Herbs evoke a multitude of responses in the body. In addition to the more obvious, taste is an essential piece of this process. It inspires a chemical reaction which may calm, stimulate, dry or heat. These energetic effects are felt body-wide, and are foundational when it comes to improving our health.
I have always had a fascination with taste. When I co-owned the herb store, my partner and I would often have tincture-tasting contests with consenting friends. When they would become ill and come to us for assistance, we would see who could mix the worst tasting tincture as a cold remedy, free of charge! The formulas were very effective, and thankfully, despite the taste torture, our friends remained loyal.
It was through our willing assistants, both plant and human, that we learned a lot about the medicinal benefits of taste. When you are studying herbs, you hear about taste. You taste plants in the field, and the tinctures and teas. But when you see the medicinal action taste has in a clinical setting, it becomes real in a different way. And you begin to understand, not just know, that taste is an effective healer and ally.
The five tastes I am referring to are bitter, sour, pungent, sweet and salty. The energetic actions they have internally define clearly how herbs work. In this two part article, I will explain the basic overall energetics of taste, and give a few examples of how I have used taste medicinally. Bitter, sour and pungent will be the focus of part one, with sample tea formulas for nerves and digestion. Part two will cover sweet and salty, and include strategies for balancing diet through taste.
Bitters are a lost and shunned taste in our society. From gagging to cringing, you can bet people make a funny face when they try them. But if you want the benefits that bitter herbs offer, you have to taste the bitter to stimulate the function. Bitter herbs affect the stomach, small and large intestines, liver, gallbladder, lymphatic, urinary tract and nervous system.
There are two basic types of bitters, cooling and warming. I will address the latter under pungent tastes. Cooling bitters are the ones most often used, and there are many. A few to make note of are the liver tonics dandelion root, yellow dock, and gentian. Their first line of action is on organs of digestion. The bitter lymphatic red root is a powerful anti-inflammatory and astringent, increasing the absorption of nutrients in the small intestine, and octillo, which improves portal circulation and fat digestion. A great anti-bacterial whose best known for it’s ability to fight urinary tract infections is the herb uva ursi. It is a powerful diuretic, anti-inflammatory and astringent. And there are also the bitter nervine tonics blue vervain, motherwort, and chamomile.
Bitters are indicated for constricted tissues that are stagnant and hold heat. They cool by stimulating function, which disperses heat into action. When we ingest bitters, digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid, and bile are excreted providing better breakdown of food. Improved digestion of proteins, fats and sugars lowers the incidence of food intolerances and increases the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, thereby making the large intestine’s job easier.
Bitters simulate the excretion of bile. This serves multiple purposes. Incitement of the liver and gallbladder has a detoxifying effect on the body. Bile also aids the assimilation of fats, and is food for good intestinal bacteria, supporting the proliferation of healthy bowl flora. Bile and properly assimilated fats are a natural lubricant for the large intestine, and are useful for constipation.
Bitter herbs are best known for stimulating a sluggish colon. But some have a balancing effect on the large intestine, ceasing diarrhea as well. Yellow dock is an excellent example of this.Yellow dock (Rumex crispus) is a bitter liver tonic that increases secretions from the gallbladder and the liver. It also increases the liver’s ability to absorb and use iron. Yellow dock is specifically indicated for chronic skin problems that result from a poor assimilation of fats where excess oil is secreted by the skin. This plant is drying, and balances the colon to relieve constipation or arrest diarrhea.
A client with an autoimmune disease came to me with poor fat digestion, anemia, and chronic constipation. She suffered from a large amount of mucous that both coated her throat and often appeared in her bowel movements. I recommended a tincture comprised of 1 part yellow dock tincture to ½ part lemon balm. Ten drops were to be taken with meals. I also recommended she eliminate (cow) dairy products from her diet. With the addition of the mealtime tincture and elimination of dairy, the excess mucous cleared, her stomach complaints ceased and her anemia and bowel problems improved.
As mentioned, some bitters have a calming and cooling effect on the nervous system. Chamomile, motherwort, and blue vervain are a few to be noted here. Each has specific indications for use, and while their first line of action is a bitter that influences the nervous system, they can be specifically indicated for other ailments when necessary.
