Bitter herbs have been traced back to the beginning of time. The bible mentions the use of bitter herbs in the Old Testament. The bitter herbs served as a reminder of the embittered slavery experienced by Jews in Ancient Egypt.
It fascinates me though, that these bitters were and still are exceptional for our health. At home I make an organic blood and liver cleans using Dandelion, Burdock root and Milk Thistle. I also toss a few bitters into our smoothies and soups for added benefit and for our toddler to enjoy the benefits of a nutritious green smoothie. What most people are not aware of is that a diet containing a balanced amount of bitters helps the body’s overall digestion, helps the body absorb certain vitamins more efficiently, assists with reflux, normalizes our blood sugar and the list goes on and on.
Below is a great article on the subject of bitters. Hope you enjoy it! Got a comment or question? Feel free to post a comment below.
In medicinal herbcraft, we sometimes
speak of the “actions” of
herbs. Most herb books will have
a section listing such properties as
hepatic, alterative, diuretic, tonic and
a plethora of other words both familiar
and obscure. But while these terms
are all grouped together, some actions
are far more telling than others. For
example, saying that an herb is “anti inflammatory”
seems useful, since it indicates what the herb is used for.
But it tells us nothing of how the plant
achieves this end; it tells us nothing of
the herb’s essential nature.
Why is the plant anti-inflammatory?
Is it aromatic, containing volatile
oils? Is it rich in antioxidant flavinoids?
Is it astringent?
It is these actions that provide a foundational understanding of traditional herbcraft,
for in these properties the plants speak to us of their virtues. A
plant’s scent is its language. Its color communicates. In its flavor
it speaks to us.
Among the most pervasive flavors found in healing herbs
is that of bitterness. Isn’t it interesting that this flavor, so widespread
and variant in so many of our most trusted remedies, is an
unfamiliar one to us? One that people often claim deters them
from plant medicines? If plants’ tongues speak to our tongues,
then what do we not hear when we taste no bitterness?
Bitter Deficiency Syndrome
Bitters are imperative; everyone needs some bitters in their diet.
No traditional culture could have imagined a diet virtually (if
not absolutely) devoid of any bitter foods—as we seem to have
established in most modern diets. This is not to say that one
should force themselves to eat a bowl of raw dandelion roots,
but to posit that the “medicinal” actions associated with bitters
might be viewed in an entirely different light.
I am a firm believer in Bitter Deficiency Syndrome; a notion
that posits that much of the health woes faced by modern
folk has at its root a lack of bitter flavor in the diet; and that
many of the digestive problems for which we see bitters as a
“remedy” are actually symptoms of deficiency of this flavor.
Perhaps it is not right to think that bitters should be used to
treat sluggish digestion, but that a lack of bitter flavor in one’s
diet can be a cause of sluggish digestion. Perhaps many of the
conditions calling for bitters as a remedy arise from their omission,
not unlike rickets arises from a lack of vitamin D.
I was first introduced to the idea of bitter deficiency syndrome
by James Green, who wrote in The Male Herbal:
It is my opinion that the nearly complete lack of bitter
flavored foods in the overall U.S. and Canadian diet is a
major contributing factor to common cultural health imbalances
such as PMS, other female and male sexual organ
dysfunctions, hormonal imbalances, migraine headache,
indigestion, liver and gall bladder dysfunction, abnormal
metabolism, hypoglycemia, diabetes, etc.
As the years have passed since I initially read this, I have
come to agree more and more fervently with this notion, seeing
firsthand the restorative actions of dietary bitters. To better
understand the notion of bitter deficiency syndrome, let us
look at the scope of bitter’s virtues.
A Flavor and an Action
One cannot separate the taste of bitterness from its medicine.
Though as with all things there are exceptions, it can be broadly
stated that by simply tasting bitterness in an herb, one can immediately
know a number of the plant’s virtues. Should one not
taste the plant’s bitterness (perhaps the plant is trapped inside
a capsule), the actions of the plant will not fully manifest. Its
potential is masked with its flavor.
What is it that bitters do? It is often summarized that bitters
stimulate digestive secretions and the metabolism as a
whole, and in so doing increase appetite, relieve constipation,
and generally ease the heavy glumness of sluggish digestion.
But, this is really too simple and cursory a summation, and a
deeper look into the actions of bitters is not only theoretically
insightful but practically invaluable.
