Digestive bitters are traditional, medicinal preparations of bitter plants used to treat digestive ailments like gas, bloating, and cramps, and to help promote general digestive health.
In this post we will cover everything you need to know about digestive bitters including:
- Why you need digestive bitters
- The ancient and traditional uses of digestive bitters
- How digestive bitters are different than cocktail bitters
- What is in digestive bitters
- How & when to take digestive bitters
For details and research on how and why digestive bitters work and why bitter flavors are so important to digestive – and overall health and wellness, see our post: Bitters for Digestion.
Why You Need Digestive Bitters
Before bitter flavors were replaced by sweets and processed food, bitterness was a common flavor in most meals. For thousands of years – and up until around 50-75 years ago, people regularly consumed bitter foods.
From an adaptive standpoint, we have very recently separated from our longstanding relationship with bitter flavors and foods. This recent abandonment of bitterness and subsequent (and massive) shift toward a diet heavy in sugar is significant in many ways.
Perhaps most importantly, by avoiding bitterness we are missing out on the benefits of dietary diversity and essential nutrients found in bitter plants. But what’s worse is that we are also simultaneously loading our bodies with sugar.
So by denying our bodies benefits of bitter nutrients and consuming never-before levels of sugar we are exposing our bodies to a tremendous amount of stress. The resulting stress causes a cascade of negative health outcomes.
The modern diet is an inversion of the scarcity/abundance relationship that has instructed our natural adaptation to the environment for all of time.
Eliminating bitterness (and healthy fats for that matter) and flooding the void with sugar is in direct opposition to how we have evolved along with our environment.
We believe that altering our diet in a way that is directly opposed to our natural disposition is the root of most lifestyle diseases that are plaguing western populations. Research (Bitters for Digestion) is beginning to bear this out.
Simply, we have turned away from the abundance of bitter flavors in our natural diet and embraced abundant sweetness in our manufactured diet. The result is making us sick.
Digestive bitters are a way to help restore digestive balance and thus some of the health and wellness lost may have lost to modernity.
The Bitterness Bond
Bitterness long held its place among the other flavors of salty, sweet, sour, and savory (umami) for good reason: we are naturally attuned to experience bitters.
We say experience because our relationship with bitter substances is much greater than as a mere flavor. Arguably, no other flavor profile is so entwined with our bodies as that of bitterness.
We have an extensive array of sensory receptors that are highly adapted to sort through the intricacies of bitter flavors. In fact, we have receptors for bitter substances throughout our bodies.
These receptors are involved in more than just digestive functioning. Bitter receptors are tied to respiration, circulation, hormone signaling, and neurological function.
So bitterness is indeed more than just a flavor. It is an important part of our natural bond with nature. This bond between bitterness and how our bodies respond is an essential part of maintaining the frontier between our body and our environment.
It is important to keep in mind that our digestive tract (digestion 101) is actually outside the body. Like our skin and our lungs, our digestive tract must come into delicate – yet frequent, contact with the environment in order for us to survive.
So what might happen if we deprive our bodies of this important bond? Then what might happen if we flood our bodies with something that is supposed to be scarce, like sugar?
Disrupting our bond with the natural environment is a big part of why we have a crisis of obesity and spiraling health care costs in spite of massive advancement in healthcare, technology, and human safety.
Message in a Bitter
When we eat we are getting important nutrients (hopefully!) but we are also taking in signals from our environment.
Bitterness is an essential part of this natural signaling apparatus that binds us to those things that sustain us and protects us from those things that can harm us.
Our bodies have adapted to perceive the complexities and subtleties of bitterness. We are able to sort the “bad” bitterness associated with toxins from the “good” bitterness of plants containing vital nutrients. This implies that our bond with bitterness developed not just as a means to survive, but also as a means to thrive.
Digestive bitters can help restore our bond with the natural environment, to help bring balance back into this elegant system of messaging so that we can let our bodies do what they are meant to do.
