Jamie Sculley, ND
How Bitters Can Improve Your Digestion
Updated: May 1, 2020
How do you feel after you eat? Do you have indigestion, feel too full, bloated, and generally uncomfortable? If so, digestive bitters might be able to help.
Digestive bitters include foods, herbs, and drinks that have a bitter taste and this bitterness stimulates the digestive process in your body. They can be part of your regular diet or be used medicinally to help prevent or relieve digestive discomfort. Bitters are usually taken before a meal to get saliva, digestive enzymes, bile and stomach acid flowing and prepare the digestive tract to break down the food.
How do bitters help digestion?
Stimulates secretion of digestive enzymes - We have digestive enzymes in the mouth, stomach and small intestines. In general, salivary enzymes digest carbohydrates, enzymes in the stomach breakdown proteins and the small intestine is where fats, carbohydrates and proteins are broken down. Adequate chewing starts the process and enzymes finish it, breaking down the food into particles small enough to be absorbed in the small intestine.
Increases stomach acid - The stomach produces hydrochloric acid (HCl), which is an incredibly strong acid. It protects us from harmful microbes that may be in our food and activates digestive enzymes. It's a vital part of the process and when people have low stomach acid, food can feel like a lump sitting in the stomach. With low acid you may also have a hard time absorbing minerals and nutrients because the food isn't being broken down into small, easily digestible parts.
Improves fat absorption - Bile is vital to the breakdown of fats. It's made in the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Bile not only helps with fat breakdown, it also helps with absorption of fat soluble vitamins like vitamins A,D,E, and K.
Moves food through the stomach and intestines - The stomach and small intestine are surrounded by muscles that help with digestion. The stomach churns to break up the food so enzymes can more easily break it down. The small intestine has to move food along so it can be absorbed and get into the large intestine. It does this through peristalsis, which are muscle contractions that move like a wave down the intestinal tract.
Keeps you regular - Because bitters stimulate intestinal contractions, they can help move waste into the bowels and keep you regular or relieve constipation.
What foods and herbs are considered "digestive bitters"?
Bitters are an acquired taste! You may dislike it at first if you're not used to eating bitter foods or herbs. Bitters have to be tasted for them to work. Try taking about 1/4 tsp or 1 dropperful 15-30 minutes before a meal to get digestion going. If you forget, that's okay, you can take them after a meal too.
Try incorporating these foods into your daily diet if you don't eat them already.
leafy greens like arugula, kale
Brassica family vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel's sprouts, cabbage, kale
citrus fruits especially grapefruit
chocolate with a high cocoa content (~80%)
beer (in moderation)
Milder bitters - peppermint, chamomile, dandelion leaf and root, artichoke, burdock, citrus peel
Intense bitters - gentian, yarrow, artemisia, Oregon grape root, goldenseal, hyssop, hops
Warming herbs - ginger, cinnamon, anise, fennel
There are many bitter herbs and they have different levels of bitterness. You may want to start with the milder bitters and work your way up to more intense bitters as your palette changes.
Many health food stores sell these as teas, tinctures or loose dried herbs. You can choose a few and mix them together or try them by themselves. You may also be able to find pre-made bitters that include some of these herbs.
There are many ways to use them. You can choose a few and make a tea or homemade tincture (alcohol extraction). I've included warming herbs above, which can be added to further aid digestion and add a nice flavor.
How to make your own bitters
A very simple way to make your own bitters tincture is to get a jar (mason jars work well), fill it about 3/4 full with dried herb and then cover with alcohol. Vodka works well and has a high enough alcohol content for preservation. Cover tightly and keep in a cool, dark place. Shake the jar daily. Let it sit for at least 2 weeks and then strain out the herb. You'll have your very own bitter tincture you can use daily!
Bitters can stimulate many parts of the digestive system so use them cautiously or consult with your holistic healthcare provider if you have digestive issues like GERD, IBS, IBD or gastric ulcers because they may worsen these conditions. Don't use bitters if you have gallstones or gallbladder inflammation because they can stimulate painful gallbladder contractions. Don't use bitters if pregnant.
Bitter herbs, foods and drinks can stimulate digestion and reduce digestive discomfort if taken before or after a meal. Bitter foods include coffee, chocolate, beer, greens, artichoke, brassica vegetables and citrus fruits. Bitter herbs vary in their level of bitterness and can be used as tinctures or teas. You can buy them pre-made or it's easy to make your own at home. I hope you'll try bitters out soon and see how great they can be!
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