Bitter is mostly shunned as the most undesirable and ‘toxic’ taste in food, but did you know that, the same bitter also happens to go hands in hands with some of the best medicinal properties in natural foods. So today we see how and when bitter can actually be better for health!
What Ayurveda says about Bitter taste or ‘Tikta Rasa’
Ayurveda describes an interesting generalized classification of medicinal properties of food and herbs on the basis of their taste (Yes!), but remember, this is only a general classification with elaborate further details and exceptions to know when using as medicine. For use in food, here’s all you need to know.
Bitter taste is called ‘Tikta Rasa‘ in Ayurveda.
It represents the ‘Air’ (force) and ‘Sky’ (space) elements, meaning that substances having this taste have the properties of ‘forcibly displacing accumulated substances’ in the body and ‘evacuating spaces’.
Sounds poetic and unscientific? Poetic, yes; but not unfounded scientifically. We’ll describe how, point by point.
Effect on the Doshas
Tikta increases Vaata and decreases Pitta and Kapha.
Physiological actions of bitter substances
- Gustatory Stimulants – Though very undesirable in taste themselves, bitter substances stimulate the tongue’s taste receptors and improve the sense of taste. From Ayurveda point-of-view, they cleanse the Kapha accumulated in the receptors and improve Vaata (Sensory signals). Examples: Calamus, Moringa.
- Detoxing action – Bitter substances, being the best Pitta killers, are always great blood purifiers and detox agents. From modern point of view, they are mostly liver stimulants that improve hepatic metabolism. People who have taken the popular Liv-52 syrup anytime ever, just look up the composition and count how many ingredients are bitter in taste even though the syrup is artificially sweetened, and you’ll have a live example. For daily food examples, we have Bitter Gourd (Karela), Khas and Guduch.
Related Read: Why Broccoli can be the Best Brain Detox Food
- Antihelminthics – Yeah, even the worms hate them, so that they make excellent deworming agents. Let me confirm, I’m NOT joking in saying this, and as a bonus, a number of bitter herbs also make good antibiotics against gut infections caused by gram-negative and anaerobic bacteria. eg. Moringa, Neem, Vidanga, Kapila.
- Electrolyte balancers and Anti inflammatory agents – Again, with Pitta pacifying action, bitter substances make the best go-to herbs for heatstroke, sunstroke, Pitta dominant fevers and rashes. eg. Sandalwood, Khas in sunstroke and Guduch in fevers and inflammations.
- Skin cleansers – The air+sky (force+space) composition shows a literal example in action on topical application in various skin conditions right from simple acne to eczema or pus filled dermatites. Bitter herbs are the best in forcibly cleansing the accumulated sebum/pus/foreign matter and cleansing the affected areas. Examples are endless – aloe, neem, pomegranate peel, Musta, Bitter cucumbers, sandalwood and many more.
- Appetizers and Metabolism improvers – Most bitter substances are mild gastric irritants which cause stimulated secretion of gastric juice without damaging the gastric mucosa (inner cell lining of the stomach). More importantly however, the liver stimulating action we saw earlier also causes improved production of bile, and thereby, improved digestion. Ayurveda has described this as ‘Amapachan‘ (digestion of improperly transformed metabolites) and ‘Agnideepan‘ (metabolism stimulation), here in context of digestive and circulatory systems. Examples range from the simple Bael fruit and aloe, to Kutaki (Picorrhiza Kurroa) used widely for fevers in Ayurveda.
(Related read: Pharmacy-in-a-Pot Plant #1: Aloe Vera)
- Antipyretic and Anti-inflammatory – Being liver stimulants, bitter herbs are some of the best natural fever and inflammation pacifiers in most bacterial/parasitic/metabolic fevers. The list is very long and diverse with infection specific herbs for various diseases, but for home remedy purposes, I would recommend only Guduch (Tinospora ccordifolia), Neem (Azadirachta indica) and Chiraita. (Caution – Home-remedies should only be limited to primary care until reaching a practitioner, and not be an alternative to professional advice.)
- Fat reduction – The (air+sky) tendency of forcibly evicting accumulations also applies to fat depositions, so that bitter foods are generally good for weight and fat reduction. Though clinical research and physiological correlations sometimes fall short to explain the mode of action, some of the best known and well-studied natural hypolipidemic agents like Guggulu and Shilajit are bitter substances. In general, with their low carb/fat contents and metabolism stimulant activity, bitter substances are a great bet for those who want to burn excess fat.
Bonus tip: Bitter gourd in particular, can also be a very good daily food item for diabetics.
The dont’s are always more important to know than the do’s for a wise person. So here go. Tikta should not be excessively/indiscriminately used in –
- People suffering from severe Vaata disorders. (Note – This is NOT same as having a Vaata dominant health.)
- Kids, since they need a largely dominant for good growth.
- Already feeble, infirm people without adding tonics to the treatment regimen, since Tikta causes fat and stored energy depletion regardless of whether it is excess or not.
- People with nutritional deficiency disorders, without professional supervision.
So that’s all for today, folks. Now you know how and when bitter too, can be better for health. Hope you will put it to positive use for family, friends and community at large. Do let us know how you put and found this info in application. Till then,
Stay Healthy, Stay Happy!
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About the Author –
Dr. Harshad Rajandekar is a practising physician of Ayuverdic and Integrative Medicine, based out of Nashik, India. He takes time out of his practice to write blogs @Dr. Herbz, and is also an avid researcher in Yoga and traditional herbal medicine from around the world. He can be reached here.