Bitter Herbs for Digestion

Bitter Herbs for Digestion: What, Why, When & How to Get Started Working With Digestive Herbal Bitters

“The bitter, the better!”  One of my past clients stated that jokingly during a 1:1 meeting years ago, as I was introducing him to bitter herbs for digestion and educating him on the many benefits of herbal bitters for optimal gut health.

While digestive herbal bitters are relatively new to the western world, these hidden gems have existed in nature for millennia and are loved among practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as well as western clinical herbalists!

In this article, you’ll learn more about what digestive bitters are, how they work in the body, and I’ll also walk you through why and how you can get started working with bitter herbs for digestion sooner rather than later on your gut-healing journey.

Disclaimer

This article is educational and informational, not to be used as a replacement for medical advice!  Please consult a doctor if you’re on medication and/or navigating medical issues of any kind, since herbs may interact with pharmaceuticals and alter clinical baselines.  

I also recommend working with a functional dietitian and clinical herbalist for custom herbal medicine recommendations and more optimal digestive health outcomes.

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What are digestive bitters / herbal bitters?

In a nutshell, digestive bitters or “herbal bitters” are referring to any and all herbs which have a predominantly bitter taste. (Go figure!) 

Bitter herbs specifically stimulate taste buds located on the very back of the tongue, which is where our bitter taste receptors live and hang out.  

(Our sweet receptors are at the front of the tongue, while our salty and sour taste receptors are located on the sides of the tongue.)

A quick note on the 5 tastes and herbal energetics

In western clinical herbalism, the 5 primary tastes (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and pungent) are significant because they provide us with clues and information on what type of energetic action a particular herb will have on the state of tissues in the body.

For example:

  • Sweet herbs (like marshmallow root, licorice root, and plantain leaf) tend to be nourishing and moistening/lubricating to the tissues of the body.
  • Salty herbs (like stinging nettle) tend to be rich in minerals, and supportive for blood-building (such as in cases of iron-deficiency anemia).
  • Bitter herbs, which we’re about to delve more into, tend to be cooling and drying to the tissues of the body.  Bitter herbs also typically have an anti-inflammatory effect on the gut.
  • Sour herbs, such as hibiscus, tend to be drying and astringent/toning and tightening to tissues of the body (for better or worse), and usually also high in vitamin C.
  • Pungent herbs (like cayenne or ginger) tend to be heating, aromatic, dispersive, and “carminative”, increasing circulation, breaking up stagnation, and warming the body up (for better or worse, depending on the situation).

Keep in mind: it’s entirely possible for herbs to have more than one predominant taste! But for the purposes of this article we’ll focus on bitter herbs.

For thousands of years, bitter herbs / digestive bitters have been used by herbalists and even bartenders / cocktail connoisseurs, primarily for supporting and promoting healthy digestion.

What is digestion?

This may seem like a silly question – but it’s worth mentioning!  A friendly reminder never hurts. 😉 

“Digestion” refers to the natural way our bodies break down and process the food that we eat so that we can extract what we need (i.e. nutrients such as carbs, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants), and leave (eliminate) the rest.

Our digestive process actually begins in the mouth, as soon as we start chewing, and it doesn’t end until our food has passed all the way through and out the esophagus, stomach, intestines, colon, and rectum.

In a healthy digestive system, we “go” at least once a day, most days, and it should look like a Type #3 or Type #4 on the Bristol Stool Chart.  

If you aren’t going at least once a day, and/or your stools don’t resemble Type 3 or Type 4 on the Bristol Stool Chart most often, it’s possible something might be off with your gut. (And if so, that is okay – it’s manageable. I’ve got you covered! Stay with me.)

  • If you suspect you do have some underlying digestive issues, you should definitely keep reading on to see how you may benefit from digestive herbal bitters, and you may also want to consider learning more about leaky gut syndrome here.

All of that said, without further ado, let’s delve into the many benefits of herbal bitters!

Bitter herbs benefits 

Our bodies and subconscious nervous systems are incredibly intelligent!

They already know what to do, but sometimes after getting pushed and pulled in so many different directions (especially when the processed food industry and pharmaceuticals are thrown into the mix, altering our body’s biochemical mechanisms), the body sometimes needs a little extra guidance so it can recalibrate and restore balance – and that’s where bitter herbs come into play.

