile from the gall bladder, aiding digestion. In large quantities it could act as a laxative and cause an irregular heartbeat. Matthew Wood cautions that large doses of hoarhound are emetic and laxative and can cause arrhythmias.
I came to the conclusion that white hoarhound stimulates the gall bladder and aids digestion and also relaxes the smooth muscles of the bronchus while stimulating mucous production; this tallies with Richard Mabey’s definition of bitters including relaxants. I then started to worry I had put two and two together and made five but was directed by my mentor, Sarah, to Jim MacDonald’s web site where there is a lot of information explaining how bitters work to aid digestion but he also sees bitters as grounding and says they can release emotional energy from organs particularly anger and frustration linked to stagnant liver energy.
Jim MacDonald refers to a past blog entry of Sarah Head in 2008 where she suggests that bitters promote release. Sarah says different herbs have affinities with different parts of the body so will promote the release of different secretions or emotions from those areas. I now realise there are energetic as well as physical attributes to bitters, the major benefit is to the digestive system but there could be others as well.
|White Horehound flowers|
Campaign-Urbana Herb Society (2004) Herb of the Month: Horehound (marrubium vulgare) www.cuherbsociety.org
Head, Sarah (2008) Bitters: Herbs which promote release? http://kitchenherbwifeblogspot.com accessed 27.1.2010
Mabey, R. (1988) The New Age Herbalist Simon & Schuster: New York
MacDonald, J. (2009) Blessed Bitters http://www.herbcraft.org/bitters.pdf accessed 27.1.2010
Wood, M. (2008) The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants North Atlantic Books: Berkeley