Bitter Taste – Qualities, Health Benefits, Side Effects

Bitter taste is called as Tikta Rasa in Sanskrit. Let us learn in detail about Bitter taste, what are the general qualities of substances having Bitter taste, how it affects health, mind, Tridosha and diseases, adverse effects on excessive intake etc.

Effect on Tridosha

Bitter taste decreases Kapha and Pitta. It increases Vata Dosha.

Qualities

Rooksha, Sheeta Laghu – dry, cold and light

Composition

Bitter taste is composed of Vayu (air) and Akasha (ether) elements.
When you think of air and ether together, you could imagine lightness, hollowness, cold and dryness. These three are the qualities of food having Tikta Rasa.
Bitter has air and ether elements, so is Vata Dosha. Hence bitter increases Vata.
When you blow air forcibly on to fire (Pitta), the fire extinguishes. Hence, bitter pacifies Kapha Dosha.
Because it is opposite to heaviness (Kapha quality), it pacifies Kapha.

neem twig as tooth brush

Effect on body and mind

Soon after tasting bitter substance, it destroys other tastes. But over a period of time, it helps to improve tasting capacity of tongue and helps to relieve related diseases like anorexia.
Mukhavaishadyakara – cleanses oral cavity
Kantha Shodhana – cleanses and detoxifies throat
Mukhashoshakara – causes dryness of mouth
Shaityakara – acts as coolant
Harshana – causes happiness, elevates mood.
Deepana – increases digestion strength
Pachana – carminative
Avrushya – decreases sexual interest and performance
Krumighna – helps to relieve intestinal worms
Rakta Prasadana – detoxifies blood
Ahrudya – not good for heart
Kaphaghna – useful to relieve sputum from respiratory tract
Vranaghna – relieves wound,
Puyaghna – heals wounds without pus formation, reduces pus formation
Lekhana – has scraping effect over the body channels
Kledahara – decreases moistness
Medahara – decreases cholesterol
Vishaghna – anti toxic
Dahahara – relieves burning sensation
Swedaghna – decreases sweating
Kandughna – relieves itching
Kushtaghna – useful in skin disorders. Most of the herbs that are used in skin diseases like Karanja, Neem, etc have bitter as one among their tastes.
Stanya Shodhana – cleanses breast milk
Lekhana – has scraping effect

Jwaraghna – useful in fever. Most of the bitter tasting herbs like neem, Giloy etc have anti microbial and antipyretic benefits. Hence, useful in fever.

Bitter taste cleanses the mouth and destroys the organs of taste (makes perception of other tastes impossible.
Tikta by itself is not tasty, but it cures anorexia, worms, thirst, poison, skin diseases, loss of consciousness, fever, nausea, burning sensations;
Bitter mitigates Pitta and Kapha, dries up moisture, fat, muscle-fat marrow, faeces and urine;
Tikta Rasa is easily digestible, increases intelligence, cold in potency, dry (causes dryness), cleanses breast milk, and throat.
Used in excess, it causes depletion of Dhatus (tissues) and diseases of Vata origin.

Generally bitters and pungent tasting herbs are non-aphrodisiacs and aggravate  Vata except for Giloy, long pepper and Garlic.

Examples

Vetiver, neem, turmeric, Loha Bhasma (iron)

Symptoms of excessive bitter taste consumption

Excess of Bitter causes increase of Vata, leading to following symptoms –
Due to dryness, roughness, non sliminess, bitter depletes Rasa dhatu (essence part of digestion), blood (rudhira), Mamsa (muscle tissue), Meda (fat tissue), Asthi (bone), Majja (marrow), Shukra (semen, female reproductive system)
Dhatushosha – emaciation and dryness of tissues
Srotokharatva – dryness, roughness, brittle-ness of body channels
Daurbalya – debility, tiredness
Karshya – emaciation, weight loss
Glapana -weariness
Murcha – fainting, unconsciousness. Excess of bitter tasting food / medicine leads to depletion of sugar levels in the blood leading to dizziness and fainting.
Mukhashosha – dryness of mouth.

While taking food,Bitter taste should be consumed in the last half part of the diet, after having consumed sweet, sour, salt and pungent tastes.

Contraindications

Vata imbalance (because, bitter taste increases Vata and causes further imbalance), lean, emaciated person.

Characteristc features of bitter taste

Bitter taste is ascertained by –
weakening of taste perception of the tongue.
Such substances by themselves are not tasteful ;
Causes non-sliminess, clarity (Vaishadya)
Shosha – dryness of tongue and
Prahlada – produces delight

Herbs with bitter taste

Patoli,
Trayanti – Gentiana kurroa,
Valaka,
Usira – Vetiveria zizanioides,
Chandana – Sandalwood,
Bhunimba – The creat (whole plant) – Andrographis paniculata,
Nimba – Neem – Azadirachta indica,
Katuka – Picrorhiza kurroa,
Tagara – Indian Valerian (root) – Valeriana wallichi,
Aguru,
Vatsaka – Holarrhena antidysentirica,
Naktamala,
Turmeric and tree turmeric,
Musta – Nut grass (root) – Cyperus rotundus,
Murva,
Atarushaka – Adhatoda vasica,
Patha – Cyclea peltata,
Apamarga –  Prickly Chaff Flower – Achyranthes aspera,
Kamsya (bronze), Ayas (iron),
Guduchi – Tinospora cordifolia,
Dhanvayasaka,
Mahat Pancamula – Bilva, Agnimantha, Shyonaka, Gambhari, Patala
the two Vyaghri – Brihati and Kantakari,
Visala, Ativisha, Vacha etc

References:
Ashtanga Hrudayam Sutrasthana 10th chapter

Bitter taste has coldness. Kapha also has coldness. How astringent, being a coolant, can decrease Kapha Dosha?

