the gift of bitterness
Ayurvedic nutrition is based upon Six Tastes Theory. My shorthand translation of this, is that all food and drink can be understood through the lens of six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Where western nutrition has food group and calories, Ayurveda uses tastes. And we understand that each taste carries a particular set of instructions into the body. Instructions like: turn up or turn down metabolism, build tissue or break down tissue, moisten and lubricate tissue or dry and tone tissue… you get the idea. So the tastes that we eat the most of (sweet, sour, and salty for the average American diet) will be the instructions that our body receives the most of.
For most of us in the U.S., bitter is the most foreign of tastes. We don’t engage often with bitter foods, primarily in the dark green vegetable realm, and instead interact with bitter mostly in the form of coffee or chocolate. For many of us, this lack of bitter creates an imbalance in the body. Bitter is responsible for cleansing the blood, detoxifying the liver, dialing down inflammation, and cooling us off when we’ve become internally overheated. It is extremely Pitta-pacifying, as well as supporting Kapha dosha. Ayurvedically we often encourage reclaiming the bitter taste, and if the imbalance is strong enough, we support this process with bitter herbs. Reacclimating the palate to the bitter tastes is something many clients of Ayurveda struggle with. It’s not familiar, it’s not a comfort taste, and it doesn’t impart immediate pleasure on the tongue. The post-digestive effects of bitter are worth the initial struggle, however. A friend working with a rather bitter herbal formula over the last few months, was inspired to capture her experience in the following poem. If you’ve ever worked with bitter herbs I think you’ll find some resonance in the words below.
The Gift of Bitterness ~ by Bailey Mead
Drinking a cup of bitter herbs three times a day
is good practice for meeting life as it is.
Life cannot be all sweetness and fat,
the comforts of childhood,
Sweetness can be a gift
The gift of bitterness
is that it toughens you up
makes you resilient to the world as it is
steadies your center.
It pulls you closer into yourself
slows impulsive response
gives you patience
to sit perfectly still
and wait for the moment to strike.
First, it is impossible.
Tongue involuntary shooting out of the mouth
craving a chaser.
Then, it becomes interesting
That high tight shrinking feeling in the back of the jaw
The sharp prickly sensation in the mouth
transforming into a visceral
you are alive.
The craving for sweetness dissipates.
It begins to resonate with the taste of whiskey,
warmth that spreads and lingers
Finally, it becomes welcome.
Bringing balance whose gift
is the ability to taste the whole of life.