What are Digestive Bitters?

When you think of "bitters" you may think "cocktail flavoring," but did you know this age-old herbal preparation is an exceptional primer for healthy digestion?

What Are Bitters?

Bitters are an infusion of alcohol and select botanicals. Classic bitter flavors include dandelion, gentian, licorice root, burdock, peppermint leaf, orange peel, ginger root, fennel seed, milk thistle, chamomile, wild berries and Oregon grape root, to name a few. 

Bitters are used to promote the secretion of the body’s own, natural digestive fluids to support overall digestion. This includes hydrochloric acid, digestive enzymes, and bile to break down fats. This means all of the digestive organs, including the stomach, liver, pancreas, and intestines, get "turned on" in anticipation of the incoming food. As soon as bitters touch the tongue, the salivary glands are triggered and the stomach starts secreting digestive juices. Gentian is a particularly effective (and popular) herb to include, especially for people that have a hard time digesting fats.

Our Ancestors Ate Bitters and We Do Not

Bitters made their debut as early as ancient Egypt, where medicinal herbs were infused in jars of wine. Crafting bitters carried through the Middle Ages to the early 19th century, where they were used as medicine.  

Bitter flavors excite and engage the digestive system, so why aren’t we secreting digestive fluids on our own? It's simple – we are not eating digestive bitters like our ancestors did. Our ancestors foraged for bitter wild berries, barks, roots and more. Now, humans eat really sweet and savory foods, so we’re not reaching for that bitter before every meal.

Why Are Digestive Bitters Important?

#1) Digestive Bitters Support A Healthy Inflammatory Response

The body needs to secrete all digestive fluids to properly breakdown a meal. If the body isn't able to break down food, it can lead to gut inflammation.  

Three causes of gut inflammation are undigested food particles, food allergies and food sensitivities irritating the gut, and gut infections (ameba, bacteria, fungi parasites) that irritate the digestive system.

#2) Digestive Bitters Support Digestion of Difficult Proteins (ie: Wheat, Dairy, Soy, Corn, etc.)

Undigested proteins are the cause of food allergies and food sensitivities. When undigested proteins pass the gut wall when leaky gut is present, they get into the blood and the body begins mounting an immune response against them (wheat, dairy, soy, corn, etc.). This day and age, many people are not breaking down these foods and digestive bitters will help with this.

#3) Digestive Bitters Promote the Gut's Innate Resistance to Pathogens

Digestive fluids like hydrochloric acid, digestive enzymes and bile are our built-in defense mechanism against things that don’t belong in the gut. Gut infection, such as parasites, amoeba, bacteria, and fungi irritate the digestive system. If you’re secreting the correct amount of digestive fluids these bugs are consistently defended against.

Bitters keep the stomach pH at the proper, low pH level required to fight off infections so they can’t overgrow.

#4) Digestive Bitters Help With Occasional Gastric Distress and Normal Stomach pH

When your digestion needs support, bitters promote stomach acid and act as a digestive aid. 

#5) Digestive Bitters Support Cravings and Appetite

Bitters effect brain receptors that drive us to consume sweets. Consuming bitter foods stimulates the production of PYY and GLP-1 hormones, which help control and suppress the appetite. 

How To Use Digestive Bitters

You can take digestive bitters before, during and after meals – anytime you experience digestive discomfort. Timing is less important than regularity. Taking bitters before a meal primes your digestive system to receive food and start the digestion process. This is especially beneficial for those with occasional gastric distress and normal stomach pH.

Add ¼ teaspoon directly on the tongue (or 1 dropperful) 10-15 minutes before you eat.

To create a bitters aperitif, add ¼ tsp. bitters to ½ tsp. sparkling water. Great for folks who find bitters too strong and want to dilute it a little. Tasting the bitter flavor is key to the digestive benefits, so don’t dilute too much!

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods


Prevention.com "Bitter Herbs Sweeten Digestion" found here.

Wikipedia.com "Bitters" found here.

Urban Moonshine Organic Bitters & Herbal Tonics, found here.

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