The Scope of Bitters
Bitters stimulate all digestive secretions: saliva, acids, enzymes,
hormones, bile, and so forth. Each of these acts as a solvent to
break down food for absorption, and the quantity and quality
of these fluids ensure proper nutrition. Inadequate production
of these secretions is common in modern cultures (i.e. cultures
lacking bitters in their diet), and the implications of such deficiencies
When first tasted, bitters promote salivation, which begins
the process of digestion by breaking down starches and beginning
to work on fats. Taste receptors in the mouth (there are
over twenty-five different bitter taste receptors) recognize the
presence of bitters, and trigger a system-wide reaction throughout
the digestive tract.
In the stomach, sufficient hormones, acids, and enzymes
are needed to help break down proteins and carbohydrates,
and to free up minerals for assimilation. Bitters stimulate the
secretion of the hormone gastrin, which regulates the production
of gastric acid. Inadequate stomach acid will prevent the
uptake of minerals, which will in turn rob the body of essential
nutrition needed for wellness (even if those nutrients are being
consumed as foods or supplements). Low acid also weakens
stomach tissues, and is often the foundational cause of esophageal
reflux (though most people mistakenly believe they have
too much acid). It is well known that as people pass into their
elder years, they produce less stomach acid. This is sometimes
remedied by taking supplemental hydrochloric acid, but it
makes far more sense to restore bitters to the diet, which will
allow the body to produce its own acid, rather than relying on a
supplement and allowing bitter deficiency to continue. Bitters
also increase production of the enzymes pepsin, which helps
break down proteins, and intrinsic factor, which is essential for
the absorption of vitamin B12, which has far-reaching effects
ranging from blood building to neurological function.
Bitters act on both the pancreas and liver/gall bladder,
helping to normalize blood sugar and promote the production
and release of pancreatic enzymes and bile, which ensure good
digestion of fats and oils. A healthy flow of bile helps rid the
liver of waste products, prevents the formation of gallstones,
and emulsifies lipids, which the pancreatic enzymes then break
down along with proteins and carbohydrates for absorption
in the small intestine. Bile also provides lubrication for the
intestines, helping to facilitate the passage of digested food.
Deficient bile and sluggish liver/gall bladder function can lead
to dryness in the intestines, which is often a cause of chronic
constipation. Bitters also promote secretion of digestive juices
within the small intestine, further aiding bowel transit and nutrient
assimilation. New Mexican herbalist Kiva Rose adds:
In close relationship to the effects on both the liver and
pancreas, bitter herbs and foods can often dramatically
help the irritability, bloating, moodiness, and digestive upset
In addition to the action of bitters on digestive secretions,
they also strengthen the tone of tissues throughout the digestive
tract, as well as aid in the healing of damaged mucous
membranes. This helps resolve conditions ranging from gastroesophageal
reflux to ulcers to leaky gut syndrome. Peristalsis,
the wavelike contractions of muscles lining the digestive
organs is likewise enhanced, helping move digestate through
and out of the body.
All these actions, taken together, can have a net result of restoring
appetite, indicating bitters for loss of appetite resulting
from causes ranging from chronic indigestion to illness to anorexia
nervosa. On the other end of the spectrum, bitters also
seem to be very useful when addressing cravings, particularly of sweets.
I believe the craving our minds feel for sweets is literally
the craving our bodies have for bitters. In their natural
form, most sweet flavors are associated with some degree of
bitterness (sweet foods and herbs such as pure sugarcane, licorice
root, and stevia all possess some bitterness). Any bitter flavor,
though, is removed entirely when sugars are refined. Our
bodies evolved with this association and they still remember it;
hence, sweet cravings are a way our bodies have of asking us for
bitters, and they can often be sated by tasting things that are
bitter. Cravings need not be relegated to food, however.
Small doses of many bitter herbs can be very helpful for cravings associated
with many addictions, due to their calming effect on
mood (elaborated on below). An example of this is the chewing
of calamus root to ease the cravings for tobacco.
Traditional herbalism in cultures throughout the world
consider bitters to have a “downward” action. This refers not
only to bitters more readily perceived digestive actions (including
their admirable efficacy in resolving bad breath arising
from the gut), but also to their more esoteric virtues.
Bitters tend to be grounding, helping to strengthen one’s
connection to instinct. They help to shift people from intellectual
“brain” energy (which looks at things, takes them apart,
and sees the pieces) to gut energy (which reacts to things instinctually,
independent of intellectual consideration). An example
of this might be when a person meets someone, and
initially gets a bad vibe for them, but then goes on a head trip
about how they’re being judgmental and how they’re probably
projecting and they’re going to let go of their preconceptions . . .
only to discover (time and again) after doing so that their gut was
right in the first place.
