Monday, January 6, 2014

Bitters, Plants and the Liver

We are now in the midst of a bitters revolution. If you haven't heard the word bitters in the last month, you're behind the times (or you don't live in the heart of Portland). Bitters are possibly the best thing that's happened to the gourmet cocktail movement, as they happen to be good for you.

The tradition of bitters originated in Europe as an herbal tonic to aid digestion. Bitters, as the name suggests, is a mix of bitter herbs steeped in alcohol. Herbs like dandelion, gentian, oregon grape, artichoke, rhubarb, milk thistle, cardamom, meyer lemon and orange peel are common ingredients. The bitter flavor, when tasted, increases the secretions of bile and other digestive juices from the liver and gall bladder. Basically, it increases the nutrient absorption and facilitates a cleaner passage of food through the intestines.

Whether commercially available bitters actually help your digestion is a matter of the ingredients and how it is processed. However, if it tastes bitter, it's probably doing something. Many people believe that the bitter flavor is an essential element in a healthy diet. I happen to agree with this view. The article that really won me over is Jim McDonald's article called Blessed Bitters, which will make you want to eat dandelion and arugula every day. Most people that aren't herbalists are totally weak when it comes to bitter flavors. As it turns out, bitterness is an acquired taste that takes time to develop appreciation for.  So, if you think you hate bitter flavors, you're actually just being a baby about it. Think about how many bitter wild plants early humans ate every day. Do you think they would have frowned at brussels sprouts? I think not.

The reason for this demonization of the bitter flavor lies in the fact that humans have the largest amount of bitter taste bud receptors, making it the most sensitive taste. Therefore, bitter tastes are the most intense for us, which is why kids hate broccoli so much! We developed this amazing number of bitter receptor sites in order to discern poisonous plants from food and medicine plants. Other animals use this same tasting ability every day for their survival, as they don't have pharmaceuticals or a supermarket.

Bitter foods to include in your diet:

Dandelion greens
Mustard greens
Collard greens
Lemons and Limes

Bitter herbs to help digestion:

Artichoke leaf
Dandelion leaf and root
Oregon grape root
Orange peel, grapefruit peel, lemon peel
Burdock root and seed
Milk thistle seed (It is best to consume the ground whole seed, rather than an extract. Refrigerate whole seeds and freshly ground seeds to prevent spoiling. Capsules can be made with freshly ground powder).
Gentian root and flowering tops
Angelica root
Horehound leaf
Wormwood leaf/ flowering tops
Coriander seed

Bitter Herb Tinctures

A tincture is an alcoholic extract of an herb. They are made be soaking the herb in 25% alcohol to 95% alcohol, depending on the herb. The alcohol will extract the soluble chemicals from the herb, making them more available to your digestive tract. Most herbalists tincture their herbs at 40%-50%, with the exception of such herbs as cottonwood buds, rosemary, thyme, usnea lichen and myrhh resin. These herbs require a higher proof because of the high resin content, with is NOT soluble in water. Much more potent tinctures will be made with 95% alcohol. Most people let their tinctures sit and extract for 6-8 weeks.

A tincture is the best form of medicine for the liver because alcohol goes straight to your liver to be processed. This means that your herbs will go right where they are needed. Teas can be effective, but I prefer tinctures for this specific thing.

Basic Bitters formula: (Recipe from our friends at Mountain Rose Herbs)

2 parts dandelion root
1 part fennel seed
1/2 part organic dried ginger root (dried is preferred here, as it's properties are different from the fresh)
1/2 part organic orange peel

Mix your herbs together and fill a glass jar only 1/3 full with the blend. pour 100 proof vodka over the herb and fill to the very top of the jar. Be sure your herb mixture is completely covered. Label your jar with the name of the herbs, date, alcohol strength, and parts used. Allow to extract for 6 to 8 weeks. shaking the jar often. Strain the herb with cheesecloth, and squeeze any remaining liquid in the herb back into the extract. Bottle the liquid in amber dropper bottles and label.

My Liver Cleansing Tincture Formula

1.5 parts dried burdock root
1 part ground milk thistle seed
1 part burdock seed (substitute with more milk thistle if you can't easily find this)
2 parts Oregon grape root
1 part licorice root

This recipe can be made with a blend of pre-made tinctures, or by using this mix of herbs to make a tincture (use). To make with dried herbs, follow the instructions for making a tincture above.

Burdock seed is not necessary, but I really like it for its added effects on the kidneys.

Herbalist's Orange Bitters

1 part orange peel
1 part red root
1 part oregon grape
1 part licorice root

Make this formula as dry herbs, weighed in parts and tinctured, or mix already existing tinctures together. This mix I found incredibly delicious, and effective. Michael Moore, and Howie Brounstein after him, praise red root for it's ability to lighten a rich meal in the blood. This formula is best for heavy meals where you might overeat on fatty foods.

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