What Are Digestive Bitters?

Hands on stomach in heart shape

Digestive bitters have traditional roots as medicinal remedies prepared from bitter plants. Typically used to treat digestive ailments like gas, bloating, and cramps, digestive bitters help promote general digestive health.

In this post we will cover everything you need to know about the natural digestive aid known as bitters including:

  • Why you need digestive bitters
  • The ancient and traditional uses of digestive bitters
  • How digestive bitters differ from cocktail bitters
  • The contents of digestive bitters
  • How & when to take digestive bitters

Take a look at Hildegard’s Original Bitters Tablets.  For details and research on how and why digestive bitters work and why bitter flavors are so important to digestive – and overall health and wellness, see our post titled: Digestive Health and Bitters.  

The Need for Digestive Bitters

Before bitter flavors were replaced by sweets and processed food, bitterness was a common flavor in most meals. For thousands of years – and up until around 50-75 years ago, people regularly consumed bitter foods. 

Bitter Melon

From an adaptive standpoint, we have very recently separated from our longstanding relationship with bitter flavors and foods. This recent abandonment of bitterness and subsequent (and massive) shift toward a diet heavy in sugar is significant in many ways — losing the natural digestive aid that bitters once provided.

Bitter flavor replaced by sugar 

Perhaps most importantly, by avoiding bitterness we miss out on the benefits of dietary diversity and essential nutrients found in medicinal bitter herbs and plants. But what’s worse is that we are also simultaneously loading our bodies with sugar. 

By denying our bodies the benefits of medicinal bitter nutrients and consuming never-before levels of sugar we expose our bodies to tremendous amounts of stress. The resulting stress causes a cascade of negative health outcomes. 

Modern diet compared with our origins

The modern diet is an inversion of the scarcity/abundance relationship that has instructed our natural adaptation to the environment for all of time. 

digestive bitters sugar cravings

Eliminating bitterness (and healthy fats for that matter) and flooding the void with sugar is in direct opposition to how we have evolved along with our environment.

We believe that altering our diet in a way that is directly opposed to our natural disposition is the root of most lifestyle diseases that plague western populations. Research on organic and natural bitters for digestion is beginning to bear this out.

Falling further out of balance

Simply, we have turned away from the abundance of bitter flavors in our natural diet and embraced abundant sweetness in our manufactured diet. The result is making us sick.

Natural digestive aids like bitters help restore digestive balance and thus some of the health and wellness lost may have lost to modernity.

The Natural Importance of Bitters

Bitterness long held its place among the other primary flavors of salty, sweet, sour, and savory (umami) for good reason: we are naturally attuned to experience bitters. 

We say experience because our relationship with bitter substances is much greater than as a mere flavor. Arguably, no other flavor profile is so entwined with our bodies like that of bitterness. 

Bitter receptors throughout the body

We have an extensive array of sensory receptors highly adapted to sort through the intricacies of bitter flavors. In fact, we have receptors for bitter substances throughout our bodies. 

Digestive Bitters gut gealth

These receptors serve more than just a digestive function. Bitter receptors are tied to respiration, circulation, hormone signaling, and neurological function. 

So bitterness represents more than just a flavor. It is an important part of our natural bond with nature. This bond between bitterness and how our bodies respond is an essential part of maintaining the frontier between our body and our environment.

Bitter flavors tie to our balance with nature 

It is important to keep in mind that our digestive tract (digestion 101) is actually outside the body. Like our skin and our lungs, our digestive tract must come into delicate – yet frequent, contact with the environment in order for us to survive. 

So what might happen if we deprive our bodies of this important bond? Then what might happen if we flood our bodies with something that is supposed to be scarce, like sugar? 

Disrupting our bond with the natural environment is a big part of why we have a crisis of obesity and spiraling health care costs in spite of massive advancement in healthcare, technology, and human safety.

Message in a Bitter

The process of eating delivers our bodies with important nutrients (hopefully!).  In addition, the exercise of eating serves to deliver signals from our environment. 

Bitterness represents an essential part of this natural signaling apparatus that binds us to those things that sustain us and protects us from those things that may bring harm.

digestive bitters digestion

Our bodies have adapted to perceive the complexities and subtleties of bitterness. We are able to sort the “bad” bitterness associated with toxins, from the “good” bitterness of plants containing vital nutrients — and we can even synthesize these tastes in herbal digestive bitters like Hildegard’s Original Bitters Tablets. This implies that our bond with bitterness developed not just as a means to survive, but also as a means to thrive.