In many cases of indigestion, leaky gut, and other types of health issues, bitter herbs can serve as a catalyst by supporting, enhancing and optimizing the systems we already have in place for digestion and other processes throughout the body.

Let’s start with the use of bitters for stomach acid and digestive health, since the gut impacts pretty much every other aspect of our health and since digestion is a primary area of focus here!

Bitter herbs for low stomach acid: how it works

As soon as bitter herbs make direct physical contact with the back of our tongues, they stimulate our bitter taste receptors, which then starts a cascade of other signals to the brain and nervous system. 

From there, messages are sent unconsciously from the brain to digestive organs like our liver, gallbladder, stomach, intestines, and pancreas, resulting in an increased production and release of gastric “juices” (like stomach acid and bile to name a few) into the stomach and intestines.

As a result of all of the above processes going on behind the scenes, the immediate result most people experience within ~15 to 20 minutes of taking digestive bitters is usually a sudden noticeable surge in appetite and possibly some rumbling in the stomach. 

  • When done properly, this is a good thing! (It’s considered healthy and normal to feel relatively hungry with a slight growl or rumble in your stomach when it’s time to eat.)

It’s important to note that bitters should make direct contact with the back of your tongue for optimal results. 

  • Popping bitter herb capsules will likely dilute the impact that bitter herbs can have on digestion, because it bypasses that pretty important step. It just won’t “work” as well.
    • Speaking as someone who believes that living holistically, in alignment with nature, is generally a best practice whenever possible, this is one of many great examples of how trying to “cheat the system” by taking the easy way out can and will backfire. (The easy way is actually the hard way, and the hard way is the easy way.)

Why is low stomach acid bad?

While reducing acid in the stomach may be helpful and appealing short-term for people seeking fast relief from heartburn or reflux, a suboptimal pH in the stomach left unchecked can and will amplify indigestion by impeding nutrient breakdown and by allowing for dysbiotic (unhealthy) pathogens to grow out of control in the gut (1).

Low stomach acid caused proton pump inhibitors / acid reducing over-the-counter medications left unchecked can and will often tend to disrupt our natural biochemistry, creating a slew of new medical complications for people (1).  

(If you read the warning label on these acid-inhibiting pharmaceuticals, you’ll likely see that you aren’t supposed to take them for more than 14 consecutive days. This is a conversation for another time!)

In addition to enabling microbial imbalance in the gut, low stomach acid levels left unchecked will also impair the body’s natural ability to break down and absorb proteins, fats, and micronutrients such as vitamin B12, iron, magnesium, calcium, zinc, and more (1).

Bitters for IBS and indigestion

Given their ability to stimulate gastric and intestinal secretions (2), bitters can be potentially beneficial for everything from gas and bloating to constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, reflux, indigestion, and more – if the “root cause” is related to low stomach acid.  

The type of bitters to fit each of these options will vary depending on which condition or set of symptoms you’re dealing with.

For example, certain types of bitters tend to stimulate movement and reduce transit time in the colon, while others tend to dry out the colon and amplify constipation.

What are the best bitters for constipation?

In my clinical experiences, I’ve found that the best types of bitters for people with constipation tend to be agarita / “algerita” (Mahonia trifoliolata), artichoke leaf (Cynara cardunculus), yellow dock (Rumex crispus), and of course a personal favorite… coffee

What about bitters for diarrhea? 

Generally speaking, most other types of bitters ont listed above can be potentially helpful with diarrhea, since most bitters are cooling and drying. 

There are a lot of different directions you can go with bitters for diarrhea; to go more in depth here is beyond the scope of this article, since each person’s clinical case is so unique and individualized!

Do bitters help with gas and bloating?

It depends!  Here are some factors to consider when it comes to gas and bloating:

  • Aromatic bitters like fennel can be extra helpful for gas and bloating, since these types of herbs are dispersive and can do things like expel gas and move stagnation.
  • Antimicrobial bitter herbs can also be very useful, if gas and bloating are caused by bacterial overgrowth.
  • Bitters for constipation can be helpful if your gas and bloating is amplified by constipation and gut stagnation.

Bitters for liver detoxification

Most if not all types of digestive bitters seem to stimulate the level of activity in the liver, which includes the production of bile to get sent to the gallbladder. (Of course this is only applicable for people with a gallbladder!)