The Ancient Wisdom of Digestive Bitters
The historical use of bitters for digestion is common to healing practices all over the world. In fact, many cultures still regularly use digestive bitters for digestive and overall health.
Historically, digestive bitters have been used to:
- Prevent digestive distress due to overeating or eating rich foods
- Alleviate minor digestive discomfort like gas, bloating, and cramps
- Encourage a healthy appetite by priming the digestion to receive food
Recently, research into some bitter plants suggests that digestive bitters may also help promote healthy digestion as well as:
The wisdom of ancient healers like Hildegard, and even those before her, recognized the power of bitter substances even if they didn’t know the science behind them.
For eons, healing relied on intuition and careful observation. But even more, the healing power of plants was just a natural aspect of our relationship with our environment. Food as medicine was the norm.
From an observational standpoint, what goes in and what comes out is the most fundamental window into our health. This remains to be true even in modern medicine.
Accordingly, digestive health was the focal point of all health. So it went that maintaining healthy digestive balance was the key to overall balance. Which was the key to overall wellness. We wholeheartedly agree with this premise.
Digestive Bitters for Balance
The notion of balance is not just some cliché. Balance is another way of measuring our bond with the natural environment.
How we approach the various cycles inherent to our daily lives directly impacts how we feel and whether we are thriving or suffering. And digestive balance is where we maintain our foundation, our healthy relationship with the environment that sustains us.
Hildegard understood that digestion was the foundation. Digestion was the primary frontier where the ancient tradition of humoral medicine sought to bring the four bodily humors into balance.
To this end, many ancient healing practices regularly used bitter herbs as a means to maintain digestive health and to treat many different maladies. It is no accident that these ancient healers used bitters. Bitter flavors in plants are often indicative of active, medicinal properties.
Just as toxic substances tend to be bitter, so are many other natural plant compounds that have healing properties. Our bodies evolved to sort out the various bitter substances. Undeniable evidence that our survival is the result of a long relationship with bitter substances – both good, and bad.
It is also important to keep in mind that these bitter compounds often do not directly “heal” as much as they trigger a natural response in your body that allows your body to heal itself.
The notion of encouraging the body to do what it does naturally, or removing the impediments that prevent your body from functioning normally, is at the core of holistic healing.
Cocktail Bitters vs Digestive Bitters
When you think of bitters, you probably think of those pungent, herbal solutions that are used to flavor cocktails; the ones in small, fancy bottles, often with labels full of whimsical symbols and illegible fonts.
But what you may not know is that long before bitters became an essential ingredient in your Old Fashioned, they were a common natural herbal remedy used for a variety of ailments.
Many brands of cocktail bitters began as medicinal tonics though the resurgence in appreciation for classic cocktails has inspired a growing market for new cocktail bitters brands.
These highly concentrated bitters are used exclusively to flavor cocktails, though some people also use them for cooking and baking.
Cocktail bitters are meant to be used a few drops at a time. Most brands, Campari aside, are not to be consumed on their own. A little bitterness goes a long way; so cocktail recipes call for only a few drops per drink.
Cocktail bitters contain different combinations of bitter herbs, fruits, spices, and roots that are distilled in an alcohol solution. One of the most common cocktail bitters brands is Angostura.
The German doctor, Johann Siegert when he was traveling in Argentina, created angostura in 1924. He had hoped to use his blends of bitter plants and herbs to cure a variety of illnesses. Instead, his formula became the go-to brand for flavoring cocktails.
Cocktail bitters are used for their flavor, as opposed to any of the potential medicinal benefits of their bitter ingredients. But there are some varieties of cocktail bitters and bitter herbal alcohols that have historically been used for digestion as well.
Aperitif & Digestif
You may be familiar with the tradition of an aperitif and a digestif. These traditional alcohol-based drinks are served before (aperitif) or after (digestif) meals to help encourage appetite or ease digestion.
While the tradition of an aperitif before meals is more social ritual than nutritionally valid, the digestif follows the more relevant tradition of consuming herbal bitters after meals to improve digestion and prevent gas and bloating.
