There was a time when I considered bitters only as an essential ingredient in a good martini. However, ever since my husband began having issues with his digestion, my research into natural digestive aids has given me a new perspective on the old cocktail staple.

One of the many oh-so fun things about getting older, is that the body loses some of its ability to break down food, producing fewer of the digestive enzymes essential to the digestive process. In fact, I’m learning that sufferers of GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) actually have a deficiency of stomach acid, not an excess. Which makes the commonly prescribed protein pump inhibitors (PPIs), which lower stomach acid levels further, a real problem. Besides not addressing the root cause of the problem and being addictive and difficult to wean off, PPIs have a myriad of side effects – including significantly increasing one’s risk of having a heart attack. ?

So how do we naturally support our digestion without resorting to medications that only mask symptoms? Turns out, there are many ways to do it, including slowing down and chewing your food thoroughly, drinking enough water, supplementing probiotics and managing stress levels. Dietary enzymes found in fermented foods such as yogurt, raw apple cider vinegar and cultured vegetables like sauerkraut are also a great addition to a digestion supporting diet.

A less commonly known trick is the use of herbal bitters.

A bit of bitter history

The medicinal use of bitters dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who steeped bitter herbs in wine. Ancestral diets of cultures around the globe traditionally included some sort of bitter food before or during a meal. There’s a good reason for this! Bitter herbs, roots, barks and fruits stimulate the the digestive hormone, gastrin, which in turn, signals the body to produce saliva, gastric juices and bile, priming the digestive system for action. As an added bonus, bitters may also be helpful in balancing blood sugar and curbing sweet cravings!

Physiologically, bitters are, well, bitter. It’s a flavor most of us don’t often include in our diets anymore (not on purpose, anyway!) Most bitter compounds are soluble in water and, for the most part, alcohol, so you’re better off making an infusion (tea), a tincture or just eating them straight, rather than, say, an infused olive oil.

Getting bitter

A super easy way to get your bitters is to include a small salad of bitter greens before each meal. Common bitter greens include amaranth (I literally can’t keep this stuff out of my garden), arugula/rocket, chicory, dandelion greens, endive, mustard greens, radicchio and watercress. Toss them in a dressing made with raw apple cider vinegar for an extra digestive boost!

cocktail martini glass containing mineral water with bittersWhen fresh greens are not available, I find bitter tinctures to be a pretty darn convenient tool in our digestion support arsenal. I was pleasantly surprised to find I actually enjoy the bitter flavor, especially as an addition to iced herbal tea as a apéritif before meals. If we’re feeling fancy, we sometimes add a few dashes to sparkling mineral water as an (nearly) booze-free cocktail. You can also keep a small spray bottle of bitters on the kitchen table, and take a couple of sprays directly in the mouth before meals. Easy peasy!

A few of the many, many examples of bitter herbs used in tincture preparations:

  • angelica (Angelica archangelica)
  • artichoke leaf (Cynara scolymus)
  • birch bark (Betula spp.)
  • burdock (Arctium lappa)
  • chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
  • chicory (Cichorium intybus)
  • dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
  • echinacea (Echinacea spp.)
  • feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
  • gentian (Gentiana lutea)
  • globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus)
  • goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
  • hops (Humulus lupulus)
  • horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
  • juniper berry (Juniperus spp.)
  • milk thistle (Silybum marianum)
  • mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
  • Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium)
  • peppermint (Mentha piperita)
  • wormwood (Artemisia absinthium)
  • yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
  • yellow dock (Rumex crispus)

There are so many to choose from, and each with its own medicinal properties outside of their bitter action.

On Wednesday, I’m going to share a recipe for grapefruit bitters that has become a favorite, both as a pre/post-meal apéritif/digestif and cocktail additive. ??


Are you ready to start using herbs to improve your own wellness and the wellbeing of your family? We’re offering $50 off of our Basics of Holistic Herbalism course through April 30th, 2020. Use the code quarantine50 at checkout. At the end of the course you also receive a $149 credit toward our full program. We’re also offering a 50% discount off our big program, Fundamentals of Holistic Herbalism – use the code quarantine2020

corked bottles of dried herbs, bitters and other tinctures