Herbal Bitters

At one point in time, bitters typically only made an appearance in the American diet in the form of black coffee or a dash of Angostura in a cocktail. But times are changing, and bitter-tasting herbs now rock the aisles of natural food stores, hipster bars, and the workshop offerings at herbal conferences. We can thank herbalists for bringing these herbs to the forefront of “mainstream” herbal consciousness, but medicinal bitters actually date back thousands of years and have played a major role in modern herbalism for decades.

What Is A Bitter?

Quite simply, a “bitter” is a herb that tastes bitter. Bitters stimulate bitter receptors on our tongue’s taste buds and elsewhere in the body. Strong classic bitters include gentian and wormwood, though we don’t tend to use either due to sustainable harvesting concerns and potential safety issues, respectively. Our favorite basic bitter is artichoke leaf. Fellow mild lettuce-family bitters include burdock, dandelion, chicory {radicchio, endive}, and certain varieties of lettuce. More complex bitters include coffee, which has high levels of the alkaloid caffeine, and herbs rich in the antimicrobial alkaloid berberine, including goldenseal, coptis, barberry, and Oregon grape root. Aromatic bitters include elecampane root, chamomile, lemon balm, and catnip.

What Do Bitter Herbs Do?

Although individual herbs can have different properties, we generally call on their bitter flavor to encourage a certain set of health benefits.

Turn on Digestion: Bitters are most well known for their ability to stimulate digestion and assimilation, particularly when you taste them on the tongue {versus taking them in capsule form} since this turns on digestive-system function. Peristalsis, the wave-like motion that moves food through the digestive system, kicks in, which promotes better transit time and elimination. Blood circulation to the digestive tract also increases, and the body produces more stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Interestingly, many people with acid reflux actually feel better with bitters because they improve function and signaling so that the lower esophageal sphincter shuts properly while food churns in the stomach. Bitters seem to stimulate vagal tone, improving the bi-directional communication between the digestive system and the brain.

Studies show that bitters such as gentian and artichoke leaf relieve and prevent dyspepsia, a broad group of digestive symptoms that includes belly issues with food {pain, discomfort, feeling too full}, bloating, burping, heartburn, GERD, and the loss of appetite. This effect makes bitters potentially useful in various digestive issues, such as indigestion, hiatal hernia, ulcers, gastritis, irritable bowel disorder, and gastroparesis. Finally, they boost the absorption of nutrients.

Bitters may not agree with everyone, but you can usually tell within a dose or two whether or not they’re helping you.

Boost Detoxification: Most bitters have a cholagogues action, meaning that they encourage the liver to produce and excrete more bile. The liver produces bile as a waste product when it filters the blood. The gallbladder stores this bile. After you eat and food passes from the stomach to the intestines, the gallbladder releases its contents via the common bile duct to join the partially digested food. Through this process, it leaves the body via your waste, but it also helps emulsify fats and aid digestion in the process. If you don’t have a gallbladder, your body excretes bile gradually throughout the day rather than via food-driven spurts, which is why it’s harder to digest fatty meals without a gallbladder. By improving bile production and excretion, bitters support detoxification as well as fat digestion – regardless of the status of your gallbladder.

We often turn to dandelion, yellow dock, burdock, turmeric, artichoke, and other classic bitters for these benefits. Yellow dock has added laxative effects, burdock also boosts lymph detoxification, and dandelion leaf and root both enhance kidney detoxification. Artichoke leaf and turmeric help protect the liver from damage as well. New research suggests that bitters may also improve the cell’s ability to pump out toxins for removal.

Regulate Appetite and Reduce Sugar Cravings: Bitters have additional effects on the digestive system and brain-gut connection, as well as on endocrine function. In addition to supporting vagal tone, the stimulation of bitter receptors also regulates the production of gut hormones {CCK, leptin, and ghrelin}, as well as the sensitivity of your cells to these hormones. Among other things, these hormones affect your appetite and cravings. Taking bitters with meals can help people who tend to overeat feel healthfully full more quickly while also stimulating a better appetite in people who find themselves nauseated by food. {Note that taking strong bitters without any food can overstimulate the digestive system and aggravate nausea and hypoglycemia in sensitive people.} Regular use of bitters reduces your desire for sweets and increases your interest in healthy food, which can make it much easier to opt for good food choices and maintain a healthy weight.

Some herbalists believe that many of our obesity and appetite issues stem from”bitter deficiency.” As humans have selectivity adapted our food crops from their wild to current states, we have bred out bitter flavors in favor of sweet and starchy. Technology that allows us to process and refine foods furthers that divide. What was once a ubiquitous flavor in our diet is now quite rare, particularly in American cuisine. Other cultures still maintain the use of bitters in the meal, including citrus peel, bitter cordials, tamarind, artichoke, and wild bitter greens and lettuces. Even though we love our bitter coffee and chocolate, we sweeten and cream them past the point of recognition.

Lower Blood Sugar: We almost intuitively know that bitters reduce blood sugar when we sip black tea or coffee alongside something sweet. When consumed with sweets, bitters may reduce the glycemic effect of that food and improve the body’s sensitivity to insulin. This goes along well with the aforementioned ability of bitters to improve satiety as we eat, reduce sugar cravings, and improve our desire for healthy foods. Researchers think that insulin resistance may be caused in part by a lack of bitter stimulation of receptors on the pancreas.

Beyond The Bitter Basics

New research is revealing, even more, capabilities of the bitter flavor. We’re finding bitter receptor sites throughout the body, not just on the tongue or in the digestive tract. Here are a few potential benefits bitters may offer based on highly preliminary research:

  • Improving lung function by boosting bronchodilation.
  • Improving longevity by enhancing gene function.
  • Encouraging the parasympathetic “relaxation” response via its vagal nerve stimulation.
  • Promote bladder control.
  • Helping to regulate energy metabolism in the cardiovascular system, as well as heart rhythm and contractile force.
  • Supporting immune function.

Bitter Herbal “Coffee”

This coffee-like drink tastes particularly nice over ice. You may also enjoy adding chaga, cacao powder, and/or a pinch of ginger or nutmeg to the mix. It’s caffeine-free unless you use cacao.

1 part dandelion root

1 part burdock root

1 part roasted chicory root

1 part cinnamon chips or 1 cinnamon stick per cup {optional}

Simmer one heaping teaspoon of the blend per 8 to 16 ounces of water for 20 minutes. Strain and enjoy hot or cold. While it tastes great with cream and sugar, these offset the benefits.

Bitters Spray

Blends of bitters generally include strong bitters, warming spices, and perhaps a few other extras. Lightly sweeten them if desired. You can use dried herbs to make your own bitter tincture blend. Feel free to play around to create your own mix. Citrus peel/fruit, spices, elecampane, catnip, lemon balm, chamomile, holy basil, blue vervain, fennel, and other herbs make welcome additions.

1/2 oz dandelion root

1/2 oz artichoke leaf

1/2 oz burdock root

1/2 Tsp grated fresh ginger

1 cardamom pod

4 oz of 80- or 100-proof vodka

2 oz of maple syrup or vegetable glycerine {or substitute more vodka}

Combine all of the above in an 8-ounce jar with a tight lid. If needed, top it off with more vodka so that it’s filled to the brim. Shake every day or so. Strain after one month, bottle, and store in a cool, dark, dry spot.

To Use: Take 1 ml {30 drops} or 1-4 sprays by mouth or add 1-2 ml to plain seltzer and sip with meals.