Subject: Re: Herbal bitters
From: (jonathan treasure)
Date: Apr 1996

> I have often wondered: when someone is given a "dose of bitters", does this refer to any one particular product, or is it generic for anything that tastes bitter? The Pharmaceutical Journal, February 2, 1985: pg. 148, refers to an Alkaline gentian mixture. The 27th edition of Martindale (1977: pg. 253) refers to "the action of gentian and other bitters on gastric function........" Then it gives a huge list from Absinthium to Strychnine. Is one substance more common than the others for this use? Does "bitter" refer only to the taste, or does it denote a specific healing property?

To try and answer some of your questions....

Bitterness is a biological and not chemical parameter. <Bitterness value> is defined as the volume (ml) of water in which one gram of the crude drug still has a detectable bitter taste. Eg Gentiana has a bitterness value of about 20,000 although some of its isolated constituents are considerably more bitter (approx 20,000,000). Since this is ultimately a subjective measure, calibration poses some problems I suppose if you are worried about that sort of thing! Ultimately the taste IS the healing property.

As far as herbalists are concerned, bitters certainly act specifically via reflex action to increase GI secretory activity, stimulate appetite etc etc, but their effects have long been known to be wider and multi-systemic; hence the fuzzy term <bitter tonic> which is not recognised within conventional pharmacology despite the recent unravelling of the multifaceted actions of gastrin, CKK etc. For example, a common indication for bitters is depression, especially with hepatic congestion.

Different traditions use bitter tasting herbs in different ways; the classic bitter of western herbalism is Gentiana, but aromatic bitters (eg Achillea) and pungent bitters (eg Zingiber) are also used, whilst the bitter quality of many herbs is often deliberately exploited in a prescription which is not primarily directed at digestive function at all (eg Humulus for insomnia related to indigestion)

A handy formula from the earlier editions of USP is Compound Tincture of Gentian....

Gentiana - 10 pts
Citrus aurantium (bitter orange) 4 parts
Cardamom 1 part