People have always visited the doctor for digestive issues, and modern times are no different. Today’s diet is steeped in salt and sugar. It lacks the stimulating digestive work of bitterness, which research confirms is vital to your health. And, as we know, a healthy gut is key to a healthy body.
For centuries, wild, bitter plants were a worldwide staple in the human diet to ignite and strengthen the digestive system. Adding digestive bitters to your diet can relieve indigestion, soothe occasional heartburn and nausea, lower blood sugar levels, curb your appetite, support your liver, and even wake your immune system to invaders.
What Are Digestive Bitters?
Bitters are a concentrated blend of bitter herbs, spices, barks, fruits, flowers or roots (also known as botanicals) infused in high-proof alcohol or apple cider vinegar. The alcohol and vinegar pull the bitter taste from the herbs and preserve the liquid. With a few drops placed on your tongue before or after a meal, bitterness challenges the digestive system to wake up and secrete powerful digestive juices.
Throughout history, ancient cultures around the world used bitter plants as medicine. Crafted from various botanicals, they were offered as a cure for just about every ailment in older civilizations like Egypt, Rome, China, Japan and India.
In the 1700s, French monks made medicine from bitter plants using ancient recipes, England used bitters as a hangover remedy, and colonial Americans stirred them into their cocktails. Around 1824, Johann Siegert, a German doctor in Venezuela, began making the famed Angostura cocktail bitters to keep the Venezuelan troops marching by revving their appetite and aiding their digestion.
Today, tested by scientific research, the medicinal value of bitters is resurfacing. While they are no longer the cure-all treatment, they do perform impressive work using bitter taste receptors known as T2Rs.
How Do Digestive Bitters Work?
Bitter taste receptors exist throughout the body for more reasons than we know. When you taste bitterness, a nerve signal reaches your brain, which triggers the vagus nerve to stimulate your entire digestive system from your salivary glands to your stomach, pancreas, liver and intestines.
They also encourage the valves at the beginning and end of your stomach to close, reducing acid reflux. When they detect bitterness, T2Rs along your intestines secrete hormones into your bloodstream to slow the passage of food through your system, making you feel full for longer.
But digestive bitters affect more than just your digestion. T2Rs also exist in your upper airways and lungs, detecting bacteria’s bitter chemicals and triggering an immune response. It’s not surprising humans cringe at a bitter taste, which causes T2Rs to send out a warning signal that what you’re eating may be toxic.
1. Improved Digestion
The digestive power of bitters stands the test of time and the test of science. They’re an excellent first step for gentle digestive support. T2Rs in your stomach are like an alarm clock or an aerobics instructor for the digestive tract. A dose of bitters before a meal ignites the digestive system to produce hydrochloric acid, pancreatic enzymes and bile.
Better digestion improves the absorption of nutrients like fats, micronutrients and proteins, improving every system throughout your body. They’re also helpful for gas, bloating and indigestion, a great reason to use them when you eat more than planned.
2. Relieved Cramping
While digestive bitters wake your gut, they also relax it depending on when and how you take them.
T2Rs lining your intestines calm intestinal contractions like meditative yoga. To ease an upset stomach, take a higher dose of bitters after a meal. Perhaps this explains Italy’s tradition of larger amounts of bitter amaro after a big meal to relieve the effects of overeating.
3. Less Acid Reflux
Bitters might also improve occasional acid reflux. They prod your stomach to release more digestive juices packed with helpful chemicals like pepsin and acid to break down food. The right amount of acid triggers the top of your stomach (esophageal sphincter) to close, keeping stomach contents and acid where they belong.
4. Decreased Nausea and Queasy Tummy
Bitter recipes that include botanicals like chamomile, mint, fennel and ginger soothe occasional nausea and nervous butterflies. Safe for pregnancy, they can help with morning sickness as long as the blend doesn’t include other ingredients not advised for pregnant women. Always consult with your provider before adding supplements during pregnancy.
5. Subdued Appetite
Studies suggest taking bitters 30 minutes before a meal wakens your T2Rs to release short-term chemicals like ghrelin to fuel your appetite. Before long, however, they release different chemicals that slow the emptying of your stomach.
This can make you feel satisfied four hours later, possibly reducing overeating by an impressive 40 percent. If you want to eat less or lose weight, try digestive bitters.