The use of a bitter nervine came up for my daughter, who had suffered from a clear runny nose for weeks. It was a remnant from a minor viral infection that had since cleared. She did not respond to drying and pungent herbs, lymphatics or to sour herbs, which are typically her allies. Even yarrow, which I love in these instances, was of no use. So I began to observe her more closely.
She was shouting a lot more then usual, was exhausted, and had a white coating down the center of her tongue. I decided to employ blue vervain fresh plant tincture at 5 drops 3 times daily. The first day her runny nose remained unchanged, but there was less shouting. By the third day, her shouting was greatly decreased, and the runny nose had ceased. Her tongue began to look pinkish down the center instead of white.
Excessive anger and repressed emotion benefit from cooling bitter nervines. When the liver stagnates, and heat builds in the tissues, nervousness and digestive unrest are the result. All of this can decrease immunity, especially since viruses lodge in the nervous system. So the most specific thing was a bitter nervine.
Just as with bitters, people avoid sours in their purest form. Sours make you pucker. These herbs affect the liver, gallbladder, stomach, large intestine, veins and muscles. They also calm the mind and tonify the heart.
Sours cool and bind things that have separated as a result of too much heat, as opposed to cooling bitters which disperse trapped heat. Some examples of sour plant medicines are cranberries, elderberries, hawthorn berries, raspberry leaf and rose hips. They are astringent, meaning they tighten mucous membranes, thereby decreasing inflammation and overactive tissue states.
Organs of elimination benefit greatly from sours. Sours balance a stomach that is wet and hot with excessive moisture accompanied by a large intestine that is dry and has lost tone and function. Or, in the case of the mildly sour raspberry leaf, they can tone the tissue of the large intestine, stopping diarrhea.
Hawthorn berries can re-instill tone in the colon and heart when chronic constipation is accompanied by a heart deficiency. It can also aid assimilation of fats and cholesterol by the liver, lessening heart and liver congestion, and bridge the heart-mind disconnect.
Just as sours sedate tissue state, they also have a calming effect on the mind and nervous system. In Chinese medicine it is thought that a deficient heart is sometimes companion to an anxious and cluttered mind. Sour is the flavor that rhythmically aligns the heart and mind. I can attest to having treated this misalignment with a combination of sours and bitter nervines.
In one such case I was required to come up with a formula that had a tonic effect on the nervous system, but would also lessen the anxiety produced by a panic attack. The formula consisted of equal parts tinctures of skullcap (a nervine tonic), motherwort (a bitter nervine that gladdens the heart and lessens anxiety), and hawthorn (a sour that strengthens the heart, improves digestive function and calms the mind). I added the adaptogen holy basil, which is specific for a cluttered mind.
In small doses of 10 drops 3 times daily this remedy had a tonic effect on the client. If in the throws of a stressful situation with extreme anxiety the tincture was taken in 60 drop doses twice within an hour. The effects were excellent.
Pungent herbs are spicy, hot, acrid, and aromatic. When people taste pungent herbs, their mouth is open and they are fanning themselves. The element of hot air is present. And it is a part of the core function of this group of plants—heating, drying and stimulating.
Pungent herbs have bitter properties, are nervine, anti-inflammatory and carminative. The pungent penetrates the lungs, heart, circulation, nervous system, liver, stomach and intestines. Examples of bitter pungent herbs are prickly ash bark, fenugreek, angelica, yarrow and orange peel. Aromatic pungents are cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger.
Pungent herbs are an indispensable tool. They can act as a carminative, expelling gas and bloating in the intestinal tract and calming painful spasms. Most can thin and dry up stuck, thick mucus. Ginger and prickly ash increase circulation by moving blood and warmth to the periphery. Prickly ash and angelica root increase hydrochloric acid secretions in the stomach, thereby improving digestive function. Yarrow and ginger induce diaphoresis, increasing body temperature and the body’s ability to fight infection and break a fever.
The aromatic qualities of heating herbs move like a vapor in the body, penetrating places internally that are cold and stuck. When used in a formula they are able to clear energetic and cold obstruction thus preparing space for the primary medicines to work more effectively. They find their way into many formulas for this reason.
