Learn how to make digestive bitters easily to promote healthy digestion, plus 3 ways to use them in salad, tinctures, or infusions!
Are you experiencing tummy troubles? Sluggish digestion? Trouble with gas, burping, or bloating?
Your body may need digestive bitters to support your digestion!
What are digestive bitters?
Bitters are a tincture made of dried herbs and alcohol. The herbs aid digestion and, in so doing, make a meal's nutrients more accessible.
The first digestive bitters are attributed to a Swiss physician and alchemist of the 16th century, named Phillipus Paracelus. He used them for a variety of illnesses.
In 1824, a German physician, Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, in Venezuela, used bitters to treat malaria, sea sickness, and stomach maladies.
Bitters have been studied extensively since that time. Bitters prevent indigestion, heartburn, gas, bloating, and many other digestive complaints.
How do bitters work?
Digestive bitters kickstart digestion by first stimulating the bitter taste receptors on the tongue.
Bitters also change the stomach's pH, which stimulates the gall bladder to release bile into the duodenum (the upper part of the small intestine). Bile helps to break down fats.
Have you ever eaten a high fat meal and wanted relief? Bitters can be taken before or during these symptoms, and provide amazing and even quick relief.
The pancreas and liver are also affected by digestive bitters.
The tongue signals the pancreas, which in turn releases digestive enzymes. The liver, where bile is produced, is cleansed by its release of bile into the gall bladder.
Maybe you've wondered, “How do I stop acid reflux?” or “How do I cure my GERD for good?” Bitters are an effective remedy that addresses the cause of these symptoms.
Proper pH in one's stomach signals the valve between the stomach and the esophagus to close! No more acid indigestion!
What do bitters taste like?
So… why don't more people include bitters in their diet?
Usually people don't include bitters in their diet because they don't yet know about them.
But bitters are also bitter! An acquired taste! 😉
Thanks to our North American diets, our taste buds are used to sweet and salty flavors. We are less inclined to appreciate the bitter flavor or understand its value.
And yet, bitter herbs and foods are just what our bodies need to work optimally.
What if bitters are too bitter?
I know what you might be thinking… “Can I bypass the bitter flavor by taking bitters in pill form?”
Unfortunately, that won't work.
We have to actually taste the bitter flavor to reap the digestive benefits. It's part of the process (source).
Although bitter is an acquired taste, there are a few ways to introduce bitters into your diet:
- Start with a small amount and increase over time until you're used to digestive bitters.
- Use bitters spray. Here's a brand that uses orange peel and ginger, making the flavor more palatable.
- Make your own bitters (see below!), choosing herbs and flavors you enjoy.
3 Easy Ways To Use Digestive Bitters
Try adding bitters to your diet in different ways!
If a tincture is too strong, try an infusion, or eat fresh greens. While this approach does not stimulate your digestive juices to the same degree as a bitter tincture, it's a good approach to one's meal and certainly aids digestion to some extent.
Ready to get started?
Here are 3 easy ways to use digestive bitters! (#2 and #3 teach you how to make digestive bitters yourself!)
#1 — Eat bitter greens.
Chicory, radicchio, dandelion, and arugula are all bitter foods. Add these greens to your salad to kickstart your meal!
Most herbalists recommend eating bitters before your regular meal for the best benefit.
#2 — Drink a bitter infusion.
Don't know how to make an infusion? It's as simple as pouring boiling water over herbs!
Keep it simple: Choose well-loved herbs like peppermint and chamomile, which are also common choices for digestive bitter medleys.
Or choose a blend of herbs from the list below.
Place herbs in a cup or jar (1 tablespoon herbs per 1 cup of water). Cover in boiling water.
Let steep at least 30 minutes or overnight. Strain out the herbs.
If you prefer your infusion hot, simply reheat gently. (An infusion works best with leafy herbs or ground up roots.)
I make a large jar in the evening, let it sit overnight, then strain the herbs out the next morning and sip away at my new infusion before a meal.
#3 — Take (and how to make!) a bitter tincture.