Liver-stimulating herbs are often referred to as “alteratives” among herbalists, and most if not all of them happen to also be bitter.

  • If you have gallstones:  please make sure to first consult your doctor and your registered dietitian before delving into digestive bitters – even if the benefits sound appealing and promising. The last thing you want or need is for bitters to trigger a gallstone flare!

Bitter herbs for digestion: my personal “food for thought” 

In my experiences as a clinician, I’ve found that bitters are almost never enough as a stand-alone intervention when it comes to dealing with diarrhea-predominant IBS (IBS-D) or irritable bowel disease (IBD).

However, bitter herbs that are also antimicrobial (like oregon grape root) may be extra helpful if there is some underlying dysbiosis (overgrowth of troublesome microbes in the gut), and this is something you can figure out by running GI MAP testing (“GI mapping”) or another type of stool analysis with a functional dietitian nutritionist.

A benefit of working with a clinical herbalist 1:1 (OR joining the next cohort of my Complete Gut Repair Roadmap group program) is that you receive a custom private herbal medicine consultation which includes your own custom herbal medicine recommendations, 100% unique to remedy and balance whatever is going on in YOUR body!

Herbal bitters for better blood sugar control

While bitter herbs aren’t my go-to for treating people with diabetes, there is some degree of overlap in that many types of bitter herbs (such as bitter melon) and certain constituents present in certain bitter herbs (such as berberine) have been shown to help improve insulin sensitivity in clinical studies (3, 4).

Bitter herbs for the heart

In clinical herbalism, bitters are often used by herbalists to help support the heart on many levels, for various reasons. 

I’m not going to further discuss bitters for the heart in this article, since it’s outside my chosen scope of digestive health – but just keep in mind bitter herbs for heart health is an entirely different rabbit hole!

List of digestive bitters

Much like adaptogens, while there may be some overlap (such as the citrus peel herbs), each bitter herb has its own family and genus. The primary quality each of these herbs has in common is its bitter taste and subsequent similar actions on the liver and gut. 

  • If you’ve also seen the article “37 Herbs for Leaky Gut”, you’ll recognize many of these herbs from that list as well, and you’ll notice a great deal of overlap among antimicrobial herbs which seem to often also have a bitter taste!

Below is a pretty thorough list of my favorite types of digestive bitters, which you can refer back to, as needed. (As a reminder, this list of bitter herbs is not exhaustive! There are entire courses and books out there, just on herbal bitters alone.)

Each of these is powerful on its own, or you can get creative combining a few different options together:

  • Agarita / “Algerita” (Mahonia trifoliolata)
  • Angelica root (Angelica archangelica)
  • Artichoke leaf (Cynara cardunculus)
  • Bayberry bark (Morella cerifera)
  • Bitter melon fruit (Momordica charantia)
  • Burdock root (Arctium lappa)
  • Chamomile flowers (Matricaria chamomilla)
  • Coffee (Coffea arabica)
  • Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale)
  • Gentian root (Gentiana lutea)
  • Grapefruit peel (Citrus Racemosa)
  • Lemon peel (Citrus x limon)
  • Milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum)
  • Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris)
  • Orange peel (Citrus x sinensis)
  • Oregon grape root (Berberis aquifolium)
  • Reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum)
  • Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium)
  • Yellow dock root (Rumex crispus)

How to make digestive bitters

I know there are lots of bitters recipes online, but I found most of them might feel a bit complex and overwhelming to navigate for someone who is a beginner.

  • I’ve got my own digestive bitters recipes in the works for you to check out in the near future – but they aren’t ready yet! 😉 

That said, in the meantime, you may like to check out this simple DIY digestive bitters recipe I found which can be fun and easy for those who would like to explore crafting their own herbal medicine.

Where to buy digestive bitters – the best herbal bitters brands! 

Not feeling crafty? Don’t feel like making your own bitters? I don’t blame you! 

DIY bitters are so much fun –  and bootstrapping your way to a healthier gut with bitter herbs is also not the fastest or easiest way to get started working with bitters, especially if you’re seeking relief from digestive health issues sooner rather than later.

If you’d like my two cents on which bitters are best when it comes to digestion, please feel free to check out my favorite options for pre-made bitter blends available for purchase online, below:

Mountain Rose Herbs bitters

Urban Moonshine bitters

Please note my list of bitters is not exhaustive. I’m still working on it but wanted to get this article to you! 

