Bitter is Better: How Bitter Foods Help Support Your Gut Microbiome

Like dandelion greens, arugula, and ginger, bitter foods can get a bad rap because of their unique and robust flavors. Many people, especially those who tend to be picky, may avoid bitter foods and herbs altogether. This is unfortunate, as bitter foods provide many excellent health benefits. They have been used in medicine and healing practices for centuries.

These days, bitter foods are becoming increasingly popular as additions to smoothies and mixed drinks as a "health-boosting" option. However, mixing them into our drinks isn't the only new role we've found for these bitter-tasting foods. Emerging research suggests that bitters may be a powerful tool for maintaining a healthy gut microbiome and correcting a damaged one. With over 70 million people suffering from digestive diseases in America alone, this type of simple nutritional option can be highly beneficial for so many people.

What is the Gut Microbiome?

The gut microbiome is the ecosystem of bacteria and other microorganisms that live along the digestive tract. These organisms help the body function at its best by producing enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters, as well as aiding digestion and regulating mood. Unsurprisingly, that means it's super important to maintain a healthy gut microbiome so we can live healthy lives.

Just like any ecosystem, one of the best ways to keep the gut microbiome healthy is to ensure no specific types of bacteria start to take over. Diversity is the key to a well-functioning gut microbiome. Luckily, one of the primary ways we can influence the diversity of the gut microbiome is through the foods we eat. For example, eating fermented foods can be very beneficial for our gut bacteria because they're high in probiotics, or the beneficial bacteria that help colonize the gut and crowd out harmful bacteria. However, our diet can also damage the gut microbiome. Heavily processed foods often lack the nutritional value needed to support healthy bacteria and can allow harmful types to overpopulate. When this happens, a variety of issues can arise that range from increased stress and anxiety to constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). 

How are Bitter Foods Related to Your Gut Microbiome?

The body has taste receptors scattered throughout the digestive tract. Their purpose is to gain information about the types of foods we eat and then determine the best course of action to digest those foods. Some of the most important (and prevalent) receptors we have detect bitter flavors because many dangerous substances happen to have a bitter taste. Obviously, the body wants to know right away if it needs to handle some kind of poison that has entered! 

Beyond avoiding poisonous substances, however, the body's response to bitter foods can be extremely beneficial for our overall health as it increases digestive secretions and helps detoxify the liver. This process can significantly reduce the effects of an unbalanced microbiome, too. Research shows that bitter herbs allow for increased detoxification to take place along the digestive tract, which helps alleviate the buildup of endotoxins created by harmful bacteria in the gut microbiome. The reduction of endotoxins also reduces inflammation in the gut and decreases gut permeability. 

Another recent study found similar links between bitter taste receptors and gut health. It revealed that these taste receptors may be able to influence and be influenced by specific types of gut bacteria. The researchers found that taste receptors also exist in the lungs to detect bacteria and toxins that would otherwise damage them. When certain types of bacteria enter the lungs, the taste receptors initiate an immune response to neutralize the threat. In the study, the researchers extend this phenomenon to the gut microbiome as well. However, they conclude that more research is necessary to determine the exact link between the two areas. 

It also seems that bitter foods may have a direct impact on the composition of the gut microbiome, just as many other foods do. In one study, four different types of bitter herbs were found to have a significant impact on the diversity of human gut bacteria. Interestingly, the herbs tended to boost the prevalence of less-represented types of bacteria. This means that the balance of the gut microbiome was at least partially restored through the process. Additionally, all four herbs significantly inhibited the growth of several types of bacteria, including the potentially dangerous E. coli. 

Which Bitter Herbs are the Best for Supporting Your Microbiome?

While it's important to keep in mind that bitter foods aren't a miracle cure for gut problems, they're still well worth including in a healthy diet. Here are some of the most effective bitter herbs to try incorporating into your next meal, along with the herbs used in studies mentioned above:

  • Gentian
  • Dandelion
  • Murdock
  • Wormwood
  • Black Pepper
  • Ginger
  • Turmeric
  • Long Pepper

As more research emerges on the mechanisms behind bitter foods and their impact on our gut health, it will be interesting to see which of these foods (or others that aren't on this list) are most effective for supporting a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. In the meantime, it's best to take advantage of what we already know. Try increasing the amount of bitter foods you eat in small amounts via salads, dressings, or spice mixtures, and see what gut health benefits you notice.

Dr. Nicole Beurkens, PhD, CNS

Licensed Psychologist and Board Certified Nutrition Specialist

The world’s leading Holistic Child Psychologist, Dr. Beurkens heads a multidisciplinary evaluation and treatment clinic, is a bestselling author, published researcher, award-winning therapist, and devoted mother of four. In her more than 22-year career, she has supported parents with evidence-based strategies that target the root cause of children’s attention, anxiety, mood, and behavior challenges, empowering them to achieve their highest potential. Dr. Beurkens is a licensed clinical psychologist who holds advanced degrees in psychology, education, and nutrition. 

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  • Dr. Beurkins, Thank you for this short article and its contents. I have been working hard to incorporate bitter herbs and foods
    into my diet just this past year. I’ve found that they’ve helped
    correct my gut problems from high anxiety and stress due to
    far too many traumatic grief situations at once.
    I love research and information articles that deal with improving diet and life in general.

  • My last comment disappeared. Truing again.
    What is “Murdock” please?
    Or is it a typo for Burdock?

  • Hi
    Love the info but please can anyone say what “Murdock” is? Or, is it a typo for Burdock?

  • Would Astragalus be considered a bitter herb that could be used
    for a better biome?

  • I love this info on bitter foods. I have started using bitter tinctures pre-meal. I am on blood thinners so ginger and turmeric are not an option which makes me sad because I love them

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