Natural Healing: Befriending the Bitter Herbs

Bitter herbs can be great once you know how to use them.

| March/April 2003

  • Cayenne
    Photo by Mother Earth Living
  • Chamomile
    Photo by Stock Photo
  • Chicory
    Christopher Hobbs
  • Goldenseal
    Christopher Hobbs
  • Horehound
    Christopher Hobbs
  • Lavender
    Photo by Stock Photo
  • Pomegranate
    Photo by stock photo
  • Thyme
    Photo by Stock Photo
  • Wormwood
    Christopher Hobbs

Recently, my mother treated me to a meal of bitter melon. Starting with light-green fruit that resembled warty cucumbers, she sliced the gourds thinly, discarding the seeds before cooking the slices in her ancient, blackened iron pot. She prepared it the Caribbean way—sautéed in a little olive oil, with onion, garlic, tomato, salt, and fresh pepper, until the slices were tender and fragrant—and then served it over hot rice. It was a savory and unusual lunch, the combination of bitter, tangy, and salty flavors teasing the palate with subtle surprises.

She has cooked bitter melon for decades, but this was the first time that I ate it willingly, having learned of its restorative benefits for the digestive system and a host of related ailments. I was happy to discover that something with medicinal powers could taste so good.

Bitter melon (Momordica charantia), known also as bitter gourd and several other names, is a popular food in the West Indies and Asia, where it grows abundantly, but it is also found in southern California and southern Florida. It is one of many plants that have been used for centuries to support the health and vigor of the digestive organs.

The bitter herbs

Bitter herbs are a cosmopolitan bunch, ranging from the seriously bitter gentian (Gentiana lutea), bitter melon, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), horehound (Marrubium vulgare), and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) to the milder-tasting dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), chicory (Cichorium intybus), endive, lettuce, chamomile (Matricaria recutita), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), milk thistle (Silybum marianum), peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita), echinacea (Echinacea spp.), tea (Camellia sinensis), and coffee. They are replete with biochemicals such as glucosinolates, tannins, terpenes, isothiocyanates, alkaloids, phenols, isoflavones, flavonoids, catechins, and saponins (all of which can contribute bitter flavors), which help the plants to fight pests.

In humans, bitter herbs can stimulate the appetite, aid digestion, tone up the liver and kidneys, and derail a host of diseases. Bitter melon, in particular, has been shown in studies to have a remarkable capacity to lower blood sugar, owing partly to chemicals such as beta-sitosterol-d-glucoside and charantin; and to ease rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus, because of immunosuppressive constituents such as alpha- and beta-momorcharin. Its phytochemicals, lanosterol and xeaxanthin, are considered to be cancer-preventive, and the saponin diosgenin helps to protect the liver. Not surprisingly, given the role of bitter chemicals in plant defense, bitter melon also has antibiotic properties.

Bitters’ benefits

Bitter herbs, in general, can galvanize our digestive systems to function at their peak by stimulating the production of digestive juices and the dispatch of stored bile (necessary for fat digestion and sugar metabolism) from the gallbladder to the small intestine after meals, thus aiding nutrient assimilation. Bile itself is a natural laxative.

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