Traditional Bitters versus Digestive Enzymes

by Sarah Natural RemediesComments: 40

bottle of bitters with spoon

A modern resurgence of interest is underway with regard to the medicinal use of  bitters, a traditional and very effective way to obtain natural, nontoxic relief from nausea, bloating, heartburn and other digestive discomforts. No doubt the reason for the exploding interest in this traditional remedy is the epidemic of gastrointestinal disorders that has many people concerned about dependence on over the counter or prescription drugs to get through the day.

Simply put, bitters are the extraction of seeds, herbs, bark, roots, flowers, leaves or fruit of plants. The plant matter is highly concentrated and preserved in a liquid medium such as alcohol and has a bitter, sour, or bittersweet flavor.

Although the precise origin remains unclear, traditional Asian cultures have long valued bitters as a restorative tonic for digestive relief, detoxification, increased strength and rapid healing.

Bitters Gain Worldwide Fame

The use of bitters as a medical elixir became known all over the world starting around 1820 as the result of the efforts of Dr. Johannes Siegert. A physician and the ex-surgeon general of the Republic of Venezuela, Dr. Siegert established and began a business in the preparation and sale of aromatic bitters in the town of Angostura (today Ciudad Bolivar).

Dr. Siegert used this preparation, known as “Amargo Aromatico” to support the Venezuelan freedom fighters and specifically rebel Simon Bolivar. This aromatic tonic became very popular with the rebels and was spread around the world by sailors who used it as a strengthener to boost endurance while working on their ships.

By 1850, Dr. Siegert had focused his business on the distribution of the Angostura bitter which slowly gained popularity as a flavoring agent for cocktails which persists to this day (1).

Bitters versus Digestive Enzymes?

One question that has many confused who are seeking the best holistic remedy for their digestive ills is the choice between concentrated bitters and digestive enzymes or other digestive related supplements. To help you sort through the choices, consider the following:

As a Preventative Aid

Since bitters are derived from plant matter, they serve as a food or herbal tonic to stimulate the digestive process to optimal function. The biological functions vitalized include digestive enzyme production, bile secretion, and stomach acid levels. Specific digestive organs triggered to action include the pancreas, gall bladder, stomach and liver.

In order for optimal preventative results, bitters taken as a tonic should be ingested via mouth 10-15 minutes before eating.  Experiencing the bitter flavor on the tongue initiates the effect starting the salivary glands, which is why bitters should not be taken in pill or capsule form. The stimulation of the tastebuds and increased saliva output is the signal to rest of the digestive process to produce and release the necessary enzymes and digestive juices for proper and thorough digestion of food. Cabbage works in much the same way as a reflux preventative.

Andrew Weil MD suggests bitters as a preventative writing that “just as sweets cause blood sugar, insulin, and hunger to spike and then dip — often leading, long term, to obesity and Type 2 diabetes — research indicates bitter foods can have the opposite effect, moderating both hunger and blood sugar.” (2)

As an Acute Remedy

As a remedy for an acute situation, bitters can be taken after a meal when upset stomach, indigestion, bloating or heartburn is being experienced. Common bitter herbs used historically for this purpose and other ailments include (3):

  • Angelica : Used to remedy colds and ailments such as rheumatism. Contraindicated for pregnancy.
  • Chamomile : A mildly bitter herb used as a sedative and digestive antispasmodic.
  • Dandelion :  Used as a blood cleanser and diuretic. Still used in traditional cooking in the Mediterranean and parts of Asia.
  • Gentian: Used by herbalists for over 2,000 years to help stimulate liver function. Contraindicated for pregnancy.
  • Goldenseal : A strong bitter herb used to stimulate appetite and eliminate infections.
  • Horehound : Dating back to Ancient Egypt, horehound is believed to be one of the original bitter herbs of the Bible.
  • Milk Thistle : Known as a powerful liver detoxifier.
  • Peppermint :  An ancient herb used as a flavor, a fragrance, and medicine. Peppermint oil is used to allay nausea and stomach aches.
  • Rue:  A strong bitter herb used as an antispasmodic, a sedative, and for stimulating appetite. Mentioned in the Bible as “peganon” and in Shakespeare’s play Richard III .
  • Slippery Elm: My personal go-to herb that I’ve used over the years for tummy aches in my children. I never leave home without it.
  • Wormwood : A perennial bitter used as an antiseptic, tonic, diuretic, and appetite stimulant. The herb’s strong bitter taste is still used in liquors like vermouth.
  • Yarrow : A flowering plant that produces a mild bitter herb used as an astringent and cold remedy. The entire herb can be used and is an effective insect repellent.

What about Digestive Enzymes?

Digestive enzymes are supplements that provide an outside source of digestive enzymes for the body. They typically come in pill form with a limited array of enzymes included. Certainly, digestive enzymes are easier to take, but are they as beneficial or effective?

Let’s start with the specifics. There are eight primary digestive enzymes, each designed to help break down different types of food (3):

  • Protease: Digesting protein
  • Amylase: Digesting carbohydrates
  • Lipase: Digesting fats
  • Cellulase: Breaking down fiber
  • Maltase: Converting complex sugars from grains into glucose
  • Lactase: Digesting milk sugar (lactose)
  • Phytase: Helps with overall digestion
  • Sucrase: Digesting most sugars

There are also supplements such as betain hydrochloride (HCL), a chemical made in a lab that increases the level of hydrochloric acid in the stomach to faciliate proper pH and digestion.

The problem is that optimal digestion is not as simple as popping an enzyme pill or two. Enzymes don’t work in isolation, but rely on hundreds if not thousands of cofactors to do their job. This is why digestive enzymes or HCL pills don’t work well or at all for a lot of people when it comes to preventing or alleviating the discomfort of digestive ills.

