digestive bitters in a bottle with yellow flowers

The Beginner’s Complete Guide to Herbal Digestive Bitters

The bitter flavor, one of the 5 basic flavors we can taste that include sour, salty, sweet, and umami, is essential to healthy digestion. And yet interestingly so, we’ve taken bitter foods nearly entirely out of our cuisine, especially so in many western cultures. Luckily, we’re seeing a resurgence of bitters, in large part thanks to modern cocktail culture. Little by little we’re bringing all the benefits of bitters back into our lives. Learn how to use nutritive foods and medicinal herbs and spices to make digestive bitters that can help support not only healthy digestion, but your overall health as well.

HERE YOU’LL FIND:

What are Digestive Bitters?
How Herbal Bitters Work
Why Digestive Bitters are So Necessary Today
13 Commonly Used Bitter Food, Herbs, & Spices
How to Use Herbal Bitters for Healthy Digestion
How to Make Digestive Bitters
Basic Digestive Bitters RECIPE
When to Use Caution with Digestive Bitters

Other Ways to Get More Bitters into Your Day
References & Further Reading

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What are Digestive Bitters?

Digestive bitters are extracts of nutritive and medicinal plants with bitter qualities, such as dandelion and grapefruit. They can be alcohol extracts or non-alcohol extracts that are used to support healthy digestion from the time you put food in your mouth to the time it comes out the other end.

The goal of digestion is to break down the nutrients from the food we eat into individual nutritive components that our bodies can absorb and use to fuel cellular functions.

Proteins, for example, are broken down into amino acids. Carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars, and fats break down into fatty acids and glycerol.

And yet, to stop there, at healthy digestion, does a world of disservice to the role that bitters actually play in our total health.

Because healthy digestion is such a foundational pillar of our overall health, I think it’s worth looking at how bitters work in our bodies, but first, let’s talk briefly about the difference between digestive bitters and herbal tinctures.

Digestive Bitters vs. Herbal Tinctures: What’s the Difference?

Digestive bitters and herbal tinctures are incredibly similar. One could even argue that they’re one in the same. However, there are a few subtle differences worth mentioning.

Herbalist Rosalee de la Foret suggests that there are two main differences:

  1. Digestive bitters are commonly made using a lesser amount of herbs and are generally not necessarily as potent as a full-strength herbal tinctures.

  2. Whereas herbal tinctures are usually left to macerate (ie. infuse) for 4-6 weeks, digestive bitters can be ready in as little as 1-2 weeks.

How Herbal Bitters Work

As soon as that bitter flavor hits our tongue, well before it ever reaches our bellies, they start working magic in our body. Digestion, the breaking down of our food, begins with the taste receptors on our tongue and the saliva in our mouths, believe it or not.

Bitters essentially start a cascade of stimulations and secretions in our bodies, a process we tie up in one word: digestion.

The Digestive Science of Bitters

Here’s a very simplified snapshot of how herbal digestive bitters function in our bodies:

  1. Bitter taste receptors send the signal: We have specific taste receptors, called T2Rs, for detecting bitter tastes. When our T2Rs detect bitter, a signal is sent to our brains to alert our GI tract and digestive organs that it’s time for digestion. The cascade of stimulations and secretions begins here.

  2. Saliva secretion stimulated: We also start producing more salvia. Saliva, being rich in digestive enzymes, begins the process of digesting carbohydrates into simple sugars.

  3. Secretion of gastric digestive juices increased: Continuing down the digestive tract, bitters then stimulate the secretion of HCl (hydrochloric acid), the main component of stomach acid that helps to break down proteins and extract nutrients from our food.

  4. Bile production in the liver stimulated: Bile is an essential digestive fluid needed for the digestion of fats that is created in the liver and stored in another digestive organ called the gallbladder.

  5. Increased secretion of bile from the gallbladder: Bitters help to stimulate the release of bile from our gallbladder.

  6. Secretion of more digestive enzymes from the pancreas: Our pancreas produces digestive enzymes that help to breakdown all three macronutrients, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

  7. Healthy elimination supported: Our large intestine works to eliminate waste by way of peristalsis. This is the contracting and releasing of the muscles in the large intestine to help elimination.

See what I mean? Bitters literally work to support healthy digestion through nearly the entire digestive process!

