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Metabolic Syndrome and Type II Diabetes: Part 1

A healthy outside

Part 1

Managing Blood Sugar

Today I’d like to talk about managing blood sugar. A while back I posted a blog entitled, “The Bittersweet Truth About Fruits and Vegetables.” It was quite general and mostly encouraged my readers to eat more fruits and veggies, particularly the bitter ones. Well of course I received many comments mostly about how they hate bitter veggies or bitter anything. As a result I became inspired to really get into the whys of what I say, which has mostly to do with today’s epidemic of metabolic syndrome and diabetes type II.


What are the factors that take today’s modern patient down the pathways to metabolic syndrome and type II diabetes? Let’s start with a discussion of the relevance of taste. Tastes are bitter, salt, sweet and sour. A knew taste is now being recognized called umami a Japanese word meaning pleasant, good and savory. Herbalists have known for a long time that tasting things that are bitter helps to regulate our gastrointestinal tract. It’s well known that there is a reflex associated with the bitter taste and gastro-intestinal function. So the bitter taste buds are hard wired into the vagus nerve and the vagus nerve innervates the upper digestive tract, the heart and the lungs. Quite a lot of herbal therapies are directed at regulating vagus nerve function through the taste is for the purpose of impacting those various upper digestive tract areas.  Bitter receptors are hard wired into our brain as well and they elicit adverse behaviors. So this is a natural approach to prevent young children from eating things that may be poisonous. Most chemicals that are toxic chemicals are bitter in nature.  As a younger person there is a natural avoidance of things bitter. The art of parenting really should be to educate the child to enjoy tasting things that are bitter so that they can get the health benefits and avoid the toxins.

Bitter Receptors

The regulation of digestion through the bitter receptors in the tongue has been a well known mechanism throughout many cultures. The current understanding of these bitter receptors is that they are not just found in the tongue but are found in the upper digestive tract. When you eat something the bitter receptors are being activated in the duodenum and jejunum, which improves the upper digestive tract functions. It is not just what is happening on the tongue, but we are in fact, re-tasting the bitter food when it arrives in the upper digestive tract but of course at the level beyond the tongue we do not mentally perceive a bitter taste. We know that there are cells that line our gastro intestinal tract that are endocrine cells. These endocrine cells are the cells that express these bitter receptors. So when the bitter tastant arrives at the receptor a signal gets transferred through these cells that regulates gastro-intestinal motility and has an impact on appetite, satiety, regulation of glucose homeostasis, as well as the release and production of secretory substances such as stomach acids and enzymes. The new research that shows that these bitter receptors are not just found on the tongue but in the upper digestive tract as well, is really good news for those who cannot tolerate the taste of bitter.

The Role of Endocrine Cells

We have these endocrine cells that line our gastro intestinal tract and these endocrine cells, there are a number of different types. They produce hormones that regulate various features of our health. These endocrine cells in our duodenum and jejunum actually are tasting the bitter molecules in certain foods that we eat and that generates a response in our upper gastro intestinal tract. Functions like gastro intestinal motility, gastric emptying, and the feeling of fullness after we eat or the desire to eat again after we become hungry are influenced by the bitter taste food molecules interacting with these receptors. Glucose homeostasis and all of the secretions that regulate our upper digestive tract including the production of gastric acid (HCL) and bicarbonate from our pancreas is also influenced by this function. In quite complex ways these features of our food assimilation processes are all regulated by the reception of bitter taste molecules at these endocrine cell receptors. So if we have a diet that is deficient in these bitter foods then we will possibly have a down regulation of these important metabolic and digestive events. The types of receptors that are involved are quite diverse. There are twenty five of these various receptors. Gentian, wormwood, hops and feverfew and even the brassica vegetables are important herbs and vegetables which activates these bitter receptors. Gentian activates more of these various receptors than any other herb, which is a nice correlation with human use of herbal compounds. When you eat food first of all the bitter receptors are activated on the tongue and that sends a signal via the brain to have an effect on gastric secretions and gastric motility. But in the duodenum and the jejunum we are getting all of those things that I just mentioned along with the production of some very important hormones which regulate the release of insulin and also regulate the hormones that are involved in satiety and the feeling of being hungry.

Are the Bitter Receptors Being Stimulated Properly?

There are quite a number of studies now that are looking at the various actions of these bitter receptors. In some cases the bitter receptors may not be being stimulated properly. In some cases the receptors may have genetic polymorphism, so there may be small changes in the sequences of the amino acids that make up the proteins on that receptor and they don’t work as well. The list of health related issues is quite significant. Some people with alcohol dependency may have issues with these bitter receptors. Adiposity from obesity is another issue. Some people that have trouble controlling their weight may have a defect or they don’t activate their bitter receptor #38 well enough. Eating behavior issues and disorders such as anorexia and bulimia may in part be a result from these bitter receptor issues.  Body mass index and colon cancer risks and also, importantly for this discussion, altered glucose and altered insulin homeostasis can result from changes in some of these bitter receptors.

Receptor #38

A study that I recently saw looked at bitter receptor #38, the very bitter receptor that is activated by certain foods, particularly the brassica vegetables (kale, arugula, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower). They looked at the various genotypes of this bitter receptor and what they found is that boys with changes in this bitter receptor would eat more candy than boys that had more normal types of taste receptors. Some boys would eat more meat than others based on these changes and when they looked at girls they seemed to eat more grains compared to normal girls. When we are dealing with patients that are challenged in this area we understand the need to be more sympathetic. It is not always a choice that people are making to go for that candy. It may be things in their genetics that make them more predisposed to putting their hand in that cookie jar.

Using Therapeutic Strategies to Help

If we can employ therapeutic strategies such as bitter herbs and bitter nutrients, we can in a way help to regulate and improve this environment for the patient. So a starting point for our patients in this blood sugar category really needs to be a focus on things that we would call bitter. MediHerb has a product called DiGest designed as a bitter formula to regulate upper gastro intestinal tract function. MediHerb also has another herbal called wormwood complex which we typically use for dealing with gastro intestinal parasites. Wormwood is a very significant bitter that we feel is important to use but in lower doses than we would use in affecting parasite cleansing. We also could select golden seal and Livton if there are any sensitivities. Standard Process has products called cruciferous complete and SP green food. Using these herbals, supplements and dietary changes is a sensible way to begin the journey back to health for patient looking for alternatives when dealing with diabetes type II.  I will discuss more on this topic in my next blog. Be sure to follow.

1 Join the Conversation

  1. Arrenda says
    Jun 20, 2015 at 3:13 PM

    So interesting!!! I never saw our diet from this perspective before. It makes so much sense.

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