Digestifs include several herbal varieties containing blends of traditional bitter herbs that have long been associated with folk remedies for digestive ailments.
Amaro, chartreuse, and other herbal liqueurs include bitter herbs such as rhubarb, cardamom, fennel, anise, and chamomile that have long histories of medicinal use.
Unfortunately, both aperitifs and digestifs are high in alcohol. Alcohol and sugar are not associated with good digestive health (and overall health), so the benefits of the bitter herbs are greatly diminished.
We recommend taking digestive bitters instead.
Digestive bitters differ from cocktail bitters in three main ways.
First, digestive bitters are taken directly, not as a flavoring agent in other drinks. Digestive Bitters are to be taken on their own.
Second, as opposed to the concentrated liquid form of cocktail bitters, digestive bitters are often in non-liquid forms such as capsules, pills, lozenges, and powders.
And third, like cocktail bitters, digestive bitters also contain a wide variety of bitter herbs, fruits, roots, and other substances that have bitter flavors. But the ingredients of digestive bitters are selected for more than just their bitter flavors.
Many ingredients found in digestive bitters are also known for their traditional medicinal uses, particularly their role in digestive health. Some common ingredients in digestive bitters include:
- Gentian Root
- Bitter Orange
- Slippery Elm
- Artichoke Leaf
- Cardamom Seed
- Milk Thistle
- Ginger Root
- Galangal Root
Digestive bitters can take many forms, but the most effective are those that involve actually experiencing the bitter taste. Tasting the bitter flavors as well as ingesting the bitter substances is the best way to ensure you receive the greatest benefit.
The traditional medicinal use of bitters also calls for ingesting bitter tinctures or teas – or chewing bitter herbs like cardamom, fennel, or caraway seeds, at any time to help prevent or reduce digestive distress like indigestion, heartburn, gas, and bloating.
Because you have bitter receptors throughout your digestive tract, you can take bitter herbal blends in capsules or pills and you will still receive many of the benefits of digestive bitters. But you will be missing out on many other benefits associated with how your body naturally responds to bitter flavors you taste.
For all about how and why your body positively responds to bitter flavors and the amazing benefits of bitters on digestion, see our post on Bitters For Digestion.
How & When to take Digestive Bitters
Our recommendation for when to take digestive bitters is easy: before, during, and after meals – and anytime you experience digestive discomfort.
Taking bitters before meals can help prime your digestive system to receive food, which may help prevent common digestive discomfort like gas and bloating.
You can also take digestive bitters during your meal and receive many of the same benefits. Taking a digestive bitters supplement during a meal can also help replace the natural bitter foods that may be missing.
If you are traveling, eating out, or otherwise unable to find bitter foods for your meals, digestive bitters are a great way to replace those missing bitter flavors.
By taking digestive bitters after your meals you can take up the tradition of an herbal digestif, but without the sugar and alcohol. Taking digestive bitters after meals is especially helpful to prevent digestive problems due to over-eating or eating rich foods.
Digestive bitters are natural and plant-based, so you can use digestive bitters at any time to relieve digestive distress such as cramping, gas, bloating, and general indigestion without worrying about harmful side effects.
The important thing to remember about digestive bitters is that the timing is really less important than the regularity.
The greatest benefits of digestive bitters, as is common with many healing herbs, are realized when they are consumed on a regular basis over a prolonged period of time.
Find Your Own Balance With Bitters
The timing, relative to meals, may be significant for some people but not for others. The most important part is just making sure you are getting your bitters.
As you begin taking digestive bitters you will figure out what works best. Herbal remedies are often highly individualistic. Digestive bitters are no different.
There is a lot of natural variation among the population in terms of how we taste and respond to bitter flavors. Age and other health conditions will also influence how we respond to bitters.
In any case, merely increasing the amount and frequency of bitter flavors in your diet will encourage better digestion. And healthy digestion is the key to overall wellness.