While humans have long used all the senses to connect with plants to improve mood and wellbeing, we have a special relationship to tasting and ingesting herbs for their health benefits. Taste is a deeply powerful way of connecting to plants because one is actually taking an herb into the body, merging with it completely, digesting and absorbing the medicinal constituents and allowing them to alter biochemistry, transforming our bodies at an organic and molecular level.
All mammals have a deep history of interweaving with plants via taste and ingestion. Some plants protect themselves with thorns and bitter taste to avoid being eaten. And some plants, seeds and fruits smell and taste sweet and delicious as a way of being eaten. Seeds from the plants are then excreted far away and then propagated via ingestion and elimination. Humans gain the nutrition from the plants and plants work with humans as carriers to spread their seeds far and wide. At core, this is a symbiotic relationship that has supported both human and plant for millennia.
Plants have developed unique and diverse tastes that come from specific phytochemicals. Some of these metabolites such as pheromones are designed to attract pollinators and others are toxins designed to avoid consumption. These metabolites come in response to the stress of their environment and act as biological agents that can respond to insects, fungi, bird, mammals and other plant life to build defense mechanism and protect themselves. When we taste and ingest these plants and some of these powerful metabolites, we are connecting to a network of compounds that can also help build our own resiliency
Many of these phytochemicals relate to a specific taste that has a medicinal function in the human body. Traditionally, herbs were classified in part due to their taste and effect. For example, the Chinese system incorporates five tastes. These are sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty. Each of these tastes is associated with specific phytochemicals and with specific effects on the human body. The flavors can can come from a variety of phytochemical origins.
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The sour taste is one of the most noticeable tastes and we are all familiar with it when we eat citrus fruits. Sour herbs have a number of possible constituents in them including flavanoids and organic acids.
The sour taste is associated with the liver in Chinese medicine and is a
taste that helps relax, cool and nourish this organ. Because of that sour herbs are useful for people who tend to run hot, overeat fatty, spicy and processed foods that are difficult for the liver to assimilate. Sour herbs help to cleanse and promote good digestion.
Sour herbs are also noted to be “astringent” in Chinese medicine though this taste is sometimes placed in a category of its own.
Astringent is a term for a substance that is “puckery”, absorbent and binds tissue. Astringent herbs are often rich in tannins such as blackberry leaf, oak and willow. For that reason astringent herbs are often offered to people who who have diarrhea, excessive bleeding and tend towards dampness and excessive sweating and secretion.
In terms of mental health, the sour flavor is particularly suited to those who are overheated, wired, grumpy and irritable in nature. Sour helps cool and relax.
Some examples of sour herbs include rose, schisandra, orange peel, cranberry, hibiscus, hawthorn and peony.
The bitter taste is one that modern people used to a refined diet tend to avoid except in a few cases. The main way we connect to the bitter flavor is through drinking coffee or drinking beer. That is unfortunate because bitter is a very helpful flavor that can be deeply helpful medicinally.
The bitter taste comes from alkaloids, glycosides and other bitter principles.
Generally bitter herbs are “cooling” and drying. They tend to move
energy down, meaning that they help us to digest, absorb, urinate and excrete. Bitter principles stimulate bile production, improve digestion and stimulate elimination through the bowels. The bitter taste is often also helpful for strengthening cardiac function. Bitter herbs are also often antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory. Bitter herbs are often paired with the term “alterative”. This old fashioned term means an herb that can help improve organ functioning and metabolism.
In terms of mental health, bitter herbs are often useful for people with “stuck” energy, uptight, constipated and irritable.
Examples of bitter herbs include dandelion, burdock, coffee, yellow dock, gentian and goldenseal.
The sweet taste is modern man’s favorite taste. Sweetness is associated with polysaccharide carbohydrate and calorie rich foods. Because this was hard to find in nature, humans developed a keen interest in finding food that was sweet and nutritious. This insured a greater chance of survival and propagation. In the modern era we have learned to process grains to such a refined level that we easily surpass our caloric needs with sweet sugar and high corn fructose syrup laden foods. The proper amount of this flavor will nourish us. Too much will lead to obesity, diabetes and inflammatory ailments.
