Updated May 20, 2022
Bitter foods and herbs play a very important role in digestion and the health of the organs that facilitate it. Bitters stimulate the production of digestive fluids that help to break down food to ensure that the body can absorb the nutrients from it. They also help to tone and heal the digestive tissues.
When you first taste bitter foods, bitter taste receptors on the tongue trigger reactions throughout the digestive tract. In the mouth, bitters promote salivation, which breaks down starches and begins to digest fats.
In the stomach, bitters promote the production of gastrin, a hormone that regulates how much gastric acid is produced. This is especially important because an adequate amount of stomach acid is necessary for the body to be able to uptake minerals from food.
Bitters also aid in the production of pepsin, an enzyme that helps break down proteins and is key to the proper absorption of vitamin B12.
In the pancreas, liver, and gall bladder, bitters promote the production and flow of pancreatic enzymes and bile, which help to break down fats & oils, lubricate the intestines so digested food can pass through, and rid the liver of waste products.
While it is clear that bitters are essential to a healthy digestive system, typical modern diets are severely lacking in bitter foods. According to herbalist, James Green, this can contribute to variety of health issues, including indigestion, abnormal metabolism, liver and gall bladder issues, diabetes, and so on.
Fortunately, adding more bitter foods to your diet can be simple and delicious. Bitter greens taste great, are extremely nutritious, and are easy to find at the farmer’s market or to grow in your own back yard. Greens like dandelion, arugula, mustard, and garlic mustard are tasty additions to stir fries, salads, pestos, or soups. Use sparingly initially if you don’t often eat bitter foods, as they can be a bit overwhelming to a palate that is unfamiliar with bitter flavors. Add acid (like vinegar or lemon juice), fats (like olive oil or butter), salt, herbs, or spices to complement and balance the sharpness of bitter greens.
If you find you aren’t eating enough bitter foods in your diet or know that you have issues with sluggish digestion, making a tincture of bitter herbs is a simple way to benefit from bitters. Tinctures can be stored in small dropper bottles and are easy to keep on hand for cases of acute digestive issues or just to take daily with meals to help promote digestion. In his text, “Blessed Bitters,” Michigan herbalist, jim mcdonald, recommends taking 15-30 drops of bitters tincture for relief of acute indigestion. One could also take a few drops in water before meals to aid the digestive process and help prevent gas, bloating, and stomach pain.
The below recipe for a digestive bitters tincture utilizes the bitter properties of chamomile and yellow dock to help promote a healthy digestive tract and process. Because bitter herbs are cooling in nature, it helps to combine them with a warming herb to help balance this action, thus the addition of ginger to this formula.
Additionally, the aromatic properties of the orange peel and chamomile in this recipe are helpful for relieving gas and bloating. Orange peel has been used in traditional Chinese herbal medicine for thousands of years to aid digestion, promote liver function, and relieve gas & bloating. It can be helpful for abdominal distention, loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Digestive Bitters Tincture
- Vodka (at least 80 proof)
- 1 part orange peel
- 1 part ginger
- 1 part chamomile
- 2 parts yellow dock root
Roughly chop the orange peel, ginger, and yellow dock. Combine with the chamomile in a glass jar.
Fill the jar about 1/2 to 1/3 of the way with plant material. Avoid packing the jar too full. The herbs will need space to move freely in the alcohol so that their properties can be fully extracted.
Pour vodka over top so that the roots and flowers are completely submerged in alcohol. Cover the jar with a tight fitting lid. Shake a few times a week or as often as you remember. Cover with more alcohol if the herbs absorb it and are exposed to the air. Let extract for 6-8 weeks.
Strain herbs from the alcohol using a cheese cloth. Rebottle your tincture into a glass bottle with a dropper and label the jar. Store in a cool, dark place. Tinctures can last for several years of stored properly.
Take as needed for digestive issues or daily before meals to promote healthy digestion.
Cheers to happy, healthy digestive system!
“Blessed Bitters” by jim mcdonald. http://www.herbcraft.org/bitters.pdf. Accessed September 17, 2016.
Chevalier, Andrew. Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. Second Edition. Dorling Kindersley, New York. 2000.
“Citrus Peel Medicine” by Don Matesz. Mother Earth Living. October/November 2010 issue. Article online: http://www.motherearthliving.com/health-and-wellness/citrus-peel-medicine.aspx. Accessed September 17, 2016.
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