Digestive bitters help restore our bond with the natural environment, to help bring balance back into this elegant system of messaging so that we can let our bodies do what they are meant to do.

The Ancient Wisdom of Digestive Bitters

For eons, healing relied on intuition and careful observation. But even more, the healing power of plants was just a natural aspect of our relationship with our environment. Food as medicine was the norm.

The historic use of medicinal bitters as natural digestive aids prevails in healing practices all over the world. In fact, many cultures still regularly use digestive bitters and bitters medicines for digestive and overall health.

Historic use of digestive bitters

Historically, medicinal digestive bitters have been used to:

Modern uses of digestive bitters

Recently, research into some bitter plants suggests that natural bitters may also help promote healthy digestion as well as:

The wisdom of ancient healers like Hildegard, and even those before her, recognized the power of bitter substances even if they didn’t know the science behind them.

Digestive Health as the Foundation of Health

Accordingly, digestive health was the focal point of all health. So it went that maintaining healthy digestive balance was the key to overall balance. Which was the key to overall wellness. We wholeheartedly agree with this premise.

Accordingly, digestive health was the focal point of all health. So it went that maintaining healthy digestive balance was the key to overall balance. Which was the key to overall wellness. We wholeheartedly agree with this premise.

Digestive Bitters for Balance

The notion of balance is not just some cliché. Balance is another way of measuring our bond with the natural environment. 

How we approach the various cycles inherent to our daily lives directly impacts how we feel and whether we thrive or suffer. And digestive balance is where we maintain our foundation, our healthy relationship with the environment that sustains us. Natural digestive aids can be used to facilitate and regulate this balance — making organic bitters an excellent asset to any diet.

gigestive bitters balance

Hildegard understood that digestion was the foundation. Digestion was the primary frontier where the ancient tradition of humoral medicine sought to bring the four bodily humors into balance. 

Bitterness signals the healing power of plants

To this end, many ancient healing practices regularly used bitter herbs as a means to maintain digestive health and to treat many different maladies. It is no accident that these ancient healers used bitters. Bitter flavors in plants are often indicative of active, medicinal properties. 

Just as toxic substances tend to be bitter, so are many other natural plant compounds that have healing properties. Our bodies evolved to sort out the various bitter substances. Undeniable evidence that our survival results from a long relationship with bitter substances – both good, and bad.

Bitter triggers the body to work on itself

It is also important to keep in mind that these bitter compounds often do not directly “heal” as much as they trigger a natural response in your body that allows your body to heal itself. 

The notion of encouraging the body to do what it does naturally, or removing the impediments that prevent your body from functioning normally, is at the core of holistic healing. 

Cocktail Bitters vs Digestive Bitters

When you think of bitters, you probably think of those pungent, herbal solutions used to flavor cocktails; the ones in small, fancy bottles, often with labels full of whimsical symbols and illegible fonts.

But what you may not know is that long before bitters became an essential ingredient in your Old Fashioned, they were a common natural herbal remedy and naturopathic remedy used for a variety of ailments.

The origin of cocktail bitters

Many brands of cocktail bitters originated as medicinal tonics and holistic wellness tools, though the resurgence in appreciation for classic cocktails has inspired a growing market for new cocktail bitters brands.

These highly concentrated bitters are used exclusively to flavor cocktails, though some people also use them for cooking and baking.

Cocktail bitters are meant to be used a few drops at a time. Most brands, Campari aside, are not to be consumed on their own. A little bitterness goes a long way; so cocktail recipes call for only a few drops per drink. 

The birth of a cocktail bitter brand

Cocktail bitters contain different combinations of bitter herbs, fruits, spices, and roots that are distilled in an alcohol solution. One of the most common cocktail bitters brands is Angostura. 

The German doctor, Johann Siegert when he was traveling in Argentina, created Angostura in 1924. He had hoped to use his blends of bitter plants and herbs to cure a variety of illnesses. Instead, his formula became the go-to brand for flavoring cocktails. 

Cocktail bitters are used for their flavor, as opposed to any of the potential medicinal benefits of their bitter ingredients. But there are some varieties of cocktail bitters and bitter herbal alcohols that have historically been used for digestion as well.

Aperitif and Digestif

You may be familiar with the tradition of an aperitif and a digestif. These traditional alcohol-based drinks are served before (aperitif) or after (digestif) meals to help encourage appetite or ease digestion.