Other Beneficial Roles of Bitters

And like I said, the benefits of bitters go well beyond digestion. Many of our bitters also have secondary functions or medicinal actions that are also beneficial to our health.

For example, many bitter herbs are also considered to be one or more of the following:

  • carminative (digestion soothing)
  • analgesic (pain relieving)
  • mildly sedative (anti-stress and anxiety, relaxant)
  • adaptogenic (balancing)
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Why Digestive Bitters Are So Necessary Today

I hate to be the bearer of unfortunate news, but the truth is that we’re in a bitters draught. As perhaps one of the most important of the 5 tastes, we experience a severe lack of bitter in our every day.

But because the bitter taste can be a hard pill to swallow, our bitter deficiency is not all that surprising.

And the reason why we should be incorporating more bitter foods and herbs into our diets is not just for the sake of healthy digestion, it plays into a much bigger picture of how poor digestion can negatively effect our health.

The Unfortunate Truth About Poor Digestion

When digestion is poor or malfunctioning, our bodies are much more susceptible to nutrient deficiencies, a wide variety of diseases, as well as incredibly unpleasant and uncomfortable symptoms such as heartburn or constipation on a daily basis.

While herbal digestive bitters can be beneficial to all of us, you may particularly benefit from them if you regularly experience any of the following:

  • nausea
  • heartburn
  • indigestion
  • constipation
  • loose stools
  • gas and bloating
  • food intolerances
  • tendency towards overeating
  • sugar or simple carbohydrate addiction
  • acne or other inflammatory skin conditions

I think it’s also important to note that there are such similarities between our digestive and immune systems that some scientists propose that they are one in the same! In fact, it’s estimated that over 70 percent of our immune system is located within our gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

This heavily supports the fact that when we experience poor digestion, our susceptibility to inflammation and disease is significantly increased.

The Health Benefits of Herbal Bitters

Luckily, herbal bitters are an incredibly easy and convenient thing to incorporate into your life. Not only may they help the symptoms listed above, they can also work to:

  • increase appetite
  • protect liver function
  • promote healthy blood sugar levels
  • improve nutrient and mineral absorption
  • heal inflammatory damage to the intestinal walls

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13 Commonly Used Bitter Herbs

Now that we know the how and why of herbal bitters, let’s talk about the plants themselves.

While there are many wonderful herbs appropriate for use as digestive bitters, such as boneset, calamus, blessed thistle, and more, I’ve tried to stick with more commonly known herbs and spices here for simplicity’s sake.

The herbs and spices listed below are ones that are recognizable, generally safe for most people, and can even be considered more food than perhaps medicine.

They all have a wide range of compounds that trigger the bitter response. They also come loaded with nutritive value and offer many secondary medicinal benefits.

Common Herbs for Making Bitters

two artichokes with artichoke leaves

Artichoke Leaves
Cynara scolymus

A mild bitter commonly used by herbalists to support liver health.

calendula flowers

Calendula
Calendula officinalis

This powerful digestive ally can help to soothe the lining of the digestive tract. Calendula also encourages greater nutrient absorption and helps to prevent symptoms of poor digestion such as heartburn.

fresh catnip leaves

Catnip
Nepeta cataria

…not just for cats. Catnip is a bitter herb that also acts as a carminative, helping to relax muscle spasm or cramps that may occur with poor digestion.

fresh chamomile flowers

Chamomile
Matricaria recutita

Chamomile is a mild bitter also very well-known for its actions as a mild sedative and anti-anxiety herb. It may help to promote more restful sleep and reduced stress levels.

dandelion leaves and flowers

Dandelion
Taraxacum officinalis

Dandelion is as tenacious in our yards as it is beneficial to our health. The leaves are a well-known bitter that has a long history of use as a digestive aid.

fresh hops flowers used for herbal digestive bitters

Hops
Humulus lupulus

Hops are infamous for their use in beer making that dates back to the 9th century. They’re responsible for the characteristic bitterness of beer and also have a mild sedative effect. They’re commonly used for indigestion.

fresh yarrow flowers

Yarrow
Achillea millefolium

Yarrow is considered to be a bitter tonic and a soothing anti-inflammatory for the mucosal membranes of our gastrointestinal tract. Both the leaves and flowers of yarrow are used in medicine.

