Bitter herbs and bitter vegetables have a long history of being used medicinally, but most of our modern diets lack these highly beneficial elements. It’s easy to figure out—most people detest bitter flavors, but foods that naturally contain bitter flavors contain large amounts of antioxidants and actually offer some of the highest health benefits. Historically, bitter herbs have been used for hundreds or even thousands of years as a detox, energy and health building and digestive support. Bitters are an essential key to good health.
The European Journal of Herbal Medicine says,
“With so many bitter herbs, most with a long history of medicinal use in multiple cultures, it is not surprising to read that ‘the urinary system seems to be the only system that does not derive direct benefit from the administration of bitters.”
And according to the Westin Price Institute,
“It is unfortunate, then, that our modern diet seems to be completely lacking in the wild bitter tasting plants our ancestors considered so fundamental to their health. Many of the diseases riddling our modern culture — from indigestion and gastric reflux to metabolic disorders … seem to all point back to the deficiency of bitterness in our diets, and the lack of the protection and tone it imparts to our digestion and metabolic functions.”
Many cultures from around the world revere bitter herbs and foods as a necessary component of good health. Why is this?
There are a variety of plant compounds classified as ‘bitters’. The compounds include phytochemicals with names like iridoids, serquiterpene, lactones, and alkaloids, all of which occur naturally in many plants.
Many bitters have been shown to have antifungal, antiseptic, antiparasitic, and even antitumor activity that are actually a plant self-defense mechanism. It is thought that these compounds actually protect the bitter plants against insects and animals that may eat or attack the plants.
Most organisms, including humans, have evolved to have a natural aversion to sharply bitter flavors since the natural reaction is that bitter equals poisonous, which in some cases, may be true. However, many bitter plants have some amazing health benefits, and humans have discovered that some of these bitter-flavored plants are very good to eat. As we have adapted to eating and enjoying some bitter flavors, we have also reaped the healthy powers of these bitter flavors. One of the primary powers of plant bitters is their digestive-stimulating effect.
What happens in our bodies when we eat bitter foods?
When we eat or drink something bitter, the receptors on our tongues actually trigger a chain of events, known as the “bitter reflex”. This triggers the hormone release of gastrin. Gastrin ‘wakes up’ the liver, stomach, gallbladder, pancreas and the intestines, all of which contribute to the digestive process. Gastrin starts a chain of events in the digestive system, including stimulating the release of:
- Saliva, which begins to break down carbohydrates in the mouth.
- Hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which further breaks down proteins and fats, enhances the absorption of vitamins and minerals, and destroys harmful microbes, some of which cause food poisoning.
- Pepsin, an enzyme that breaks down protein molecules.
- Intrinsic factor, which is necessary for vitamin B12 absorption.
- Bile, which breaks down fats and helps to clean out the liver.
Consuming bitters in small doses on a regular basis ends up strengthening your entire digestive system, including your stomach, gallbladder, liver and pancreas.
In the stomach, the bitters begin to stimulate the smooth muscle, increasing the rate of gastric emptying. This also helps to contract the esophageal sphincter muscle which helps to prevent acid reflux. Bitters are actually beneficial for those who suffer from GERD because of the healing effect of the bitters combined with their ability to help move stomach contents down into the intestines instead of back up.
This bitter reflex also has the effect of triggering your appetite and actually preparing your body for food by triggering contractions in your intestines moving digested food along.
Further down in the intestines, the bitters help to repair damage in the intestinal wall, enhancing cell division and growth. This is why bitters are thought to help repair leaky gut issues that may result from food allergies, inflammation and celiac disease.
The bitters also stimulate the liver to release bile, a necessary product of fat digestion. Bile helps with the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E. The bile also helps to clear the liver of toxins, excess cholesterol, and potential gallstones. Bitter herbs also help protect and repair the liver from the damage of hepatitis and cirrhosis.
In the pancreas, digestive enzymes are increased to fully break down nutrients so the body can absorb them better. This also helps to prevent gas and bloating from food that has gotten into the digestive tract not completely broken down.
With food allergies, most people tend to have allergic reactions to the incomplete breakdown of the protein molecules in particular foods. These undigested proteins react with the immune cells in the intestines creating an inflammatory response and an allergic reaction. This is particularly true of those with celiac disease and dairy allergies. Bitters helps to complete the nutritional breakdown of proteins in the digestive tract, helping to eliminate allergic, inflammatory reactions.
The pancreas also functions to release insulin in the body to help to regulate blood sugar. Bitters help stimulate proper release of insulin to help stabilize the body’s blood sugar levels.
All of these benefits show that in the long run, bitters should be an essential part of your daily diet, creating more effective digestion, better assimilation of nutrients, decreasing symptoms of gas, bloating, food allergies, irregular bowel movements, and healing inflammatory damage in the gut.
Bitters can be used for other alternative health remedies including chronic candidiasis, thyroid issues, and allergic conditions such as asthma, urticaria and eczema. Because many allergic reactions can also cause depression and anxiety (serotonin, the happy brain chemical is made in the gut), bitters can also help with this as well, helping you feel happier and less anxious.
How to incorporate bitters into your diet?
One of the best ways is the ‘whole food’ way—by eating more bitter greens such as watercress, arugula, mustard greens, chicory, dandelion, radicchio, and endive. Mix them in with your salads and enjoy their pungent taste and serious health benefits. As you get used to their strong flavor, add in greater amounts to salads, stir-fries and soups.
Many people enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail made with bitters, as in an aperitif. Although many bars still make drinks with the traditional Angostura bitters, Campari, or Peychaud’s bitters, there are several other varieties out there made from higher quality organic ingredients.
Tinctures are an easy way to incorporate bitters into your diet in a quick and easy way. Some of the better-quality tinctures include Urban Moonshine, which uses a delightful blend of organic, locally sourced herbs and spices and comes in three flavors—citrus, maple and ACV. Swedish bitters is a particular formula often found at your local health food store and is based on a traditional recipe of herbs created by a physician from the sixteenth century. Other bitters blends include Herb Pharm, Wise Women Herbals, Avena Botanicals, and Gaia Sweetish Bitters.
When to Avoid Bitters
According to Dr. Mercola, while generally safe when taken as directed, bitters should not be taken by:
- Pregnant women
- People with serious erosive or ulcerative conditions of the gastrointestinal tract
- Chronic respiratory congestion
- Poor blood circulation
- Depressed metabolism
Side effects are rare, but you may experience mild symptoms of a detox when starting bitters:
- Muscle aches
- A feeling of general malaise, likely due to detoxification of the liver.
- Check with your doctor if you are on medication. Bitters can cause increased absorption of medications.
And be careful—there is such a thing as ‘too much of a good thing’. At high dosages, bitters may have an opposite effect, inhibiting gastric secretions and suppressing appetite rather than improving them. Overdosing can cause nausea and vomiting, and in extreme cases may lead to death.
McMullen, et al, (2015). Bitters: Time for a New Paradigm. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4446506/
Bergner P. “Gastrointestinal: Leaky gut, molecular mimicry, microchimerism, and autoimmunity.” Medical Herbalism 9(4):14-17
Mercola, J. (August 2018). The Benefits of Bitters. Retrieved from https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2018/08/20/benefits-of-bitters.aspx
Charles-Davies, D. (February, 2018). Bitters: The Revival of a Forgotten Flavor. Westin A. Price Foundation. Retrieved from