Traditional Herbal medicine as well as cooking traditions pay attention to the flavors of foods. It is the flavor that determines how a food or herb will affect how you feel. In Herbal medicine the tradition is to talk of the five flavors. These flavors; salty, pungent, bitter, sweet, and sour each have an effect on the body. The understanding of how these flavors make us feel forms the basis of herbal medicine.
The flavor of bitter is probably the most identified with medicine. The reason is that bitter is used to "clear heat" or in more common terms, to fight infection. Most infections, whether bacterial or viral have some sort of "heat" component. In other words the body produces redness, swelling, fever, or red skin rashes to show that there is an infection in the body. Since this is the most common condition for which medicine was used historically, medicines invariably had a bitter unpleasant taste. For the wise women and herbalists of old the more bitter and bad tasting a herb was, the stronger it would be in fighting infection.
The number of plants that have been used because they were bitter is countless. Nature provided every geographic region around the world with bitter plants that work to help the body fight infection. Some herbs like Dandelion have been spread world wide as people carried their favorite herb to new lands. Dandelions are not originally native to many parts of the world, including the United States. The bitter root was one of many that early settlers used to treat infections.
Other common plants used as bitter medicine include Echinacea, Bilberry (Blueberry) leaf, goldenseal, and plantain leaf. These plants may be growing in your back yard, and can be just as useful as exotic species growing in the backyards of people halfway around the world.
Some foods are bitter and provide a compliment to rich heavy foods. Heavy rich foods are seen as "heat producing", which is just a way of saying that they are calorie (energy) dense. This is why coffee, cola and cocoa are traditionally associated with rich heavy meals. The bitter flavors help the body to moderate the heat that is produced in the body from the rich foods. Many Mexican and South American dishes mix cocoa and hot peppers together to create a situation where bitter cocoa moderates burning taste and enhances the flavor of the hot peppers. Cocoa is most commonly found balanced with the rich warm ingredients of cocoa butter, sugar and milk, in the form of chocolate. Cola of course is the all American compliment to a greasy burger and fries. The most bitter coffee is often served as an after dinner beverage, especially if the meal was heavy in meats and sauces.
Bitter flavors have an important place in medicine as well as in culinary arts. As medicine they have historically been some of the most important. They were the first line of defense against contagious diseases in the days before antibiotics. Even today research into bitter herbs continues as science looks for ways to overcome drug resistant infectious agents. Bitter herbs will continue to hold an important place in medicine.
— David Bock
This article was from David's LakeCountryOnline.com column, "The Practical Herbalist"
David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine
Bock Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066