Did you know that taste can influence our digestion? We have five tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory (umami). These taste receptors are located not only on the tongue but also throughout the entire body including (but not limited to) the entire GI tract, as well as the immune system, heart and even the brain.
Bitter plant compounds, are most often used to support digestion. In fact, they have been used for centuries to relieve common gut symptoms such as indigestion, bloating, and feeling full fast. Interestingly, research has found that we have 25 different bitter receptors each stimulated by different bitter compounds. These receptors are also found in the stomach, and once stimulated, support stomach acid production. Therefore, bitter greens (such as radicchio, chicory, endive, kale, arugula), citrus (especially citrus peels), rhubarb, and caffeinated beverages like coffee, green and black tea, can all support healthy stomach acid production. Beer and wine can also stimulate stomach acid production due to their alcohol content and as well as their bitter compounds. However, keep in mind that alcohol itself can contribute to irritating GI symptoms.
Why is this important? For good gut health, we need proper stomach acid secretion. Stomach acid is essential to help us break down and digest our food (especially protein) and acts as a barrier for incoming bacteria either via our food or oral cavity. Stomach acid also triggers the release of bile from the gallbladder and triggers the release of digestive enzymes from the pancreas. Therefore, stomach acid is essential for optimal digestion.
Furthermore, bitter compounds are also found in the duodenum (first part of the small intestine), and directly stimulate the release of cholecystokinin (CCK). CCK is a hormone which stimulates the release of bile from the gallbladder and the release of digestive enzymes from the pancreas. Bile is essential for the absorption of fats and fat soluble vitamins A, E, D, K and digestive enzymes are essential to break down all of our food into small enough particles for easy absorption.
If you are motivated to increase your bitter foods for enhanced digestion check out the ideas below. There are many options besides eating an arugula salad that can help boost your daily bitter intake.
Clinically, besides bitter foods, bitter herbs found in tinctures can be helpful for more immediate relief. I suggest taking the bitters directly into the mouth and then swishing the bitters around for a few seconds before swallowing. I often recommend the following:
Iberogast: 20 drops with meals or 60 drops before bed
Urban Moonshine Original Bitters: 1 dropperful before meals
Urban Moonshine Calm Tummy Bitters (safe for pregnant mamas)
Herb Pharm Better Bitters: 1 dropperful before meals
Swedish Bitters: 1 tsp before meals
Gut chemosensing; implications for disease pathogenesis.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5054811/
Characterization of Bitter Compounds via Modulation of Proton Secretion in Human Gastric Parietal Cells in Culture .https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28525714/
Caffeine induces gastric acid secretion via bitter taste signaling in gastric parietal cells. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5544304/
Alcohol and gastric acid secretion in humans. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1374273/pdf/gut00557-0145.pdf
Taste receptors in the gastrointestinal system. https://flavourjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/2044-7248-4-14
Like to read? Then get your evidence based nutrition information here! All posts written by Selva Wohlgemuth, MS, RDN Functional Nutritionist & Clinical Dietitian