Common Spices for Making Bitters

black peppercorns

Black Pepper
Piper nigrum

This incredibly common spice has amazing nutritive and medicinal benefits. It’s a warming spice that not only stimulates digestion, but also serves to increase the bio-availability of many nutrients.

coriander seeds

Coriander
Coriandrum sativum

Coriander, the seed of the cilantro plant, is a common culinary spice that also acts as a carminative and a corrigent, an herb or spice that can actually help to make more bitter herbs taste better.

pile of dried fennel seeds

Fennel
Coriandrum sativum

Fennel is an anise-flavored herb that’s been used to help treat stomachaches, nausea, constipation, and more. It has a natural sweetness that makes it a great herb for children.

Common Foods for Making Bitters

burdock root for digestive health

Burdock
Arctium lappa

The root of the burdock plant is a mild bitter that can help to support liver health and more efficient digestion of fats and proteins. It’s also great source of inulin, a type of soluble fiber beneficial for gut health.

grapefruit with leaves and grapefruit slices

Grapefruit
Citrus x paradisi

Grapefruit is a love-it or hate-it kind of fruit, and it’s usually the bitterness that turn people off. Grapefruit peel is a common addition to digestive bitters formulas that lends a nice citrus-y flavor, but the whole fruit can be used.

three oranges with leaves and one orange sliced in half

Orange
Citrus x sinensis
Like grapefruit, the peel of the orange makes for a great digestive bitter that also adds a really nice hint of citrus to digestive bitters formulas.

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How to Use Herbal Bitters for Healthy Digestion

The two most common ways to use digestive bitters is to take them either before or after a meal. Bitters taken before a meal are commonly called an aperitif, whereas bitters taken after a meal are referred to as a digestif.

You’ll often find herbal bitters for digestion in small dropper bottles, like many herbal tinctures, or even small spray bottles. Dropper and spray bottles are an easy way to take herbal bitters, just a few drops or spritzes straight from the bottle into your mouth!

They’re also incredibly convenient and can be carried around in a purse or book bag, or even your pocket. You can also leave them on your dinner table or countertop to help remind you to use them before or after enjoying a meal.

But how you take your bitters for digestion may also depend on the way your prepare them and your intended usage.

The Many Ways to Use Bitters for Digestion

If not taking a few drops or sprays of your digestive bitters straight from the bottle, there are other (and fancier!) ways to use your bitters.

  • Make a Cordial: You can sweeten your bitters with honey or another sweetener of your preference and turn them into a cordial. A cordial is essentially a sweetened herbal alcohol extract of herbs, spices, and even fruits. Sip these in ~2oz portions.
  • Make a Cocktail: Herbal bitters have been coming back into popularity by way of modern cocktail culture. Mixologists everywhere are adding more and more herbal bitters to their cocktails. They add an unmatched complexity and accentuate key flavors in your cocktail creations. There’s a lot of room for creativity here!
  • Make a Mocktail or Non-Alcoholic Spritzer: This is my personal favorite way to use digestive bitters. While you can get real mocktail-fancy with it, a dropperful of bitters into a glass of sparkling water also does the trick. It’s a refreshing everyday kind of way to enjoy your bitters in a beverage.
  • Give the Gift of Herbal Bitters for Healthy Digestion: Digestive bitters also make for great nourishing herbal gifts! Bring your digestive cordials to dinner parties; they make great conversation starters. Whether you gift a simple tincture bottle of your handcrafted bitters or include them as part of a cocktail-making kit, be sure to let your loved ones know the wonderful health benefits of using bitters for digestion.

How Much to Use & When to Use Them

As mentioned, herbal bitters are often taken in smaller amounts from a few drops to an ounce or more depending on their preparation.

Many herbalists recommend 15-30 drops taken 15-30 minutes before a meal. This can help to kick-off that cascade of digestive stimulations and secretions essential to healthy digestion.

On the other hand, digestive cordials are lovely enjoyed after a meal in 1-2 ounce portions. Bitters more appropriate for after a meal tend to be ones made with more aromatic herbs or spices. These can serve to not only support digestion, but may also help to freshen the breath.

More Is Not Necessarily Better!

Bitters, when taken in excess, can actually work to weaken the digestion due to their cooling and drying nature. This is the reason the dosage is usually quite small. A few drops is typically plenty.

calendula flowers

How to Make Digestive Bitters

Making your own herbal digestive bitters is as easy as adding a bitter herb or spice (or many herbs and spices) to a jar with either some alcohol or sometimes vinegar.

