Bitters are a classification of medicinal herbs named, quite simply, for their bitter taste. Herbs categorized as bitters can range from mildly bitter, such as dandelion root or yarrow, to extremely bitter (and barely palatable), such as wormwood and rue. Chocolate, black tea, and coffee are also considered bitters and can act similarly in a medicinal sense. However, due to their caffeine content, they can also be irritating to the nervous system. Perhaps you've come across bottles of "Swedish bitters" at the natural food store or sipped on a bitter herbal apertif before or after a meal while in Europe, where herbal bitters are still quite popular. Unfortunately, here in America, this tradition of ingesting a bitter before each meal has fallen out of favor over the years. The label above is from a brand of bitters sold in the US in 1880. This original formula featured 94 proof alcohol with several bitter herbs, a few aromatic oils, and sugar to sweeten.
Bitters essentially work by triggering a response in the bitter receptors of the back of the tongue. This sensation of bitterness is directed by the nerves to the central nervous system. From there, the message goes to the gut which causes the digestive hormone gastrin to be released, stimulating the entire digestive process. Thurs, herbal bitters are best taken 10-15 minutes before a meal. Here are some of the beneficial effects of bitters:
- Stimulating appetite.
- Stimulating the release of digestive juices from the pancreas, duodenum, and liver.
- Aiding the liver in detoxification and increasing the flow of bile.
- Helping to regulate the secretion of pancreatic hormones, thus regulating blood sugar and insulin.
- Helping the gut wall repair damage by stimulating its self-repair mechanisms.
Because most of us in our modern world have compromised digestive systems and overworked livers, digestive bitters can be beneficial preventative and healing medicine for many people. As our gut is home to 70% of our immune system as well as our second brain (the enteric nervous system), using these gut healing herbs can have far reaching effects on our body's overall health. Some contraindications do exist for bitters, including: pregnancy, kidney stones, gallbladder disease, hiatus hernia, gastritis, peptic ulcer, and diabetes (although bitters can be beneficial treatment for adult-onset type II diabetes, they can also upset blood sugar balance). As with any herbs, if you are on other prescription medications or have a serious health condition, it's beneficial to consult with an herbal practitioner before beginning any herbal protocol. Here is a list of some of my favorite herbal bitters:
- Yarrow Achillea millefolium
- Wormwood Artemisia absinthium
- Mugwort Artemisia vulgaris
- Dandelion Rt Taraxacum officinale
- Chamomile Matricaria recutita
- Orange Peel Citrus sinensis
- Oregon Grape Root Mahonia aquifolium