Yes, there are many digestive bitters tinctures available to buy… but it's also really easy to make your own! Homemade tinctures mean you can easily adjust the formula to suit your own needs and tastes.
Many bitter herbs are considered “cold”. Cold herbs include dandelion, gentian, burdock, goldenseal, and angelica root.
To make a tincture, fill a jar 1/2 full of dry herbs or 2/3 full of fresh. Then fill to the top with vodka.
Let sit, out of direct sunlight, for about six weeks, shaking the jar from time to time.
After six weeks, strain the herbs out of the vodka using a fine sieve lined with cheesecloth. Squeeze the herbs in the cheesecloth to get out as much moisture as possible.
Store in an amber bottle with a dropper lid.
Recommended doses vary depending on the herbs you use, but 1 full dropper of tincture mixed with a little water is a common dosage for digestive bitters.
Take about 20 minutes before eating (or during a meal if you forget).
If you want a really simple recipe, you can make 2-Ingredient Digestive Bitters, which uses only gentian root and vodka. This is the recipe I make and use most often.
How to choose the right bitter herbs?
Most commercial bitter formulas include herbs like gentian, globe artichoke, dandelion, burdock, and yellow dock. There are many more bitter herbs to choose from, however, each with its own flavor profile and list of benefits!
How should you go about choosing herbs for your bitter mixture? Start with whatever you have on hand or is readily available, or look for herbs that specifically soothe and address your current health needs.
Bitter Herbs List
- Artichoke stimulates the liver, may lower cholesterol, and is an antioxidant (source).
- Barberry especially benefits the liver and gallbladder. It is a mild laxative and cleanses the system. (Source.)
- Black walnut cleanses and tones the colon, and helps prevent leaky bowel syndrome (source).
- Burdock stimulates digestive juices (especially bile) and improves appetite (source).
- Centaury strengthens the stomach, promotes digestion, and helps with diarrhea (source).
- Chamomile relaxes, relieves indigestion and inflammation, and eases flatulence (source).
- Dandelion is a diuretic and especially benefits the liver and gall bladder (source).
- Fennel relieves flatulence and stimulates digestion and appetite (source).
- Gentian root stimulates digestive juices and accelerates emptying of the stomach. It's particularly useful for a sluggish digestive system or lack of appetite. (Source)
- Goldenseal reduces unhealthy secretions (excessive, mucous, or bloody) while increasing good secretions like bile and pancreatic enzymes. Also promotes appetite (source).
- White horehound stimulates the gallbladder (source).
- Orange peel prevents and treats heartburn, nausea, indigestion and constipation (source).
- Oregon grape root stimulates bile and digestive enzymes to optimize liver function, affecting skin health and constipation (source).
- Wormwood stimulates the digestive process and helps indigestion (source).
- Yarrow increases appetite, aids digestive cramps, bloating, and colic, and normalizes blood circulation (source).
- Yellow dock promotes flow of bile and eases constipation (source).
What about pregnancy?
Some of the herbs used to make digestive bitters are not considered safe during pregnancy. However, several herbs remain to make your own formula.
Since homemade digestive bitters are customizable, making your own works well for pregnancy. Ask your doctor to be safe.
What herbs complement bitter herbs?
- Cardamom stimulates appetite and saliva while helping to reduce flatulence.
- Cinnamon relieves nausea and prevents diarrhea.
- Clove eases nausea and flatulence and also wonderful for optimizing digestion.
- Ginger promotes gastric secretions. It is useful for flatulence, dyspepsia, and colic.
- Peppermint stimulates gastric and bile secretions and bowel motility.
Want more on this topic?
Do you use bitters? What herbs do you like best? Do you have any favorite gas and bloating remedies?
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. All information is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You are responsible for your own health and for the use of any remedies, treatments, or medications you use at home. Bitters are not recommended if you have gastritis, stomach ulcer, gallbladder disease or kidney disease.
This post was originally published and written by Andrea Sabean on 3/10/17. It was updated and republished on 1/6/20.
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