The tradition of a bitter aperitif before meals, had its origin in the Roman practice of drinking wine infused with bitter herbs to process food with maximum efficiency and to counteract the effects of overeating.

Digestifs include several herbal varieties containing blends of traditional bitter herbs that have long been associated with folk remedies for digestive ailments.

Amaro, chartreuse, and other herbal liqueurs include bitter herbs such as rhubarb, cardamom, fennel, anise, and chamomile that have long histories of medicinal use.

digestive bitters herbal liquor

Unfortunately, both aperitifs and digestifs are high in alcohol. Alcohol and sugar are not associated with good digestive health (and overall health), so the benefits of the bitter herbs are greatly diminished.

We recommend taking organic bitters or other natural digestive aids instead.

Digestive Bitters

Digestive bitters for health differ from cocktail bitters in three main ways.

First, digestive bitters are taken directly, not as a flavoring agent in other drinks. Digestive Bitters are to be taken on their own.

Second, as opposed to the concentrated liquid form of cocktail bitters, digestive bitters are often in non-liquid forms such as capsules, pills, lozenges, and powders.  

And third, like cocktail bitters, digestive natural bitters also contain a wide variety of bitter herbs, fruits, roots, and other substances that have bitter flavors. But the ingredients of digestive bitters are selected for more than just their bitter flavors.

Many ingredients found in digestive bitters are also known for their traditional medicinal uses, particularly their role in digestive health. Some common ingredients in digestive bitters include:

Importance of Experiencing Bitterness

Medicinal digestive bitters can take many forms, but the most effective are those that involve actually experiencing the bitter taste. Tasting the bitter flavors as well as ingesting the bitter substances is the best way to ensure you receive the greatest benefit.

digestive bitters angelica
Angelica

The traditional medicinal use of bitters also calls for ingesting bitter tinctures or teas – or chewing bitter herbs like cardamom, fennel, or caraway seeds, at any time to help prevent or reduce digestive distress like indigestion, heartburn, gas, and bloating.

Because you have bitter receptors throughout your digestive tract, you can take bitter herbal blends in capsules or pills and you will still receive many of the benefits of digestive bitters. But you will be missing out on many other benefits associated with how your body naturally responds to bitter flavors you taste. 

Angelica

For all about how and why your body positively responds to bitter flavors and the amazing benefits of bitters on digestion, see our post on Bitters For Digestion. 

How & When to take Digestive Bitters

Our recommendation for when to take digestive bitters is easy: before, during, and after meals – and anytime you experience digestive discomfort.

Taking medicinal bitters before meals can help prime your digestive system to receive food, which may help prevent common digestive discomfort like gas and bloating. 

You can also take digestive bitters during your meal and receive many of the same benefits. Taking a digestive bitters supplement during a meal can also help replace the natural bitter foods that may be missing. 

digestive bitters herbal powder
Herbal Bitter Powder

If you are traveling, eating out, or otherwise unable to find bitter foods for your meals, digestive bitters are a great way to replace those missing bitter flavors.

By taking digestive bitters after your meals you can take up the tradition of an herbal digestif, but without the sugar and alcohol. Taking digestive bitters after meals is especially helpful to prevent digestive problems due to over-eating or eating rich foods.

Digestive bitters are natural and plant-based, so you can use digestive bitters at any time to relieve digestive distress such as cramping, gas, bloating, and general indigestion without worrying about harmful side effects. 

The important thing to remember about digestive bitters is that the timing is really less important than the regularity. 

The greatest benefits of digestive bitters, as is common with many healing herbs, are realized when they are consumed on a regular basis over a prolonged period of time. 

Find Your Own Balance With Medicinal Bitters

The timing, relative to meals, may be significant for some people but not for others. The most important part is just making sure you are getting your bitters.  Generally, studies show consuming bitters 30 minutes in advance of a meal helps reduce overall consumption.

As you begin taking digestive bitters you will figure out what works best. Like most herbal remedies, digestive bitters are often highly individualistic. There is a lot of natural variation among the population in terms of how we taste and respond to bitter flavors. Age and other health conditions also influence how we respond to bitters. 

Some bitters better than no bitters

Merely increasing the amount and frequency of bitter flavors in your diet will encourage better digestion. And healthy digestion is the key to overall wellness. 

At Healthy Hildegard we love the positive natural effects that bitters have on our bodies — and we urge you to give them a try, if anything simply as a natural digestive aid.

 

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