A new study confirms three thousand years of Chinese medical practice! Research from the University of Queensland found smell and taste receptors present on the human heart. The study reports that twelve (of the twenty-five) taste receptors which respond to bitter compounds are expressed in the heart. For TCM practitioners this study is exciting as in the study of Chinese herbal medicine we learn that herbs with a bitter taste are used to balance, direct, and guide a formula to the Heart.

In TCM, the “Heart” refers to the actual organ as well as a particular set of symptoms that let us know there is heart involvement with a patient’s pattern. These symptoms are based on how someone smells, what they crave, or want to eat, what their voice sounds like, what weather they prefer, and much more. Bitter is the taste, in Chinese medical theory, that balances the heart. It is both validating and exciting when Western research confirms Chinese Medical theory!

The alkaloids and glycosides found in bitter plants affect the nervous and circulatory systems; this parallels the same Chinese Medicine functions of the “Heart”. In Chinese Medicine, bitter herbs clear heat and dry dampness. In Western terms this relates to reducing inflammation and often has the effect of fighting infection as well. When someone has excess heat, the body will show symptoms such as ulcers in the mouth, red face, mania or delirium, heart palpitations, anxiety, insomnia and lassitude. Usually the urine is dark or yellow. The tip of the tongue can be very red or burning, and people may experience a bitter taste in the mouth. Bitter foods that may be recommended to enhance your acupuncture treatment and balance the heart are: bitter greens, romaine lettuce, celery, endive, quinoa, rye, asparagus, turnips, papaya, bitter melon, citrus peel or dandelion tea.


Eating foods with bitter compounds has also been suggested by nutritionists to help combat digestive illnesses, inflammation, and boost the immune system. In TCM terms bitter is cleansing, purifying and sometimes purgative (Pitchford 298). Consider the initial taste shock of bitter foods such as cranberries, cocoa and kale to be positive, and healthful. Know you are nourishing your heart!

Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology https://www.uq.edu.au/news/article/2015/05/not-sweet-heart-researchers-find-bitter-taste-receptors-human-hearts

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Written by Cailey Halloran, L.Ac., Dip. O.M.

Edited by Erin Pass, L.Ac., Dipl. C.H.