Materia Medica for Tea Formulas
Tea formulas are easy and fun to come up with. And I hope you become inspired to formulate teas according to taste for medicinal benefits and for fun.
Several of the herbs for the tea blends were already mentioned and addressed in the article. Of those that were not, I will include a brief Materia Medica here to better describe what each plant in the formula can do for you.
Chamomile (Chamomilla recutita) carminative, anti-inflammatory, nervine; when there is wind with constriction in the tissue; sweet acrid bitter cooling; IBS; emotional distress with a heated personality, and dryness; great for kids; stomach upset, morning sickness, nausea, carminative, tension headaches; tightness and cramping in the gut; emotional digestive issues
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinalis) is a bitter liver tonic that inspires the release bile, stimulates hydrochloric acid production, pancreatic and small intestine secretions, which aid the breakdown of sugars and assimilation of nutrients. It is indicated for poor fat metabolism, hypoglycemia, and is a rich source of fructoligosacharides, or FOS, food for healthy bowel flora. It is considered bitter, sweet, salty, moist, and oily.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) sweet, carminative, gas, nausea, colic, warm and dry with ability to reintroduce oil; address a tendency to overeat with bloating, constipation, and spasms in the intestinal tract
Peppermint leaf and flower (Mentha piperita): warming and dispersing that turns to cooling; carminative used for gas and bloating after a meal, dizziness and headache associated with nausea and stomachaches, headaches
Rose hips (Rosa spp.): sour, sweet, cool and calming, astringent; constipation; heat and irritation in the intestines; constipation with chronic yeast infection or diarrhea from spastic colon
Orange peel (Citrus spp.) Stimulates HCA; carminative, decreases gas, nausea
This Holiday Tummy Tea is slightly warming. The tastes represented here are bitter, pungent and sweet. It increases hydrochloric acid secretions, is carminative and calming. The formula is 1 part peppermint, 1 part chamomile, 1 part fennel, and ¼ part cardamom seeds. To prepare this tea, combine the plants and steep 1 teaspoon of tea mix in 8 oz. of hot water for 5 minutes. There is no need to add sweetener. The fennel seeds are a sweetness that balances the flavor. Besides, it is best to adjust our taste buds to the natural flavor of things.
A Sweet, Sour and Spicy tea consists of equal parts rose hips and hawthorn berries, ½ part fennel and ¼ part orange peel. I like to steep this one a little longer, between 5-10 minutes. It reduces air and water in the intestinal tract and balances stomach secretions, amongst other things. It is mainly cooling in nature, with a hint of pungent orange peel. It has the slightest bit of stimulation to push the others into action.
Hangover Tincture: We used to make a lot of this at the herb store. It consists of equal parts of milk thistle and yellow dock tinctures. The milk thistle with yellow dock acts to mildly detoxify and protect the liver. It greatly diminishes the effects of alcohol on the body via the liver. Take 30 drops of tincture the night before drinking, and 30 drops of tincture 3-4 times the day after the party. To specifically adjust this per person chose herbs to accompany this formula based on taste and your symptom picture. Some may benefit from a bitter nervine, others from a pungent or sour herb. I have been known to add ginkgo biloba to the formula as well as dandelion root, again, depending on the person.
Think of the body as a well-tuned orchestra, with harmony and rhythm as foundational to health. Organ systems vibrate and communicate with each other to hold a tune. And the constant rhythm that is blood flowing, chemical process,chewing and swallowing, the beat of the heart and the pulse of the colon keep things moving in sync. Taste can be a grand harmonizer that attunes these many functions, and encourages them to play a song that is truly reflective of who we are.
While we hear a lot about the taste of plants and foods, we need to accompany that information with how all tastes are important, and how they act in the body. I feel it is worth while to facilitate our own experience around this. To develop a keener sense of taste, sample individual plants, and make your own observations as to their effects. Combine this with a bit of research about each herb, and you will be on your way to better health, and a greater understanding of the foundations of herbal medicine.
As mentioned, Part II of this article will describe the medicinal benefits of sweet and salty, and point out the imbalances of them in excess. Included will be ways to improve your diet and cravings using plants medicines. Warm wishes to you in this holiday season!