These brands of bitters are probably totally different from the kinds of bitters you’ll see recommended from bartenders and cocktail connoisseurs.  That’s because these herbal bitters are not meant for recreational purposes – this stuff is clinical-grade.

What about Amazon?

I often discourage people from getting herbs and supplements via Amazon unless it’s a last resort, since those versions of these products tend to be less potent. (Amazon versions of the abvoe products could be sitting in storage for longer periods of time, they could be coming from someone else’s home, or there could be subject to poor storage practices such as sitting in front of direct light for too long – all which reduce potency.)

How to take digestive bitters

If you and your treatment team have established that you’re a good candidate for working with digestive bitters, at this point you’re probably wondering – when and how do I take digestive bitters?  How much is too much?

While everyone should receive their own customized guidelines and recommendations, generally speaking, for best results from a digestive standpoint, bitters should be taken in drop doses, usually about 5 to 30 drops, around 10 to 20 minutes before a meal, a few times a day.

Bitters are also best when taken as a tincture (an alcohol extract of an herb) or as a glycerite (an alcohol-free alternative to tinctures).

Herbal bitters for digestion: how much is too much?

Too much of a good thing is never good! And that goes for bitters, too. more is usually not better.

Taking digestive bitters in excess can lead to dangerous symptoms such as heartburn, reflux, pain and discomfort, or worse. Since bitters amplify and increase stomach acid, too much bitters can actually cause, amplify or worsen things like hiatal hernias, ulcers, gastritis, colitis, or leaky gut. 

I’ve unfortunately seen the over-prescribing of bitter herbs happen to patients who had been given high doses of bitters by well-meaning holistic practitioners who are not herbalists.  These patients eventually came to me for a second opinion after the fact, to get help cleaning up that aftermath – and trust me – it’s no picnic.

If you’re being prescribed more than a teaspoon or two of bitters per day (which is pretty high), this is likely too much and could be a red flag.

Bottom line: if something feels off, don’t ever hesitate to get a second opinion if you feel you could be overdoing it on bitters or anything else!

Herbs for digestion: additional resources

If you’d like to learn more about how herbal medicine can benefit digestion and gut health, please feel free to check out the following articles:

If you’d like to accelerate your gut-healing journey and take your digestive health to the next level, I invite you to join my waiting list so you can be a part of the next round of my Complete Gut Repair Roadmap group program!

The Complete Gut Repair Roadmap Learn More

Bitter herbs for digestion: final thoughts

Bitter herbs can make a wonderful ally for anyone seeking relief from digestive ailments or even heart-related conditions, alongside medical nutrition therapy interventions as needed!  Many people who work with digestive bitters are able to find natural relief and start feeling more inspired and empowered on their gut-healing journey.

Much like apple cider vinegar, bitters can serve to help boost and optimize the amount of stomach acid and gastric secretions available to help break down food properly.  

However, if you’ve got ulcers or other issues amplified by too much stomach acid, herbal bitters may not be a safe option for you.

While you don’t need to be an herbalist to get started working with bitters, working with a functional dietitian nutritionist and/or a clinical herbalist along the way can help you to speed up your healing, by narrowing down your best options and uncovering which bitters will become your greatest allies.

Thank you so much for taking the time to check out this article!

If you know someone else who is struggling with digestive issues and may be interested in learning more about bitters, please feel free to spread the good word and send this article their way!

XOXO

-Jenna

References

  1. Kines, Kasia, and Tina Krupczak. “Nutritional Interventions for Gastroesophageal Reflux, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and Hypochlorhydria: A Case Report.” Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.) vol. 15,4 (2016): 49-53.
  2. Olennikov, Daniil N et al. “Iridoids and Flavonoids of Four Siberian Gentians: Chemical Profile and Gastric Stimulatory Effect.” Molecules (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 20,10 19172-88. 21 Oct. 2015, doi:10.3390/molecules201019172
  3. Hui, Hongxiang et al. “Hypoglycemic herbs and their action mechanisms.” Chinese medicine vol. 4 11. 12 Jun. 2009, doi:10.1186/1749-8546-4-11
  4. Yin, Jun et al. “Efficacy of berberine in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus.” Metabolism: clinical and experimental vol. 57,5 (2008): 712-7. doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2008.01.013