Whoever coined the phrase “bitter hearts” was on the right track. The bitter flavor directly influences our Heart.

Bitter – even its name can make us cringe, and it is certainly not the most popular of the 5 Flavors falling behind sweet, sour, pungent, and salty  Yet the bitter foods serve a vital role in our health. The flavor is a powerful mover and enters all of the Fire element organs – the Heart, Small Intestines, Triple Warmer and Pericardium. When these organs are in harmony we are joyful, have healthy relationships with appropriate boundaries, can act on our life plans and pain seems negligible.  We can engage in life.

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 assigned to it including flavor, season, color, organs, sound and emotion.  Fire and the bitter flavor correspond with the season of Summer, the color red, laughter and joy. Fire is the only element that 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 and they have a lot going on.  The Heart, as the emperor, sits on his throne and controls the circulation of blood. We allow those who are closest too into our Heart, these are deepest and most intimate relationships. We see suffering if a person never allows anyone close or they inappropriately allow harmful people too close. This is often a mother and child relationship or very healthy marriages and deep friendships.  Heart needs to express its truest self to the world allowing you to express your deepest intentions, desires and love. We speak from the Heart when we are in health. The Small Intestines is the closest minister to the Heart and 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 keep close or need to move further out, or entirely let go of? A lot of people can get stuck in the process of sorting and it can lead to digestive problems, literally.  Pericardium has similar properties to the Heart and helps us with relationships, casual relationships and plays a role in sexuality. The Triple Warmer acts as a regulator for circulation and water pathways, when it comes to relationships, it behaves more like the Great Wall of China. Who don’t you even want in the country or on your block?  Fire is all about relationships and communication and who can’t use a little fine tuning on their relationship skills?

Bitter stimulates digestion and increases appetite

Most traditional cultures have used bitter teas, herbs and tinctures to aid in the digestive process. Swedish Bitters is a simple tincture that is still readily available. Bitters, whether as a food, tea or tincture move digestive stagnation.  They do this by stimulating digestive enzyme secretion and production and movement of bile helping to cut through slow and sluggish digestion. Besides freeing up digestion the flavor helps to empower the virtue of the Fire element – it’s time for action – go play, go create, laugh and love. Fortunately, bitters are becoming popular again and the tinctures are very easy to make.

Bitter corresponds to the season of Summer, joy and laughter

Disharmonies in the Fire element can present as any speech disorders, 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.

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, puffiness and slowed elimination.  Too much bitter, however, will dry up the Yin, Fluids and Blood and attack the Heart, which can leave us bitter. This can also 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

  • alfalfa sprouts
  • aloe
  • amaranth
  • artichoke
  • arugula
  • asparagus
  • bamboo – yes, really.
  • barberry
  • bay
  • bitter orange
  • bitter melon
  • blessed thistle
  • buckwheat
  • capers
  • cardamom
  • catnip
  • chamomile
  • cauliflower
  • celery
  • chicory
  • chrysanthemum
  • chocolate
  • citrus peel
  • coffee
  • dandelion greens and flowers
  • echinacea
  • endive
  • eucalyptus
  • eye bright
  • fenugreek
  • feverfew
  • ginko
  • ginseng
  • grain beverages (coffee substitutes)
  • grapefruit
  • green tea
  • hibiscus
  • kale
  • kholrabi
  • lavender
  • leafy greens
  • lettuce
  • lemon peel
  • lemon balm
  • marjoram
  • marigold – yes, it’s edible and many other flowers have a bit of the bitter flavor in them.
  • mugwort
  • nasturtium
  • orange peel
  • oregano
  • parsley
  • pistachio
  • pumpkin seed
  • rhubarb
  • rose
  • rye
  • savory
  • scallion
  • tangerine peel
  • thyme
  • turmeric
  • turnip
  • violet
  • 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,