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The Bitter Reflex

- The magic of Bitters


"It is unfortunate … that our modern diet seems to be completely lacking in the wild bitter tasting plants our ancestors considered so fundamental to their health. Many of the diseases riddling our modern culture - from indigestion and gastric reflux to metabolic disorders … seem to all point back to the deficiency of bitterness in our diets, and the lack of the protection and tone it imparts to our digestion and metabolic functions."

Weston A. Price Foundation

Historically, bitter herbs have been used as cleansing agents, vitality builders and digestive support, yet from a human perspective, bitter flavours are really tricky to get down. Our horses don’t necessarily agree with us, which is just as well because bitter herbs and spices offer real benefits to improve overall health.

The term ‘bitters’ is a generic term for a collective of secondary plant metabolites (SPM’s) that have a bitter flavour, literally, and for the herb nerds out there, these compounds include iridoids, sesquiterpene lactones, sesquiterpene hydrocarbons, monoterpene iridoids, alkaloids and volatile oils.

SPM’s are basically part of the plant's self-defence mechanism against fungal microbes, oxidative damage and predators such as us humans and insects – they’re designed for us not to like the taste of them - it’s all about survival of the species.

Yet many bitters have been shown to also have antifungal, antiseptic, antiprotozoal and even antitumour activity, which from a phytonutrient fan’s viewpoint is excellent news. Just as these bitter compounds help protect the plant, they can also help the mammalian body to inhibit pathogen microbe growth, oxidation and inflammation.

However, where the real bitter magic happens is in the gut, and these days the subject of equine gut support is a hot topic. Bitters tend to have a genuine stimulating and tonifying effect on the digestive system, generally known as the ‘bitter reflex’, which is literally triggered by the actual tasting of the ‘bitter’ on the tongue.

One of the most basic benefits of bitters is the fact that they improve nutrient extraction and absorbability. Nutrition, after all, is the foundation upon which health is built, and anything that helps the body make use of the nutrients is a great thing.

And by the way, it's pointless trying to cheat by trying to bypass the taste receptors and take them in capsule form as they simply won’t work – it’s all about that bitter taste.

The Bitter Reflex

So what happens when something bitter is eaten? Cue the release of a hormone called gastrin, which in turns supports and strengthens digestive function by stimulating the secretion of the foregut digestive juices:

  • Saliva, where it all begins.
  • Hydrochloric acid, which triggers protein digestion and enhances mineral absorption. It also helps destroy harmful microbes, so taking bitters prior to eating not only prepares the stomach for digestion, but it may also offer some protection against foodborne contaminants.
  • Pepsin, the first digestive enzyme that food meets in the stomach/foregut that breaks protein molecules into smaller pieces.
  • The flow of bile, which improves fat digestion and helps prevent the accumulation of waste in the liver.

The bitter reflex also stimulates appetite, preparing the gut for the receipt of food by triggering contractions in the small intestine. For us humans, this is why we should take bitters 30-minutes before food, but there’s no reason not to give our horses a handful of dandelion leaves a short time before their feedbowl, especially if you’re struggling with poor appetite or loss of weight/condition.

For acid-related symptoms, the bitter reflex also causes the oesophageal sphincter to contract (this is the sphincter which connects the base of the oesophagus with the top of the stomach/foregut), which prevents stomach acid from migrating up through the oesophagus, aka acid reflux.

Even better, the reflex stimulates self-repair mechanisms in the pancreas and intestinal wall, which is another reason why bitters mean an improved, strengthened digestive function. This could also mean that bitters could be helpful in the prevention and/or treatment of leaky gut, which as we all know can cause a significant increase in inflammation, allergies and autoimmune diseases; note I say ‘could also mean’ because currently there are no studies to prove this, but it’s thought of as a reasonable theory.

As for gassy guts, well, bitters really excel here! By breaking molecules down into units the body can actually absorb, gas formation is prevented. Friendly microbes in the small intestine are also able to properly break down those units even further, which also prevents gas formation. Feed bitters before food, carminatives (fennel) after food.

Bitters are also considered cooling, so beneficial for ‘hot’ conditions, i.e. inflammation (including arthritic symptoms), tension, fever. Other indications for bitters include chronic candidiasis, thyroid dysfunction and allergic conditions such as asthma and urticaria. As per the European Journal of Herbal Medicine, bitters have ...

