Bitter Herbs for Better Digestion


Bitter  herbs and foods stimulate digestion by triggering the release of enzymes, hormones and digestive secretions such as saliva, acids and bile.  Because of this fact various organs such as the liver, gallbladder and pancreas benefit from their use.  This increase in digestive function helps to break down starches, fats and proteins and therefore increases metabolism.

Because bitters improve digestion they also help to increase nutrient absorption.  Bitters help to tone and tighten tissue which increases the integrity of the tissue as well as creating a protective barrier against pathogens.  Bitters are generally considered cooling (although there are a few warming bitters) and help to reduce inflammation and clear out heat from the body.  Bitters also help to improve elimination which means they also help to remove toxins from the body.

Indications for Bitters

Bitters must be tasted in order to experience their benefits.  By incorporating bitters into our diets we experience the flavor as well as the benefits. Often considered cooling and drying, bitters can be combined with warming and moistening herbs for those who are constitutionally cold and dry.

Bitters are indicated with fevers when the person feels very hot and tense.  Skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema, which are often associated with the liver, can be addressed with the use of bitters.  Because of their ability to improve liver function, bitters may be quiet beneficial for those dealing with chronic hepatitis.

Many, if not most people, are deficient in stomach acid despite the huge numbers of people suffering with gastrointestinal esophageal reflux disease.  GERD as it is also known by is actually a condition associated with a weakening of tissues and low gastric acid secretion.  This is certainly a condition which may benefit from the use of bitters.

Because bitters stimulate the production of stomach acid and stomach acid is needed for iron absorption those who are anemic and supplementing with iron may want to consider incorporating bitters into their diets.  Bitters would also be indicated for someone who is experiencing a great deal of gas and bloating and if their tongue has a yellow coating.

For those who have decided to remove coffee from their diet it can be challenging as their bodies have become accustom to the daily dose of bitter from the coffee.  Administering mild bitters may make the transition of coming off of coffee easier.

As mentioned before bitters help to clear heat and toxins from the body.  Because of this action bitters are indicated for viral, bacterial or fungal infections.  Bitters are also indicated with various parasitic infections.

Cravings for sweet may be abated by the use of bitters as many naturally occurring sweet herbs have a bitter undertone.  The body often misinterprets the signal thinking that it is craving sweets, but in reality it is trying to tell us that we need to be nourished.  In his wonderful article, “Blessed Bitter”, herbalist Jim Mcdonald writes this about sweet cravings and bitters…

“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 satiated by tasting things that are


The emotions of anger, frustration and irritability are often associated with the liver.  By supporting the liver with bitters it can also help to address such emotions and help one to feel more grounded.  For the rationale behind the use of bitters to improve mood we have to consider the fact that the gut is the primary seat for most of the hormones related to mood such as serotonin and dopamine.  By improving digestion as a whole we address many of the factors affecting the diminished capacity of these hormones.

For those who suffer with headaches associated with vasodilatation or too much blood flow going to the head, bitters can help to draw blood away from the head and into the digestive tract.

Examples of Bitter Herbs: (Cold/Dry)

Achillea millefolium
Yarrow (warm/cool)
Matricaria recutita
Angelica archangelica
Arctium lappa
Burdock root(Warming/moistening)
Artemisia vulgaris
Mahonia aquifoliium
Oregon grape root
Berberis vulgaris
Caffea arabica
Chelidonium majus
Chionanthus virginica
Fringe tree
Eupatorium perfoliatum
Frasera speciosa
Green gentian
Gentiana lutea
Humulus lupulus
Hydrastis canadensis
Leonurus cardiaca
Marrubium vulgare
Populus tremuloides
Salix nigra
Taraxacum officinalis
Trigonella foenum-graecum
Verbena off


Bitters in the Diet:

  Many cultures incorporate bitter foods into their diet as an aid to digestion.  More and more people are starting to realize the benefits of adding bitter herbs to their diet which is evident in the recent addition of bitter herbs to salad mixes.  There are quite a number of bitter foods that can be added to the diet that can help improve digestion; Coffee (black), Dandelion greens, Bitter melon, Citrus peel, Unsweetened cocoa, Chicory, Broccoli, Cabbage, and Chard.

  How to use Bitters

When using bitter herbs as a formula it is best to combine the cooling bitters with some of the warming bitters to help balance out the formula.  Add approximately 15 drops of a bitter formula to a small glass of water or a few drops on the tongue 15 minutes prior to a meal to help begin the process of digestion.  Keep in mind that because of their cooling and drying nature that when taken in large doses bitters can have the opposite effect and begin to weaken digestion.


Bergner, P (2001) Medical Herbalism:  Therapeutics and Case Studies.  Bergner Communications.  Boulder CO.

Mcdonald, J. Blessed Bitters.  Retrieved online July 2, 2012.

Pengelly, A. Herbal treatments for hepatitis.  Retrieved online June 26, 2012.

Rose, K.  (2008). Terms of the trade 4: Bitters.  Retrieved online July 9, 2012.

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The information on this website is for educational purposes only and is not intended to treat, diagnose or prescribe.  

© 2014  Natalie Vickery