The Benefits of Bitters

Bitters are an incredible way to support better digestion. But that's not all! Here's the buzz on bitters
dandelion greens on a plate for salad
© Can Stock Photo / Dusan

As naturopathic doctors, we often work closely with patients to balance their digestive systems as a means of solving many seemingly unrelated problems. Most people don’t realize just how important their gut health is to their overall health! While there are many great supplements and supportive therapies to help promote better digestion, one of our first choices that will always have a spot on our shelf are bitters!

Be bitter and feel better!

Bitters are a form of herbal medicine that taste exactly like you’d think: bitter! The herbs used in a bitters solution range in bitterness according to the “Bitter Principle” and are categorized and linked by their distinct bitter tastes; the stronger the bitter taste, the higher the value on the scale.

The bitter taste plays an important role in gastrointestinal secretions. When the bitter taste hits the tongue, it sends a signal along our vagus nerve to initiate a cascade of digestive changes. It enhances digestion in the following ways:

The benefits of bitters:

  • Stimulates appetite and all necessary gastrointestinal secretions (including gastric acids and digestive enzymes) from the mouth, stomach, pancreas, duodenum, and liver.
  • Supports proper liver metabolism and encourages better detoxification.
  • Regulates hormonal function of the pancreas, which helps to balance blood sugar levels.
  • Produces bile and aids in effective bile release so the gallbladder can better metabolize fat.
  • Encourages the self-repair processes along the digestive tract, including the gut lining.
  • Promotes regularity, reduces gas and bloating, and relieves occasional heartburn.
  • Calms the central nervous system, acting as an anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory, promoting warming or cooling of the body.

As naturopaths, we prescribe bitters in our practice often, most commonly to help support a sluggish digestive system by increasing stomach acid. Yes, your body should be more acidic! Contrary to what you may have been taught, common digestive concerns like indigestion, bloating, burping, heartburn, and reflux, aren’t due to too much hydrochloric acid (HCl), but not enough of it! Our bodies require an acidic environment not only to activate enzymes and ensure an effective breakdown of foods, but also to help keep the microbiome healthy and ensure our stomach valves stay closed when needed.

Demanding lives can be a prime culprit in poor HCI production, as stress is a major contributor to the fight or flight reaction which directs blood flow away from digestion in order to prepare for whatever threat—real or imagined—our body is perceiving. The result is lackluster digestive juice production. Combine this with a less-than-ideal diet, excess caffeine, medication use, sedentary lifestyle, and the natural aging process, and our poor digestive systems get out of whack. 

Supplementation advice

While supplementation with HCl and enzymes can help give our digestive systems a little extra help, in most cases this is a band-aid solution. Bitters, on the other hand, can offer a more far-reaching fix, as it can retrain the body over time to produce an effective volume of HCl (among other digestive juices) on its own. 

There are many herbs classified as bitters but some of our favourites include dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), ginger (Zingiber officinale), goldenseal (Hydrastis), Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium), and gentian (Gentiana lutea). We suggest taking bitters 15–30 minutes before meals and to follow the prescription for dosage, which can range from as few as 3–5 drops to as much as one teaspoon, depending on the strength of the herbs. In some cases, you can even harvest your own herbal bitters!

Bitters used as part of a treatment plan can play a helpful role in improving digestion, and in turn, treating and preventing illness. Its broad ability to affect our body’s cells means bitters can be a holistic tool for optimal body function! Check with your healthcare professional to help you better determine if bitters are suited to your overall health goals.

Looking to learn more about optimizing your digestion? Read up on Agni, the Ayurvedic approach to digesting your food.