In Traditional Chinese Medicine, each of the major organs in the body is associated with one of the five flavours: sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty. There are between 2000 and 4000 taste buds located in the mouth, the throat and the oesophagus. These receptors, shaped like tiny hairs, send messages to the brain to interpret how foods taste.
In the Oriental medical framework, a disharmony in a specific organ will induce a craving in its related flavour.The sweet flavour is closely associated with the spleen and the stomach, which are the main organs of digestion. This explains why children whose digestive system is still developing always love sweets. By the time we reach adulthood, the digestive function has matured and these sweet cravings usually stop.While we need a combination of all these flavours in our diet, some are more palatable than others, so it is important to gradually become accustomed to all these different tastes from a young age.
The strong connection between taste and emotion is related to our survival. For instance, the innate rejection of very bitter flavours is a natural body defence against ingesting poisonous plants. Although there are taste receptors all over the tongue, the back of the mouth is more sensitive to bitter tastes. This is to protect us so that we can spit out harmful substances before they enter the throat and are swallowed.
Nevertheless, the bitter flavour, which is found in cruciferous vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green cabbage, zucchini, eggplants, as well as dandelion, turmeric, fenugreek, coffee, green tea, grapefruit, and lemon, is essential for the functioning of the liver and gallbladder. It is a powerful detoxifying agent, with anti parasitic and antiseptic properties.
According to Marc David, author of The Psychology of Eating, “One of the most neglected concepts in Western health and nutritional theory is that of balance. In term of dietary balance most Westerners severely reject the bitter flavour/taste in contrast to the more appealing and friendly choices like sweet and salty. However, this is inherently problematic as the bitter flavor is essential in maintaining balance and health.
Bitter foods have many important functions in the body, especially the liver detoxification and the digestion.”
These cruciferous vegetables also contain a substance called glucosinolates, which has been shown to have an important role in cancer prevention.
When a bitter flavour is detected by the taste buds, the nervous system responds by triggering what is known as “the bitter reflex”, which activates the secretion of enzymes in the mouth. These facilitate digestion and the production of hydrochloric acid, necessary for the breakdown of proteins.
According to a study published in a 2011 edition of The International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, taste receptors for bitter substances trigger the pancreas to secrete digestive enzymes and the gallbladder to release bile. The production and excretion of bile caused by the gallbladder is necessary for the breakdown of fats in the body.
Vegetables such as bitter artichokes, known to stimulate appetite, relieve nausea and improve liver function. are an important component of liver tonic herbal remedies.
One can understand why, in many European countries, aperitifs containing bitter herbal components have traditionally been offered as pre-dinner drinks to stimulate the gastrointestinal system before the meal. Although there are many benefits in adding bitters to a patient's diet, they are contraindicated in patients with hyperacidity problems, or duodenal ulcers.
Bitter green vegetables also contain vitamins A, B, C, and K, as well as minerals like calcium, magnesium and potassium. They are also good sources of fibre. Diets rich in vegetables and fruits have been linked to lower rates of cancer and coronary heart disease.
Unfortunately, in countries like the United States, it is now cheaper to buy fast food loaded with salt and sugar than fresh vegetables.
This explains why the incidence of Type 2 diabetes in Americans with lower incomes is so high.
In Chinese culture, too, there is always an emphasis on having a mixture of different colours on the plate, because colourful vegetables and fruits like peppers, tomatoes, pumpkin, apricots and carrots are rich in antioxidants.
Changing our diet is always a bit of an effort, but there is such a great choice of bitter vegetables, herbs and teas that everyone should be able to find something they like. Lately, I have even discovered that Brussels sprouts cooked in the oven can be quite palatable, which would have made my late mother very happy. So increasing our intake of bitter green vegetables might be a New Year resolution worth keeping.
Your liver would definitely be very grateful!
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com