Bitters stimulate stomach acid (HCl), bile, and enzymes that allow us to break down food and absorb nutrients from it.
When taken, the bitter receptors on the tongue signal to the brain to release bile, acid, and enzymes. However, we bitter receptors, or T2Rs, all over the body. The liver, pancreas, stomach, gut, tongue, and mouth all have T2Rs, so bitters can help support the health of our immune system overall.
The history of bitters:
Bitters have been used since the ancient Egyptians, where herbs were infused with wine.
When distilled alcohol became available in the middle ages, bitters were developed further and were traditionally used to ease digestion.
In the modern world, digestive bitters fell out of everyday use and have only recently resurfaced with vigor in the cocktail industry.
With the re-emergence of bitters for medicinal purposes, many of the herbal preparations we see today are similar to those from the Renaissance era.
Why use bitters?
Bitters can significantly improve issues like GERD (acid reflux), heartburn, and digestion issues.
Bitters have been used by holistic practitioners to help wean patients off of PPIs, where stomach acid production was completely shut down. In studies, bitters have been shown to be more effective than PPIs for controlling acid reflux and heartburn.
Bitters help to produce bile, HCI, and enzymes. They can help to break down fats and proteins and to absorb nutrients. This is especially important for those with impaired gut integrity (leaky gut), and certain conditions where stomach acid production is too low.
The use of bitters may also ease food sensitivities or allergies. When stomach acid is low, the body cannot break down the proteins of food that induce allergic reactions. Since bitters stimulate HCI, there is potential benefit.
What about digestive enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are appropriate for some people, namely those with Cystic Fibrosis, where the pancreas cannot produce enzymes. However, for nearly everyone else, bitters will more naturally support the excretion of digestive enzymes that are naturally produced by the body.
Our body produces thousands of enzymes for digestion based on what we eat, but many of the digestive enzyme supplements on the market are made with only a handful of enzymes. There is no guarantee that a supplement will have the type of enzyme you need, and often the supplement is digested before it can do anything to help.
Bitters, on the other hand, stimulate your body's natural production of enzymes and stomach acid. They help your body to make what it needs to break down the food you consume without relying on supplementation to bypass the natural mechanisms.
How to add bitters into your diet:
- Eating bitter greens like dandelion, kale, and arugula
- Eating bitter vegetables like broccoli, radicchio, chicory, artichoke, and Brussels sprouts
- Eating citrus fruits like grapefruit, orange, lemon, and lime
- Drinking chamomile tea, which is a mild-tasting bitter herb and gentle enough for everyone
- Drinking ginger root tea
- Taking an herbal preparation of digestive bitters
Bitters are incredible for those with gut damage/leaky gut because they help to absorb nutrients by promoting HCI production to breakdown food.
Bitters are an amazing option for those who reach for antacids or proton pump inhibitors (if you’re interested in learning more about those, check out my stomach acid post). A large percentage of adults are on prescribed PPIs for excess stomach acid, but it does more harm than good, and stomach acid isn’t the real culprit behind heartburn or acid reflux. As a population, we have strayed far from natural remedies that are provided by the earth. Every growing season has multiple options for bitter roots and greens that we can incorporate into our diet to stimulate digestion. Our ancestors knew this, which is why the concept of bitters has been around since the ancient Egyptians.
As we all collectively come back to a more intuitive form of health care, we can be mindful of the herbs and produce we have seasonally and the benefits that come from them.
One of my favorite foods is arugula salad with avocado and hemp hearts. It’s so easy to incorporate into my daily meals and also really delicious.
When in season, I try to utilize dandelion leaves as well, as they make a great salad or sautéed greens!
What’s your favorite way to add bitter foods to your diet?