Being hot or being cold is one way in which substances affect Doshas. There is another thing called Maha Bhutas – basic elements.

Bitter taste has air and ether elements. So, clearly, there is lightness, there is dryness. Both these qualities are pro Vata and anti Kapha. Hence, bitter substances Increase Vata Dosha and decrease Kapha Dosha.

Both bitter and astringent herbs balance down Kapha and Pitta Dosha. Which one to use in which conditions? How to differentiate? 
Blocking and drying up action is achieved much better with astringent than bitter (excess bleeding, excess urine flow, diarrhea etc).  
Eg: Irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea -> Kutaja – Bark of Holarrhena antidysenterica is useful. 
In case of infection and fever –  bitter makes better sense than astringent
Eg; Fever – I would rather pick guduchi than Kutaja – Bark of Holarrhena antidysenterica.

Using Bitters for Healing

In a disease, is it a good idea to mix a variety of bitter herbs in tea (Gilroy, neem, amla, triphala, etc) or is it better to take them separately? Are the effects additive?
It is really good to use a poly-herbal combination, rather than depending on single herbs or just 2 – 3 herbs. 
Most of the traditional Ayurvedic medicines are polyherbal – as many as 30+ herbs (eg: chyawanprash, Mahanarayana taila, Mahatiktaka ghrita
So, it makes sense to make poly-herbal combinations, even with your own knowledge. 
Just make sure not to use opposing ingredients – eg: milk + amla 
Refer – wrong food combinations page and keep that in mind. 

Also, search on  Ayurmedinfo.com for the two herbs that you want to mix together. If you find the two herbs in many traditional Ayurvedic medicine, then it gives a hint that those two herbs are compatible with each other. 

Is there a specific time of day when it is best to ingest bitter herbs for maximum effectiveness especially when trying to decrease Kapha?

For a kapha dominant disorder such as obesity, let us assume you want to take a bitter dominant medicine such as Manjishtadi kashayam or Nimbadi kashayam. Then, it is best to take it in the Kapha dominant time period. Morning before 9 am and evening, before 10 pm is usually dominated by Kapha dosha. 
Read: Natural Dosha Increase During Day And Night

Should the medicine be taken before or after a meal, depends largely on the disease. For example, a bitter – astringent medicine such as Kamdudha ras, better to take it before food / empty stomach so that it tries to heal the wounds quicker. 
For a diabetic patient, taking bitter medicines on an empty stomach can be tricky as it can lower the blood sugar level and may end up in dangerous hypoglycemia

Bitter and digestion

What is the effect of bitter herbs on digestion strength?  
By Dr JV Hebbar 
Some bitter herbs have hot potency by nature. Ayurveda compares digestion strength with fire elements. So, these hot bitter herbs naturally increase the digestion strength not necessarily due to their bitterness, but due to their innate hotness quality. 
For example: 
Guduchi, (Giloy – Indian Tinospora), used for immuno-modulation, treatment of fever, gout, vascular disorders etc. 
Kalamegha (Bhunimba – Andrographis paniculata) – A terrific herb to review  liver functions and to clear viral infections of the liver. 
Vacha (Acorus calamus) – An herb to improve brain functions, intelligence and to speech. 

Coolant bitter herbs: Some bitter herbs are coolant in nature and may not contribute to improvement of digestion strength. 
Sandalwood:Improves skin health, heartburn and burning urination.
Usheera– Used in fever and burning urination  
ShatavariUsed in fever, to improve breast milk in mothers, to treat menopausal complications etc. 
Learn more about bitter herbs

So, bitter herbs can be hot or cold and they can increase or decrease digestion strength. 
Bitter herbs are dominant with air and ether elements. Air is naturally cool and hence most of the bitter herbs are coolant. Whereas, if bitter herbs are mixed with hot herbs, bitters can also increase hotness, just like blowing air increases strength of burning fire. 
Learn more about tastes and Herbology in a course

11 thoughts on “Bitter Taste – Qualities, Health Benefits, Side Effects”

  1. Dr. your articles are very nice to read indeed. Explained in way that a layperson can understand and also short & sweet 🙂 Thanks a lot.

    Reply
  2. What can be the causes of water retention (swelling in legs)? Someone I know developed this problem only when staying in one particular city (while going back and forth between two cities within few days), so it seemed that the trigger factor was most likely in the water or food…

    What makes the body retain water like this to cause swelling?

    Reply
  3. Hello! many thanks for this article! I noticed that taking something bitter at the end of a meal helps me to stop eating and that it systematically cuts my appetite. and I am trying to understand why and find the logic. is it because bitter taste makes perception of other tastes impossible?

    Reply
    • Hi, bitter is drying in nature, because of its air and ether elements. It dries up digestive juices and hence stops hunger, when taken at the end of meals.

      Reply
      • Hi, when taken at the end of meals, it dries up the extra juices.
        When taken on empty stomach, the digestive fire (Agni) will be already high due to hunger. Bitter is of Air and ether elements. So, it fans air into the fire, leading to improvement of fire.

        Reply

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