The Benefits of Bitter Taste

29 November 2010

Chinese herbal medicine has a reputation of having an unpleasant taste. Even after Avicenna's cooking processes, which improves the medicinal strength and the taste of the herbs, they may still live up to their unsavoury reputation. Although we normally attribute the healing action of herbs to pharmacological effects based on their chemical composition, the taste of herbs participates in its medicinal reaction. Herbs can be sweet, salty, pungent, bitter, bland or sour. Sweeter herbs such as Gan Cao nourish and tonify. Salty herbs can break down masses and bitter herbs can clear accumulations.

It is the bitter herbs that people dislike the most. This is no surprise. We are hardwired to dislike bitterness. In nature, bitterness provides valuable information to help us avoid toxic substances. However, recent research indicates that it is exactly this reason that bitterness can be medicinally beneficial because it activates healing by inducing an immune response. Last October the University of Maryland published research in Nature Medicine which found that taste receptors in the lungs opened the airways when provoked by bitterness. Additionally, in 2009, researchers at the University of Arizona found that by simply smelling something bitter an immune response was triggered.

Despite this hardwired dislike of bitter taste, most people discover that their initial aversion to the taste of herbs dissipates quickly. It is not uncommon for people to begin to like the taste. This, to the immense surprise of parents, even occurs with very young children.


Tizzano, M., Gulbransen, B., Vandenbeauch, A., Clapp, T., Herman, J., Hiruy, H. et al. (2009). Nasal chemosensory cells use bitter taste signaling to detect irritants and bacterial signals. Retrieved November 5, 2010 from PNAS website:

Mueller, K., Hoon, M., Erlenbach,J., Chandarashekar,C., Zuker,N. (2005). The receptors and coding logic for bitter taste. Nature, 434, 225-9.

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