Just a short while ago, I heard the mountain chickadee for the first time this year. Crocuses are poking forth between snowstorms and the house finches sing as they build their nest on our porch.
During the spring season, the texts of Ayurveda encourage us to make use of the bitter taste. Similarly, in the Passover seder, bitter herbs are eaten.
Indeed, many of us do crave the bitter taste after a winter of heavier foods. Fresh little dandelion greens are poking up in the garden and baby arugula is available in grocery stores. Meanwhile, those who are preparing for spring panchakarma are heroically gulping down titka gritam, a specially medicated bitter ghee that readies our body to cleanse. But what is so special about the bitter taste?
The bitter herb kutki, a key ingredient in titka ghee, is noted for its content of compounds known as iridoid glycosides. Plants are exposed to the same hazards that we are, including viruses, bacteria, fungi and environmental toxins. While we protect ourselves with antibodies and special white blood cells, plants protect themselves by manufacturing special compounds that are beneficial to us as well as to the parent plant. That's basically how herbs work. So iridoid glycosides are a part of the immune system of bitter herbs like kutki.
And like us, plant cells are subject to oxidative stress. While oxygen is the element that keeps us alive, it's also a highly reactive element that can degenerate our DNA and hence cause ageing and chronic diseases. Think of what happens to your car if the autobody paint is damaged. The rust is the result of an oxidative process. And, unlike us, plants are constantly at risk of being eaten. If they figure our how to taste bitter, they are less likely to be eaten! So for several reasons, a number of medicinal plants produce iridoid glycosides. Despite their bitter taste, our innate intelligence guides us to consume foods that contain iridoid glycosides--substances that are analgesic, support the heart and blood vessels, protect the liver and help stop age and environmental toxins mutating our DNA. Iridoids are also anti-inflammatory, antiviral and anti-tumor. They help keep our blood sugar at healthy levels and support the flow of bile to promote digestion. Taking bitter herbs in springtime cleans up the 'rust' (oxidative damage) from our winter of holiday parties and heavy foods. What's not to like--aside from the taste!
While olives are a food source of iridoid glycosides, we typically consume a diet very depleted in the bitter taste and heavy on sweet and salty. The best way to ensure that you get your iridoid glycoside spring anti-rust treatment and tune up is to consult an Ayurvedic practitioner for a spring cleansing formula, which can be given as a stand-alone treatment or as a prelude to panchakarma.
And as we recite in the Passover seder:
See! The winter is past;
The rains are over and done.
Flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
the cooing of turtledoves
is heard in our land.
Alakananda Ma M.B., B.S. (Lond.) is an Ayurvedic Doctor (NAMA) and graduate of a top London medical school. She is co-founder of Alandi Ayurveda Clinic and Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula in Boulder Colorado, as well as a spiritual mother, teacher, flower essence maker and storyteller. Alakananda is a well known and highly respected practitioner in the Ayurveda community both nationally and internationally.
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