The sweet flavor is also how we commonly “self-medicate”. Processed baked goods and
snacks high in carbohydrates help us to feel calmer, more relaxed and bring feelings of pleasure as well as give us a “sugar high”. On a basic level, there is nothing inherently wrong with working with food to help us feel more peaceful and relaxed. Complex carbohydrates in the form of a a bowl of brown rice, barley or oatmeal are deeply nutritious and help soothe and strengthen us. It is when we turn to the highly processed and refined sweet foods that we run into problems.
Plants have a special relationship to the sweet flavor because its one of the main vehicles for them to propagate themselves far and wide. Flowers have sweet smelling fragrances to attract pollinators. Many flowers turn into sweet fruits that are eaten by creatures that carry seeds to other parts of the bioregion where they are excreted and grow into new plants.
In terms of herbal medicine, the sweet flavor is generally nutritive and strengthening. In Chinese medicine, the sweet flavor is associated with the spleen and stomach and help to harmonize, improve digestion and absorption. Sweet herbs tend to be anti-inflammatory and often demulcent. Many of the tonic “adaptogenic” herbs found in the Chinese medicine materia medica are sweet in nature including ginseng, astragalus, wild yam, codonopsis and licorice. The West also offers some sweet tonic herbs such as american ginseng and burdock.
In terms of mental health, the nourishing effect of these sweet adaptogenic herbs are deeply important to those who feel burnt out, exhausted, harried and overwhelmed by the pace and intensity of modern existence. They are not meant to replace the need for rest, quiet, healthy diet and patterns, but they can act as an important tool for strengthening and nourishing us at a deep level.
Pungent herbs are the ones that you can smell from a distance. They tend to have a number of volatile oils such as peppermint, rosemary and coriander. These oils have a lot of different qualities such as being anti-microbial and stimulating. They tend to promote circulation, sweating and mucus secretion so they are great for the onset of a cold or if there is some deepest fluid that needs to be expectorated in the sinus cavities and lungs after an infection. Some pungent herbs are hot and stimulating such as cayenne and ginger, and some are more calming and cooling such as chamomile and mint.
In terms of mental health pungent aromatic herbs are especially helpful in terms of the sense of smell and I will spend some time talking about this category of herbs in that chapter. They tend to be helpful for people who are experiencing anxiety and depression and they tend to work quickly, easily altering and improving mood.
Some examples of pungent herbs include angelica, cinnamon, coriander, ginger and mint.
The salty taste is associated with the kidneys in Chinese medicine and salty herbs and the kidney has a special function in that system of healing. The kidney is the storehouse of a substance called “Jing”, the essential fluid that provides the basis for our health and vitality. When we engage in overworking, excessive partying, sexual activity and drugs and alcohoil, we damage and use up our jing. This leads to growing old quickly, going bald, prematurely grey, becoming impotent, withered and dry.
The salty taste is key to restoring our jing and building our energy levels. In the West we have
been told that salt harms the kidneys and causes fluid retention and hypertension. Salty herbs do not mean adding large amounts of salt to the diet and refers more to the flavor of the plant and that they are often mineral and nutrient rich. An example would be seaweeds such as kelp and dulse which are deeply nutritious, emollient and strengthening. They contain high amounts of vitamins and minerals such as iron and manganese and are some of the only plant sources of B-12. Other examples of nutrient rich “salty” herbs include nettles and plantain.
In terms of mental health, salty herbs are deeply useful in this era of refined foods. We tend to eat food that is lacking in nutrients, or they have been artificially added to our foods. “Salty” herbs help nourish at a core level and strengthen our “jing”- our reserves, so that we can thrive.
When you learn about how an herb tastes, that becomes a doorway into understanding how it interacts with our body, whether it will stimulate bile and digestive juices, help warm us up on cool us down, nourish or relax us. Getting to know about the taste of herbs is key to having a full understanding of herbal medicine.