Some herbalists prefer to make single bitter herb or spice extracts and then combine them later. Others prefer to combine them all together in the same jar.

Some of it’s personal preference and some of it is the fact that certain plant compounds extract more efficiently at different alcohol percentages.

You can make single extract and then mix-and-match to find your favorite combinations. Or work from pre-formulated recipes for simplicity.

All in all, making homemade herbal bitters is not an exact science and everyone has their own unique tips, tricks, and recipes.

organic herbs and spices from mountain rose herbs

Bitters Made WITH Alcohol

I think it’s important to note that we typically use alcohol to make digestive bitters. Most often we make them using vodka or brandy, but you can really use any type of alcohol.

The pure taste of vodka really lets the taste of the herbs shine through, whereas the brandy gives a nice complexity and sweetness.

Using more flavorful alcohols like tequila, rum, or gin is also possible. You just have to be a little more mindful of the flavors and ingredients used.

I consider using alcohols like gin, tequilla, and rum to make digestive bitters a bit of an advanced practice, but sometimes you just have to get in there and experiment.

Use 40% (80 proof) or higher for longer shelf-stability and a higher quality extract. These extracts will generally last indefinitely, but most herbalists will recommend using them within year or so.

Bitters Made WITHOUT Alcohol

And while alcohol extracts are the most common, alcohol is not an appropriate medicine for everyone for a variety of reasons. You can also make herbal digestive bitters with vinegars like apple cider vinegar.

Because of the strong vinegar flavor, taste is a big consideration.

Fire cider is a great example of a vinegar extract typically heralded for its impressive immune benefits, but that just so happens to also be an amazing digestive bitter.

If using vinegar to make your digestive bitters, these are best stored in the fridge. They have a much shorter shelf life and should be used within a few months.

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Basic Digestive Bitters Recipe

Every herbalist has their own way of making herbal digestive bitters, but here’s a basic recipe that acts as a good guideline for making your own.

Basic Recipe for Herbal Digestive Bitters

Recipe by Botany CultureCourse: Herbal RemedyDifficulty: Easy
Prep time

10

minutes
Infusing Time

2

minutes

This basic recipe for herbal digestive bitters is a great starting point to jump into DIY digestive health. Use this recipe as a general guideline and feel free to experiment as you please. I recommend using vodka or brandy, but you could also bravely dare to branch out into more flavorful alcohols like gin or tequila. The amount of herbs and spice you use depends on if you’re using fresh or dried herbs. However, it’s not an exact science, so don’t stress. Feel free to mix both fresh and dried as well. The important part is that the alcohol covers the ingredients completely. You can allow the herbs, spices, and fruits to infuse for up to 6 weeks if you’d like.

Ingredients

  • Supplies You’ll Need:
  • 1 quart-sized sterilized glass jar with a tight-fitting lid (like a canning jar)

  • fine mesh strainer

  • cheesecloth or muslin

  • funnel

  • glass measuring cup with pour spout

  • glass bottle for storing bitters (fancy ones or just use another canning jar)

  • For Making the Bitters:
  • ~3 cups finely chopped fresh herbs, spices, and/or fruit OR ~1-2 cups dried herbs, spices, and/or fruits

  • vodka or brandy (Make sure it’s at least 40% alcohol/80 proof.)

  • optional: 1/4-1/2 cup honey or sweetener of choice (Maple syrup or organic cane sugar are good options.)

Directions

  • Infusing the Alcohol (or Vinegar)
  • Add herbs, spices, and/or fruits to a sterilized glass jar, then cover ingredients with drinking alcohol of choice, filling the jar to the top, ensuring the all ingredients are covered by the alcohol by about 1-2 inches.
  • Seal jar with a tight-fitting lid and be sure to label (with ingredients) and date your jar. Give jar a vigorous shake and then place somewhere dark for at least 1-2 weeks and up to 6 weeks.

    **Vinegar can be corrosive to metal. If using vinegar, either use a plastic lid for your extract or place a piece of wax paper between the jar the the lid to prevent the vinegar from eating away at your metal lid and dropping bits of rust into your extract.