6. Improved Blood Sugar Levels and Gut Flora
Bitters might lower blood sugar levels by rousing your body to release and use insulin, an exciting research area for those with diabetes or pre-diabetes. Not only can bitters help curb your appetite, but they may temper sugar cravings. With less sugar, healthy gut bacteria thrive, further improving overall health in many ways.
7. Supported Liver and Skin Health
A hardworking garbage man, your liver is one of your body’s great defenders. Digestive bitters wake your liver to produce more bile, the fluid that breaks down fat and removes waste. A vibrant liver improves your general health and returns that lovely glow to your skin.
For general liver and detox support, try bitter blends with dandelion, artichoke leaves, Oregon grape or fenugreek. For specific skin issues, black walnut may improve eczema, while feverfew is useful for psoriasis.
8. Boosted Immunity
T2Rs detect the bitter chemicals produced by invading bacteria who communicate with each other throughout your body. When the receptors notice the chatter, they alert the immune system to respond and attack. This may explain the presence of T2Rs throughout the body.
Bitter plants such as angelica, dandelion and Andrographis stimulate this immune response, strengthening your body’s ability to fight pathogens.
Digestive bitters are safe for most people but take caution when trying new supplements. On your first few days, start with only one low dose. Note any new symptoms to ensure you don’t have an allergy or a worsening problem.
Some herbs weaken or strengthen medications in your body, which can be unsafe for your health. Talk with your pharmacist or doctor about which supplements may interact with your medicine.
Those with a gastrointestinal disease should talk with their health provider as well. In a few cases, bitters may irritate your condition.
Your dose of bitters can vary depending on the ingredients and your health conditions. Be sure to take the recommended dose from your health provider, the instructions on the packaging, or in the recipe.
For children and pregnant women, check with your provider before starting new supplements. Digestive bitters are safe for healthy children at the lower dose. Bitters infused in high-proof alcohol have very little alcohol content, while bitters infused in vinegar have none. Naturally, a child should not have access to large quantities of any supplement.
While bitters can be helpful for morning sickness, if you’re pregnant, be sure not to take a mixture with ingredients contraindicated for pregnancy.
How to Use
Adding bitters to your diet is simple. You can make your own blend of digestive bitters or purchase one in a small vial with dropper.
For general use, drop one dose on your tongue (usually around one-fourth to one-half teaspoon) 10–30 minutes before you eat, hold them there until you start salivating (about 10–15 seconds), and swallow. Because bitter receptors live on your entire tongue, cover as much of your tongue as you can with the liquid.
To address overeating, bloating or a rumbly stomach after a meal, take a one-half teaspoon dose after you eat instead of before.
Get a little creative by using various bitter blends to flavor your food. In baking, replace vanilla with bitters, like adding a citrus blend to a lemon pie. Poach fruit such as pears with a few drops of a cinnamon, clove and cardamon blend.
For a breakfast treat, infuse a black walnut or ginger blend with maple syrup to pour over your pancakes. Or, for a stimulating, warm drink any time, add a slice of lemon, honey and one dropper full of digestive bitters to hot water. You can also add ice to the drink for a cold summer treat.
Perhaps the most intriguing idea is to create your own bitters. Experiment with this general recipe:
- Choose your ingredients (usually a mix of bitter and fragrant herbs), chop, coarsely grind or crack them to expose their surface area. Place about 2 cups in a sterilized 1-quart jar with a plastic top.
- Top with 2 cups of apple cider vinegar or high-proof alcohol. Shake and seal well. Cover all ingredients in the liquid.
- Set out overnight and add more liquid in the morning if needed to cover the herbs completely.
- Store at room temperature for 2–3 weeks and shake regularly.
- Drain the liquid and bottle into a new container when the brewing is over.
- Don’t forget to label it. The bitters should stay good for 2–3 months unrefrigerated and can be safely used in small doses up to 6 times daily or in larger doses less frequently.
Bitter flavors are essential for good health, inspiring the whole body toward wellness. But they’re also just plain fun! Get creative with your menu and invite your bitter taste receptors to the dinner party tonight.
Sharleen Lucas, RN, is a freelance writer and registered nurse who served at the hospital bedside for eight years. She now enjoys combating her addiction to ideas, news, and health research by passing it on as the RNextdoor. When she’s not overthinking her writing, she’s playing in the mountains or volunteering as an EMT at her local fire station. You can find her at RNextdoor.com.