April Crowell, Dipl. ABT (NCCAOM), AOBTA CI & CN

Whoever coined the phrase “bitter hearts” was right.  Bitter is the flavor that goes directly to the Heart.   Bitter. Even its name can make us cringe, and it’s certainly not the most popular of the 5 Flavors (sweet, sour, pungent, and salty) yet it serves a vital role in our health.   The flavor is a powerful mover and enters the Heart, Small Intestines, Triple Warmer and Pericardium–all the Fire organs.  When the Fire element is in-balance we are joyful and can act on life plans, we make meaningful relationships and set appropriate boundaries–engage!

Still frowning?  You don’t need a lot of bitter, so just play along for a bit.

Bitter flavors enter the Heart and other Fire Organs

Each of the 5 Elements has numerous correspondences including flavor, season, color, organs, sound and emotion.  Fire and the bitter flavor correspond with the season of Summer, which is unique in that it has four organ systems rather than two like the other elements.  The Heart (Yin), Small Intestines (Yang), Pericardium (Yin) and Triple Warmer (Yang) all belong to the Fire element-and they have a lot going on.  The Heart, as the emperor, sits on his throne and controls the circulation of blood and allows us our most intimate relationships. Heart needs to express its truest self to the world. Small Intestines constantly sorts the ‘pure from the impure’–what to digest and what not to digest–physically, emotionally and spiritually–who do we keep in our lives, who do we need to let go of? A lot of people can get stuck in the process of sorting.  Pericardium has similar properties to the Heart and the Triple Warmer acts as a regulator for circulation and water pathways.  Fire is all about relationships and communication. Whether we form meaningful relationships or allow people in appropriately or not. Who can’t use a little fine tuning on their relationship skills?

Bitter stimulates digestion and increases appetite

Remember Swedish Bitters?  Many cultures have historically used bitter teas, herbs and tinctures to aid in the digestive process.  Basically, the bitter flavor helps to cut through slow and sluggish digestion.  It gives us movement.  This is part of the Fire element’s talent. It’s action–go play, go create.

Bitter corresponds to the season of Summer, joy and laughter

Disharmonies in the Fire element can present as speech disharmonies (stuttering), anxiety, agitation, nervousness, manic behaviors (ADD and ADHD often have patterns of heat that may become worse in hot conditions), insomnia, spontaneous sweating and a lack of absorption. Too much bitter flavor will attack the Heart, robbing us of joy, the emotion of fire and making us…well, bitter in life.

Bitter descends, dries and drains.

Clever bitter drains excess damp conditions in the body by moving downward and draining out.  This makes it very important in conditions like gout, edema, swelling and elimination. Too much bitter, however, will dry up the Yin, Fluids and Blood.  This can leave room for fire to run rampant and do even more damage.  For example–Liver Fire Rising can be the root cause of hypertension and high blood pressure.  Stomach Fire is often seen in GERD and acid reflux.  Where Fire rages, it further dries up fluids and can give rise to Wind patterns.

Bitter foods

  • bamboo–yes, really.
  • bitter melon
  • buckwheat
  • capers
  • cauliflower
  • celeriac
  • chicory
  • chocolate
  • citrus peel
  • coffee
  • dandelion
  • endive
  • ginko
  • ginseng
  • grain beverages (coffee substitutes)
  • grapefruit
  • green tea
  • hibiscus
  • kale
  • lavender
  • lettuce
  • lemon peel
  • lemon balm
  • marigold–yes, it’s edible and many other flowers have a bit of the bitter flavor in them.
  • nasturtium
  • rhubarb
  • rose
  • savory
  • scallion
  • turmeric
  • turnip
  • watercress
  • white pepper
  • wintergreen…see a pattern?  There are very few bitter foods in the fungus, lentil, grains, meats and root categories.  To get the bitter flavor you must be eating vegetables, herbs and flowers. Again, a little goes a long way.


You may notice that coffee is a bitter food.  It’s true, and that is why we love it so much.  It gives us a punch, strongly stimulating and moving the Qi.  The problem is we tend to overuse coffee.  Overuse of stimulants drain our reserves of energy–in a nutshell–it pillages the adrenals, thyroid, Kidney yang and Qi. It’s not just the caffeine, but coffee’s  oily, rich nature is cloying and particularly targets the breast and reproductive hormones.  Watch out for your relationship to coffee.  A little goes a long way, and if you are exhausted, depleted and tired, its excess use will be more depleting in the long run.  Or better yet…try a coffee substitute.

Be well,