    After the first day or two, be sure to check on the jar to see if you need to add any more alcohol or vinegar. As the ingredients start to infuse, they’ll soak up some of the alcohol or vinegar. You want to make sure all the ingredients stay under about 1-2 inches of liquid. Add more if necessary.
  • Straining (or Decanting) Your Digestive Bitters
  • After at least 1-2 weeks (or up to 6), your digestive bitters are ready to strain. Use a fine mesh strainer nested into a funnel and several layers of cheesecloth to strain the alcohol into another sterilized glass jar.

    To prevent your alcohol from getting cloudy, do not press or squeeze the ingredients (especially if using fresh ingredients), just let the alcohol run through on its own. Compost herbs, spices, and/or fruits when finished.
  • After the herbal bitters are strained, you can stop here at a beautiful digestive bitters to be taken in drop amounts or continue on to make a cordial by adding a sweetener.

    If not making a cordial, proceed to Storing Your Digestive Bitters.
  • If making a cordial, add ~1/4-1/2 cup sweetener of choice (honey, maple syrup, or organic cane sugar) to the infused liquor. You can always add more or less sweetened to suit your taste.
  • Storing Your Digestive Bitters
  • Store the infused alcohol or cordial in a jar or bottle with a tight fitting lid or cork and keep it out of direct sunlight. The high alcohol content allows for shelf-stability at room temperature, but you can also store in the refrigerator. It’s recommended to use within a year, however they’ll typically last much longer unless made with vinegar.

    If making a vinegar-based extract, be sure to store in the refrigerator and try to use within a few months.

When to Use Caution with Digestive Bitters

As when adding any new herbs or herbal medicines to your life, always consult with a licensed practitioner especially if you are taking prescription medications, have pre-existing health conditions, or are pregnant and/or nursing.

The herbs and spices used in bitters may prevent adequate absorption of some prescription medications. Always err on the side of caution.

Other Ways to Get More Bitters into Your Day

So maybe you’re not a tincture-making kind of person. While incredibly easy and so convenient, maybe you’d just rather not bother with the specifics of making your own herbal bitters for digestion.

Luckily, there’s more than one way to get bitters into your day. And the easiest way, by far, is to eat them!

Here are a few simple tips on how to get more digestive bitters into your day without having to DIY your own herbal extracts:

  1. Salads: Start adding dandelion greens and bitter herbs like parsley or fennel leaves to your salads.

  2. Pestos, Dressings, & Dips: A great way to hide the bitter flavor is to mix smaller amounts of bitter herbs, spices, and more into your homemade sauces and dips. Lemon peel, black pepper, dandelion greens, arugula, and more make great bitter additions to pestos, dressings, and dips.

  3. Wake Up Bitters: Enjoy a cup of coffee! Coffee is a great bitter that also has antioxidant properties. Enjoy black for the most benefit. Or you can add a small amount to your smoothies!

  4. Who Doesn’t Love Chocolate?! Add some unsweetened cocoa or raw cacao to your smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, coffee drinks, or whatever else strikes your fancy.
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lemon mint hummus - vegan & gluten-free
vegan lemon bars with chamomile, lemon blossoms, & fresh lemon slices on a plate
fennel seed, orange blossom almond tea cookies

You Might Also Enjoy These Recipes Using Bitter Herbs & Spices

Creamy Chamomile Lemon Bars (vegan & gluten-free)
Lemon Mint Hummus (vegan & gluten-free)
Lemon Balm & Kale Pesto with Preserved Lemon (vegan & gluten-free)
Herbs de Provence Infused Oil (for dressings, drizzles, marinades, & more)
Fresh Rosemary, Garlic, & Lemon Sea Salt
Cauliflower Steaks Roasted in Lemon Balm Pesto (vegan & gluten-free)
DIY Super Medicinal Veggie Broth (vegan & gluten-free)
Wilted Dandelion Greens with Lemon Dill Vinaigrette (gluten-free, vegan option)

fresh hops flowers used for herbal digestive bitters

References & Further Reading

Beginner's Complete Guide to Herbal Digestive Bitters

DISCLAIMER: The information given in this article is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult with your healthcare practitioner before consuming certain herbs & medicinal foods, especially if pregnant, nursing, or taking any prescription medications.

Find Organic Herbs & Spices at Mountain Rose Herbs

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