"a general tonic effect, exciting the sympathetic nervous system and improving cardiac function by decreasing heart rate and cardiac stroke volume. They stimulate muscles and improve circulation to abdominal organs. Some bitters have an antidepressant effect. Some are emmenagogues. Quinine (an alkaloid of cinchona) was the standard anti-malarial for years, and new malaria research is being done on both gentian and wormwood."

And as Weston A. Price reports,

"Taken over time, they will lessen symptoms of poor digestive function such as gas and bloating, constipation, loose stools and food allergies; enhance vitamin and mineral absorption; promote balanced blood sugar levels … protect the liver and strengthen eliminatory function; heal inflammatory damage to the gut wall; and reduce the incidence of allergic disorders. In short, the daily use of bitters can address some of the most rampant and heavily medicated health conditions of our time."

What's not to love?!


Of course, as with all things, while generally safe when taken as directed, bitters are contraindicated for:

  • Pregnant or nursing mares
  • Chronic gastric ulcerogenic conditions until they're under control
  • Chronic respiratory congestion
  • A depressed metabolism

Also, while side effects are rare, you may see the ‘feel worse before feeling better’ reaction (Herxheimer’s), usually due to effective detoxification which the exit routes are struggling to evacuate. There may also be side effects from excess absorption of any vet meds being taken, as bitters will increase the absorption rate of not only phytonutrients, but also pharmaceuticals.

The general message is not to feed at high dosages as bitters may have the opposite effect of what they're meant to do, i.e. inhibiting gastric secretions and suppressing appetite rather than improving it. Not wanting to alarm you further, some bitters contain toxic compounds; for example, bitter almonds, used in confectionery and cakes for centuries, should always be taken sparingly, as overdosing can result in death – yikes. Best we don't give our horses almonds then ...

How to feed/take bitters

Historically in human world, bitters were taken before mealtime as an aperitif or pre-dinner cocktail, made with a dash of bitter herbs such as angostura. In horse world, we probably shouldn’t be giving our neds a pre-dinner cocktail, but a tincture might be a better method 😉

Another easy way for us humans to get more bitters into the diet is to simply add more bitter greens to a salad and eating the salad first. I remember when I lived in France for a few years back in the early 1990s, and a salad starter was the norm – one of my favourite back-street bistro’s in the lovely area of St German served a simple bowl of mixed salad leaf slathered in fresh garlic oil – we dined on this often!

General rule of thumb - start with a small amount and add more as taste buds and body adjusts. Examples of palatable bitters include chicory, dandelion, arugula (rocket), radicchio, endive and burdock. And, would you believe, chamomile’s a bitter. Yes, I promise you I said that – chamomile’s a bitter.

The thing is, again in human world, when we make a chamomile tea, we usually dunk a teabag a couple of times, squeeze it out and serve. This isn’t a beneficial herbal tea – it’s just flavoured water. To get the benefits we have to infuse the herb, covered, for at least 5-8 minutes. Which means it’s going to taste really strong and, let’s be honest, not that palatable either. But if you infuse the chamomile correctly, you’ll get a ‘bitter’ taste, and that’s what you want for it to do its thing. Personally I struggle with chamomile tea; I’m much better with a tincture.

Chamomile also has a probiotic effect, and can even prevent ibuprofen damage to the stomach; it used to be so much part of our culture that Beatrix Potter sent Peter Rabbit to bed with chamomile after he messed around in MacGregor’s garden.

For our horses, I use artemisia (wormwood) in our VermClear blend as the digestion-stimulating bitter and for its renowned anthelmintic properties. Perhaps my favourite bitter for our horses, though, is the humble dandelion, particularly the root which has the added advantage of being a prokinetic – a funky word that means it enhances the motility of good digestion. So, it not only acts as a bitter, priming all the digestive juices, but it also makes things move through the stomach a bit quicker so the digesting foodstuff isn’t sitting there like a rock in the gut system.

Dandelion root also contains inulin which is a natural prebiotic, so it nurtures and nourishes all the good stuff inside. Harvest your own dandelions so long as they’re not growing in an area that’s sprayed.

Another excellent prokinetic is Ginger. Remember, though, that ginger is considered ‘hot’, so if there’s inflammation present, it’s best not to feed until the inflammation is under control.

So there’s a sort-of Herb Nerd blog on bitter herbs, but I think more on Gut Health so I’ll store this particular blog in the Gut blog section. And just so you know, we include dandelion root in many of our blends, but specifically relating to this blog, our GutCARE and MetaTonic blend.

On that note, here’s to a life well lived, with a bitter taste in the mouth 😉l