Bitters also help people return to present moment reality.
In “not here” situations, bitters will help bring someone from
wherever they’re “at” back to the present. This has to do with
the head/gut dynamic as well. Head energy is notoriously “not
present;” rather, the person’s consciousness exists where their
thoughts are. A taste of bitter helps to reground a person to
British herbalist Sarah Head has called the bitter flavor of
bitters “releasing.” Reaching beyond the physiological release
of gastrointestinal (GI) fluids, we can see that they help one let
go of stuck energy—particularly anger and frustration—emotions
often viewed in traditional medicine as being tied to stagnant/
sluggish liver energy. Bitters, in addition to releasing bile,
also help people let go of the emotional energies housed in
This correlation between bitters and mood may seem to
some speculative or even spurious, but here there is abundant
rational evidence to support the assertions (for those who are
stuck in their head energy). The gastrointestinal system, as a
whole, houses the enteric nervous system (ENS), a part of the
autonomic nervous system that controls the involuntary goings-
on of digestion.
But this isn’t the only role played by the
ENS. Many people are surprised to discover that the brunt
of mood-related hormones and neurotransmitters, including
serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and benzodiazepines, are
produced not primarily in the brain, but in the gut by the
enteric nervous system. So, if your metabolism is deficient,
and the GI tract has to deal with the problems that come
along with deficiency, wouldn’t it seem reasonable that something
we know perks up GI functions (bitters) might perk up
the production of mood-related hormones as well? This seems
especially likely when we consider that we know bitters stimulate
the production of the hormone gastrin, and the action of
serotonin in the gut, which is to calm irritation, and promote
peristalsis and digestive secretions. Practically speaking, bitters
do indeed serve as excellent calmatives and often can banish
depression correlated with digestive deficiencies.
So, to summarize, we see that bitters possess a corrective
influence over sluggish metabolism, deficient stomach acid,
and bile secretion resulting in difficulty digesting fats, oils, and
proteins, nutrient deficiency, loss of appetite, cravings, addictions,
ungroundedness, anxiety, depression, and other conditions
that are rampant in our culture. That these conditions
are among the most frequently medicated, using both over the
counter and prescription drugs, underscores the merit of using
Contraindications and Considerations
Bitters are considered “cold” in energy in traditional herbcraft,
and long-term or heavy use is said to “cool the digestion,”
something not seen as desirable. This doesn’t mean their use
should be avoided, but that they can benefit from combining
them with a warming herb (ginger, for example), or by the use
of bitters that are also warming (like calamus or angelica).
Another consideration is that if a person is frequently bothered
by intestinal gas, pungent, aromatic, “carminative” herbs
(such as fennel, orange peel, chamomile, or anise) should be
added, as the volatile oils they contain possess a dispersive effect
and their use helps to expel gas.
Bitters are also said to be drying, because the increased secretions
they stimulate remove fluids from the body.
Some bitters, such as fenugreek, also provide moisture to address this aspect.
These considerations regarding bitters are easily addressed
by combining bitters with other herbs in a formula, or by using
those bitters that are also warming, aromatic, or moistening.
Also, such issues are most pertinent when using more overtly
medicinal bitters, as opposed to nutrient-rich foods which possess
a bitter flavor.
Bitter Foods and Bitter Medicines
The quality of a plant’s bitterness is widely variable in both
character and degree. Many bitter herbs are more accurately
referred to as foods, while others are decidedly medicinal in
their action. Bitter foods should be considered essential to
good nutrition, whereas bitters of a more medicinal nature
should be reserved to address specific concerns not remedied
by dietary bitters.
How can you discern between dietary and medicinal bitters?
Primarily by whether the plant can be considered a food
you can easily eat. Dietary bitters consist of many incredibly
nutritious leafy greens. The very notion of having salad before
a meal originates from the role of the bitter greens that
were once the mainstay of salads. Indeed, salad wasn’t always
chopped iceberg lettuce and fatty dressings, but used to be made
from wild leafy herbs such as dandelion and chicory, or many
of the common weeds that naturally spring up around human
These nutrient-rich herbs were complemented by
vinegar dressings, which also serve to extract their minerals for
optimal absorption. A salad of this nature not only serves as a
nutritious appetizer, but also aids in the digestion of heavier
foods, which often make up the “main course” of meals.
Medicinal bitters are too powerful in flavor to make useful
foods. Few indeed (even me) would care to sit down to a soufflé
of gentian roots, or replace their tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)
with wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Such herbs are
appropriately used to address a particular need, be it chronic
indigestion or that heavy, stuffed feeling that often follows liberal
Using Bitters in Food and Medicine
So how does one go about introducing bitters into their diet?
