The flavor of an herb is different than its taste. Taste is subjective while flavor is a major indicator of how an herb affects the body and thus, how it’s used. In other words, there is a direct correlation between flavor and physiological function. Basing an herb’s properties on its flavor was a way that herbalists identified what today are biochemical constituents. For example, alkaloids are generally bitter while glycosides are typically sweet. As well, the flavor determines an herb’s actions.
The bitter flavor enters the heart and small intestine. It is cooling, drying, draining, detoxifying, purging, and anti-inflammatory. A small amount strengthens these organs whereas too much weakens them. Bitter stimulates the secretion of bile, which in turn, sparks digestive fires and stimulates normal bowel elimination. It also helps protect the body against parasites and clears the blood of cholesterol. As such, this flavor strengthens the heart and small intestine and clears heat from the blood. This makes it a perfect flavor to incorporate this season as we are now moving into the heart/small intestine time of year and it lasts through June.
Bitter herbs not only clear heat but also dry dampness and secretions such as diarrhea, leucorrhea and skin abscesses. In excess, however, the bitter flavor can be too drying and eliminating, especially to the blood and yin, thus depleting them. Too much can also cause skin to wither and body hair to fall out.
Sweet cravings, however, may be alleviated through ingestion of something bitter. This may seem the opposite of one’s desire, and yet if you are trying to eliminate sugar from your diet, eat a little bitter, particularly in the morning, and your sweet cravings will diminish.
Three great bitter herbs include dandelion, gentian and turmeric.
Dandelion (Taraxacum campylodes) is a mild bitter, so gentle in fact that it may be taken by those with blood or yin deficiency without causing further depletion. One of the best ways to get a little bitter into your life this time of year is to pick some young dandelion greens from your yard. They are so mild one could almost say they are pleasantly bitter. Stuff a pot with them, fill with boiling water and steep 20 minutes. For a litter stronger brew, lightly simmer for 15 minutes covered. Strain and drink 1-2 cups/day. Beware, however, as dandelion leaves are quite diuretic and so will make you urinate more frequently. However, they are great for edema, bladder and kidney infections, hepatitis, eye inflammation, abscesses, and nodules.
Dandelion root, more bitter than the leaves, clears heat and toxins from the liver and is one of the best remedies for hepatitis and jaundice. It is possibly a preventative for breast cancer, as its anti-toxin energy specifically goes to the breasts and intestines. It treats toxic sores and swellings, stomach and digestive disorders, constipation, diarrhea, skin diseases, and red, swollen eyes, tumors, breast cancer, boils, abscesses, nodules, and toxic sores, fluid retention, edema, stomach disorders, indigestion, heartburn, bloating, constipation, jaundice, painful urination, bladder and kidney infections, and hepatitis.
Gentian root (Gentiana spp.) is extremely bitter. Gentiana lutea has three bitter glycosides and is used as the standard for other bitter plants. It treats jaundice, hepatitis, red, swollen, painful eyes, throat, ears, sudden deafness, eczema, herpes, pain or swelling in the scrotum, purulent vaginal discharge and itching, acute urinary tract infections, fever, spasm convulsions, flank pain, headache, herpes, and hypertension with dizziness and tinnitus. It is well known as a digestive bitter, taken as a tincture in small doses before meals.
Gentian is well known for its formula, Gentiana Combination (Long Dan Xie Gan Tang) in which it purges intense heat or fire from the liver and gallbladder, and heat and dampness from the entire body with symptoms of toxicity, headache, chest pain, bitter taste in the mouth, bloodshot eyes, swollen inner ears, deafness, dry throat, dark yellow urine, and constipation. The tongue is red with a yellow coat; the pulse is wiry/taut and rapid.
Because it is endangered, only use the cultivated plant.
Turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa) is warm, spicy and bitter. Most people know it as a superior anti-inflammatory herb. It definitely is as well as it promotes digestion and moves blood. Turmeric has a wide range of application such as menstrual disorders, indigestion; abdominal or epigastric pain, gallstones, cholestasis, cholecystitis, liver congestion, hepatitis, uterine tumors, sores, abscesses, traumatic injury (use internally or externally for this), and joint, arthritic and rheumatic pains (especially in the shoulder and arms), bilious headache, chest pain, hyperlipidemia, abdominal pain and distention, nausea, bacterial infections in the stomach, jaundice and biliousness, IBS, enteritis, dysbiosis, food allergies, fat intolerance, intestinal parasites, chronic bronchial asthma, gout, diabetes, eczema, psoriasis, ringworm/athlete’s foot, uterine tumors, and externally or internally, and traumatic injuries.
Although I have seen it take away joint pain when nothing else worked, turmeric is definitely not for everyone. As a bitter herb. It is cooling and drying, which can deplete blood and yin. This means it can cause symptoms of dizziness, blurry vision, dry skin, nails, hair, and eyes, dry throat at night, night sweats, muscle spasms and cramps, brittle nails, and palpitations. Since it’s commercially touted as a great anti-inflammatory, I often see patients with such symptoms because they overdo turmeric. So be sure it’s the right herb for your body before you regularly take it.