Bitter herbs broadly encompass many botanicals, but are most often thought of as herbs with effects on the gastrointestinal system. Herbal bitters have a long history of use, and are commonly used in cocktails known as aperitifs and digestifs which are served before and after meals to stimulate appetite and digestion. However, bitter herbs act far beyond the digestive system, and may impact the liver, kidney, skin, lymphatic, and circulatory systems.* Bitter taste receptors have been shown to trigger a wide variety of biological processes including regulation of blood sugar and activation of the immune system in response to infections.
Gastrointestinal health is important for detoxification, as inflammation in the intestine increases susceptibility of the organism to toxicity from external and internal agents. Proteins important for all phases of detoxification are expressed at a high level in the small intestinal mucosa. Optimal and integrated functioning of the intestines, liver, and kidneys is crucial for successful detoxification.*
Herbs such as dandelion, milk thistle, solidago (goldenrod), and burdock are each known for having aspects of bitterness, but they have important potential benefits beyond digestion.* Dandelion has a history of use for dyspepsia, liver, and gallbladder complaints. The active constituent of milk thistle, known as silymarin, acts as an antioxidant and has been shown in animal studies to reduce hepatic injury from a variety of things with known liver-toxic potential. Solidago has classically been used for conditions of the urinary tract including inflammation, symptoms of infections, and to reduce chances of developing kidney stones. Studies suggest that burdock may have positive effects on blood sugar, as well as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, and antimicrobial actions