Initially, by the gradual inclusion of bitter foods, which include
a slew of immensely nutritious greens, high in vitamins, minerals
and other nutrients we don’t yet value enough. When making
your next salad, try adding some of the many bitter greens,
available either from your own healthily neglected lawn or
even many supermarkets. Arugula, watercress, endive, radicchio,
and various mustard greens can be found at many groceries
these days, either on their own or in herb or “spring mixes.”
Even better, dandelion, chicory, and other weedy plants will
grow of their own accord in your yard (without any work from
you) if you let them—wild bitter greens abound.
Likewise, such greens can be used to top sandwiches or
garnish familiar dishes. I often top pasta with a blend of slivered
dandelion leaves and sesame and ground flax seeds, and
have been known to bring in a small bag of bitter leaves to replace
the sad looking lettuce restaurants place atop a sandwich.
Stir fries are spruced up by such greens, thrown in shortly before
serving, and pestos can even be made more nutritious and
palatable by blending such plants as garlic mustard in with the
A few considerations are worthy of mentioning. If the bitter
flavor is new to you, and seems more agreeable to your brain
than your palate, ease bitters into your dietary repertoire. Taste
different bitters individually to see which one’s you like best, and
blend them into a salad consisting of milder or sweeter greens
(including other wild plants, such as chickweed or violet leaves).
You needn’t clobber yourself over the tongue with their flavor;
just add enough to sense their bite.
Acids generally complement both the flavor and effects of
bitters. As mentioned above, vinegar can be used as a dressing
on salads, and will both mellow the flavor and aid in the assimilation
of minerals. Ginger in a dressing will also “warm up”
the flavor. A splash of lemon juice, or the addition of sun-dried
tomatoes, can likewise make bitter greens more palatable. Fats,
spices, and a bit of sea salt also help balance and enhance the
Although initially an unfamiliar taste you may feel an aversion
to, you’ll probably find that the body quickly recognizes
the essential nature of bitters. After using them a bit, the brain
registers that the body is reacting to them in an “Oh, finally”
manner. Once we feel them satiate a craving we’ve long nursed
and tried unsuccessfully to fill with something else, it clicks.
The use of medicinal bitters often requires more consideration,
though there are a number of simple indications for their
use. Most simple, acute indigestion can be allayed by a small
dose of bitters; 15 to 30 drops of a bitter tincture will relieve the
slow, stuffed, stagnant feeling that comes with too-liberal feasting.
In fact, the addition of Angostura bitters to champagne
is intended to do just that. For more developed or chronic
health concerns, greater discernment is required when choosing
which herbs to use, and further study or the insights of a
knowledgeable herbalist are likely warranted.
Bitter tinctures can be made simply by soaking chopped
dandelion or yellow dock roots in vodka in a mason jar for a
few weeks, or they can be formulated from several plants for
a broader action. I make a tincture blend of gentian and orange
peel spiced with a bit of ginger, which tastes quite nice
and works equally well. A blend of roasted and raw dandelion
root could be used as a more readily available substitution for
the gentian. Small quantities of tea can also be used; and, in
fact, the familiar and tasty chamomile, if made by steeping an
ounce of the dried flowers in a quart of water just off the boil
overnight, yields a potent brew, both bitter and aromatic. Such
a strong infusion can be taken in an ounce or so as a dose,
with the excess frozen in ice cube trays and thawed as needed
to lessen the task of daily tea making. It’s worth noting that
bitters that are also diaphoretic, such as chamomile, will favor
sweating over GI effects when drunk hot, and so best consumed
lukewarm, cool, or cold.
The Bitter End
What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise.
While not referring to the taste of plants, this sentiment holds
true when applied to them. People associated bitterness with
negative virtues such as spite and resentment, and yet, what
emotional bitterness really originates from is stagnation; the
inability to release a belief or feeling that no longer serves,
but rather hinders, our wellness, development, and growth.
The bitter person is oppressed by avoidance of the very thing
they cannot let go. Only by embracing bitterness can we learn
what it has to offer—to teach us. In this embrace we find it
rich in medicine.
As it applies to herbs, these same factors resonate. We
avoid bitterness because its taste seems uncomfortable; it
challenges us. And yet when embraced, we find what it offers
us is an abundance of medicine, which allows us to escape
from a state of stagnation and release those things, both
physiological and emotional, that hinder the blossoming of
Article by Jim McDonald
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Article by Jim McDonald