Bitter foods elevate the air element and reduce the excesses of the other elements. They are light, cold, and dry, and their characteristic taste is due to the presence of alkaloids (such as caffeine, nicotine, etc.), bitter principles (e.g. berberine), and glycosides. The dryness of bitter foods helps relieve mucus, pus, and watery accumulations. Such foods are slimming, and according to Ayurveda, reduce fat, flesh, and marrow. This taste is therefore much needed by diabetics. Bitter foods absorb mucus and the minuteness of bitterness (a characteristic of air and ether) enables it to move through narrow channels and clear the way for better circulation.


herbal alkaloids

Of all the tastes discussed herein, the bitter one is perhaps the one best known in Western herbalism which has long touted various bitters (gentian, dandelion, aloe vera, goldenseal, etc.) for treating a wide range of conditions predominantly associated with the liver. Bitter foods are generally overwhelming in taste and therefore obscure the presence of the other tastes. Bitters are purifying and detoxifying and they help to remove poisons from the blood as well as from mother's milk. They are also useful when a person has suppurating wounds. They are hence indicated for skin disorders, especially where there is also fever, jaundice, or loss of appetite. Many bitters are germicidal, bactericidal, and anti-inflammatory.

Because of the catabolic quality of bitters, an excessive intake will be debilitating. Moreover, many bitter plants are poisonous; however, many have well appreciated pharmaceutical uses, such as foxglove which is used in making digitalis. Bitters are strong medicine and should be used carefully. There are many bitter herbal formulas on the market. The best known is perhaps Swedish Bitters. It is quite intense but well regarded. The Floradix formula is my personal preference. It can be used relatively safely to regulate appetite and digestion. Of the culinary spices which are bitter, turmeric is perhaps the most widely used. It is turmeric which imparts the yellow color to curry, and this spice is extremely beneficial both internally and externally. Coriander is another bitter spice used in curry; it helps to provide energetic balance since it is slightly cooling whereas many of the other ingredients of curry are heating.

The average person can probably benefit from occasional use of bitters, even as part of a detoxification program (preferably in autumn or early winter). By tonifying the liver and thereby also the gall bladder and blood stream, the regular flow of bile is promoted. This, in turn, kills intestinal worms. Nearly all types, except perhaps the air type, should consider annual health programs employing bitters, but their use should be stopped if the mouth becomes too dry or if the individual becomes constipated. Bitters are contraindicated where there is a headache, dizziness, loss of muscular strength, or reduction of stamina.

Because bitters are detoxifying, the promote clarity of the mind.  Their effect in elevating the air element is thought to aid the intellect.


The Bitter Taste
Balancing Energy
Balancing Taste


The Astringent Taste


Bitter Herbs
Azadirachta indica

Banyan Botanicals, 90 tablets, 500 mg, certified organic

Neem is a detoxifying herb that is especially valuable in removing excess pitta and kapha. It is very bitter and cooling. Vata types can combine neem with some warming herbs to offset its cooling effects. Neem is used to purify the blood, cleanse the liver, and boost immunity.

Ingredients: Neem leaf*

*Certified organically grown



Reprinted from The Elements: Constitutional Type and Temperament by Ingrid Naiman
Copyright 1989 and 1998 by Ingrid Naiman
Revised 2004







Sacred Medicine Sanctuary
Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2004

*The material provided on this site is for informational purposes only. The author is not a medical doctor. The statements made represent the author's personal opinions and are not intended to replace the services of health care professionals. The content and products discussed have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The information on this page and the products available on this site are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.