Bitters, also known as bitter tonics, aromatic digestives, and digestive stimulants, are remedies made from bitter tasting herbs that tone the digestive system. Bitters positively stimulate the vagus nerve, that is the main nerve of the ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic nervous system, and bitter receptors in the mouth.
Bitters are used when the digestive system is under functioning and aim to improve the tone of the stomach, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.These organs and their secretions all assist in the break down and absorption of food and nutrients. This results in less digestive upset, which is otherwise known as dyspepsia.
How to know if you need bitters
Those with dyspepsia may experience symptoms of:
- Burping after meals
- Feeling full after only a small amount of food
- Bloating and gas
- Epigastric pain and burning
Stomach acid plays an important role in the development of dyspepsia (Samal et al. 2015. pg. 5). While most people associate conditions such as Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), more commonly known as reflux, with too much stomach,most of the population are actually experiencing too little stomach acid. Improving stomach acid is one of the most important aims when correcting an under functioning digestive system.
Gentian (Gentiana lutea) and wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) are two of the most commonly used herbal bitters as they help to increase the secretion of stomach acid, bile, digestive and pancreatic enzymes, and help prepare the intestines for partially digested food. When the body is efficiently breaking down and absorbing nutrients, less symptoms of dyspepsia are experienced in addition to enhanced detoxification of the digestive organs.
Other commonly used herbal bitters are:
- Agrimony herb (Agrimonia eupatoria)
- Andrographis herb (Andrographis paniculata)
- Barberry root bark (Berberis vulgaris)
- Blessed thistle herb (Cnicus benedictus)
- Bupleurum root (Bupleurum falcatum)
- Chamomile flower (Matricaria chamomilla)
- Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale)
- Fringe Tree stem bark (Chionanthus virginica)
- Globe Artichoke (Cynara scolymus)
- Hops Strobile (Humulus lupulus)
- Oregon Grape Root (Berberis aquafolium)
- Picrorhiza herb (Picrorhiza kurroa)
- Wood Betony herb (Stachys betonica)
Diet & lifestyle
Getting to the root cause of a condition is always important when looking at ways to improve an individuals’ health. When dealing with dyspepsia, in the absence of any underlying diseases, stress can be a contributing factor that negatively effects the digestive system and its' functioning. As the nervous system can easily impact the digestive system, it is important to implement stress management techniques such as breathing exercises, relaxation techniques and rituals, and physical activity to keep the nervous system predominantly in the ‘rest and digest’ mode.
Another lifestyle modifications that can be used in conjunction with bitters to enhance results is thoroughly chewing food, it is one of the easiest and the least expensive way to improve digestion. Not only does digestion start in the mouth, with the presence of the digestive enzyme salivary amylase which breaks down carbohydrates, but chewing also signals to the stomach to secret stomach acid.
How to use bitters
Bitters are best taken 10 to 15 minutes before main meals, that is breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When used long term bitters can be cooling to the digestive tract which can have the opposite effect of improving digestive function. To counteract this cooling bitters can be used in conjunction with warming herbs such as cinnamon (Cinnamomum spp.) and ginger (Zingiber officinale) to add digestive fire if being used medium to long term.
Bitters vs digestive enzymes & betaine hydrochloride
While digestive enzymes and betaine HCl are an effective and easy solution for dyspepsia when travelling, eating out, or an eating indulgent meal, they are not encouraging the body to increase production of its own digestive enzymes and secretions. When correcting the functioning of the digestive system, bitters elicit a more comprehensive range of therapeutic actions when compared to digestive enzymes and betaine HCl alone.
Food as medicine
Looking at ways to use food as medicine, bitters can be incorporated into the diet by including regular servings of dark leafy greens such as arugula, broccoli rabe, chicory, collard greens, dandelion leaf, kale, and mustard greens just to name a few. You can enjoy a digestive bitter salad as a simple and effective way to improve your digestion.
Lesley O’Connor, BHSc is a certified senior herbalist at Finlandia’s own herbal dispensary. Lesley has a special interest in women’s health, especially postpartum care, and believes that all women should have access to emotional, physical and social support during the postnatal period.
Disclaimer: This article is for information purposes only. Please seek medical advice and treatment in case of illness. If you are pregnant or suffer from any illness, please seek advice f your healthcare provider regarding safe exercise practices.