Let’s talk digestive bitters!

It’s January.  The holiday – and rich food – season is over.  I hope that you ‘ate responsibly’, but if you find yourself in a position of stomach upset or indigestion, read on for the scoop on how digestive bitters can promote an efficient and healthy digestive process.

Did you say digestive bitter?

If you’re an herbalist, like me, the thought of ‘herbal bitters’ makes your heart flutter with excitement.  We herbalists love us some bitters!  But for “normal people”, the taste of “bitter” may be off-putting.  As it turns out, there’s a reason for that!

Evolutionarily, we developed a (dis)taste for bitter as a protection mechanism, just as plants developed bitter-tasting chemicals to improve survival.  Many toxic plants taste bitter when ingested, making us spit them out rather than eat a potentially fatal dose.  If you think about it, it’s a mutually-beneficial arrangement.  We don’t die, and the plants don’t get eaten!

Benefits of digestive bitters

Kale Greens

Still, there are many bitter plants that are perfectly safe to eat (no excuse to not eat broccoli, kale, and brussels sprouts!).  In fact, the reason we herbalists love bitter herbs is that they stimulate the digestive processes and prepare the body to break down the meal.  Valucci (2011) surmises that the reason that bitter plants stimulate digestion is to reduce absorption of their (potentially toxic) qualities.  Here’s just a number of things that bitter herbs can do:

  • Stimulates secretion of digestive enzymes and gastric acid
  • Stimulates release of bile salts to help break down fats
  • Regulates gut motility (how fast the food moves through the gastrointestinal, or GI, tract)
  • Stimulates satiety
  • Improves absorption of complex carbohydrates, fatty acids, and fat-soluble vitamins
  • Promotes glucose balancing (Valucci, 2011)

On top of that, Hobbs (2002) indicates that bitters activate what is known as the parasympathetic nervous system which controls digestion and also the immune system. (The GI tract is a hub of immune cells since it is open to the outside world, thereby providing an entrance for pathogenic invaders).  In general, the parasympathetic nervous system is sometimes called the ‘rest and digest’ state as it is in charge when the body is calm (as opposed to the sympathetic, or ‘fight or flight’ state).

How to get the most out of digestive bitters

It was originally believed that the person had to actually taste the bitter compounds to maximize their benefits. Activating the bitter taste buds in the tongue stimulated the parasympathetic nervous system.  More recent research suggests that there also exist bitter receptors further down in the GI that, when activated, promotes the digestive process just as the receptors in the mouth (Valucci, 2011).  That’s great news for people who don’t love that bitter taste on the tongue!

However, digestive bitters are currently most-commonly administered as tinctures.  Dried herbs are mixed (macerated) with a water/alcohol solution for several weeks to extract the medicinal constituents.  The mixture is strained and the resultant liquid is known as a tincture (or sometimes an “extract” – in the same way that culinary extracts – think vanilla or almond – are made).  There are many commercially-available digestive bitters already formulated for optimal results.  I like a company whimsically called Urban Moonshine.  They have a number of formulations to suit specific digestive needs and tastes, all expertly formulated by master herbalists.

Urban Moonshine Bitters

Bitter Herb Examples

In general, though, look for products with any of the following notably bitter herbs: angelica, burdock, dandelion (the greens are a wonderful addition to your spring salad!), elecampane, gentian, globe artichoke, goldenseal, Oregon grape root.  A good blend will also include an aromatic digestive such as ginger, cinnamon, fennel, to counterbalance the bitterness.

Dandelion flower, root, leaves

For best results to get your digestion revved up, take a dose (typically a couple of ‘droppersful’ or maybe a teaspoon or so) about 15-20 minutes before the meal begins.  Alternately, bitters can also be taken immediately after eating (Hobbs, 2002).


As always, I’m available for consultations should you have additional questions or more complex digestive issues that I can assist with.



Valucci, M. (2011). Functional foods with digestive-enhancing properties. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. 63:sup1, 82-89, DOI:10.3109/09637486.2011.627841

Hobbs, C. (2002). Natural Therapy for your Liver. Avery.

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