A more natural approach is to encourage the body’s biological functions to do their job properly without the crutch of outside support. Bitters stimulate the body to do just that – produce its own enzymes, digestive juices, hormones and coenzymes without any outside interference that could cause further imbalances over time. Thus, bitters target the actual problem rather than using supplement pills as de-facto drugs to assist on a meal by meal basis that must be continued indefinitely.

In addition, bitters have the added benefit of encouraging detoxification and improving stamina and healing. Digestive enzymes alone do not.

Do Bitters Always Contain Alcohol?

Alcohol is the traditional and best way to optimally extract and preserve the active ingredients in the plant matter used to make bitters. Alcohol also provides the longest shelf life for bitters, which do not need to be refrigerated.

Just be sure to seek out a brand of bitters that uses alcohol that is both gluten free and GMO free such as cane alcohol. The serving size on bitters is very small, so the amount of alcohol ingested is tiny and possibly even less than over the counter cough medicines made with GMO corn derived alcohol.

If you wish to avoid even the small amounts of alcohol in bitters, fortunately there are some alcohol free brands to try.

Bitters For Pregnancy Nausea and Heartburn

Bitters are definitely a wonderful option for the digestive ills that most mothers-to-be experience during pregnancy. The problem is that some brands on the market contain herbs that are contraindicated for pregnancy such as gentian and angelica. Check labels carefully and consult with your prenatal practitioner for guidance.

To my knowledge, there is at least one brand that is safe to use for pregnancy related morning sickness, nausea, and heartburn. This is the chamomile bitters from Urban Moonshine.

During breastfeeding, most brands of bitters can be safely used, but it is best to consult with your practitioner first and always stay within recommended dosage guidelines.

Bitters for Children

It is a good idea to always consult with a respected holistic practitioner in your area before commencing any supplementation especially for children.

That being said, bitters are generally safe for children over the age of two. However, the serving size must be adjusted downward based on the child’s weight. Since the recommended serving size is typically based on a 150 pound/68 kilo adult, dividing the child’s weight in pounds by 150 will yield the percentage to use to determine the appropriate serving size for the child.

For example, if a child weighs 75 pounds, 150/75 = .5   Multiply the serving size (1/4 teaspoon) by .5 to obtain a dosage of 1/8 teaspoon for a 75 pound child.

If your child is under the age of two, this article describes a safe alternative for digestive discomfort.

Which is Better: Bitters or Digestive Enzymes?

In conclusion, if you are seeking an all natural remedy for digestive disorders both as a preventative and for acute situations, bitters would be your best bet rather than digestive enzymes. If you are pregnant, just be sure to seek out a safe for pregnancy formula such as chamomile bitters.

While digestive enzyme pills and supplements like betain HCL can definitely help in a pinch, they don’t work for everyone, and ultimately, the best approach is to stimulate and heal the body’s own innate mechanisms rather than relying on an external crutch for long term digestive support.

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

Comments (40)

  • Susan Hildebrandt

    Hi Sara,
    I was asked in a workshop recently if Beet Kvass was a good substitute for Bitters? Is one preferred over the other?
    Thanks

    March 22nd, 2016 2:52 pm Reply
  • Tina

    Hi Sara,
    The only links for bitters that I see are the non alcoholic one and the one for pregnant women. is there a link for the one that you recommend that I am missing?

    Thanks!

    March 19th, 2016 9:22 pm Reply
  • Laura

    Bitters give my husband the runs! I would much rather be pro-bitters (and we have some), because we are pretty much exclusively herbal and homeopathic users – but even a tiny amount is too potent for him. We have a healthy, traditional diet; I make kefir, sourdough, lacto-fermented food etc. We barely use our digestive enzymes, but honestly, prefer them over bitters in times of need. Maybe we should try a single, simple herb instead. Has anyone else had this experience?

    March 15th, 2016 1:33 am Reply
  • Sangeetha

    Enzymes typically don’t need more than one or two cofactors each, less for many digestive enzymes. The problem with eating digestive enzymes with the hopes of the enzymes helping one digest food is that our own digestive enzymes will quite likely chew them up, like they do all proteins. Digestive enzymes are all proteins. Our own digestive enzymes are secreted in a protected form and are activated only where needed, by other digestive enzymes. I don’t know if digestive enzymes from plant matter are thus, protected and if so, if we have the necessary enzymes to activate them.

    March 13th, 2016 9:33 am Reply
  • Irene

    Thank you so much Sarah for this great article about bitters.We are about to move house and in cleaning out the pantry last week I found my bottle of Angostura Bitters which I’ve had for a few years (no expiry date). I thought they are only used for flavoring. My husband and I have both taken digestive enzymes for years but can’t say we’ve noticed any great benefit.
    I googled Angostura Bitters – Digestion. Dr Andrew Weil has an excellent short article here http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/id/ART00300 and suggests they are very good for the purpose you mentioned. We will give them a try instead of the enzymes.

    March 12th, 2016 12:08 am Reply
  • Unruffledwellness

    My family and I use a homemade digestive tincture with much success. I’m always in awe at the potency of the herbs and wish I had discovered there usefulness sooner.

    February 27th, 2016 7:01 am Reply
  • Terry Vanderheyden

    St. Francis Herb Farm also makes a wonderful “Canadian Bitters” for any Canadian readers of your lovely site!

    February 26th, 2016 10:53 am Reply
  • Sheryl

    Are there any natural products that heal the esophagus? DGL, slippery elm, aloe juice?

    February 19th, 2016 7:29 pm Reply
  • Sheryl

    I bought some camomile bitters, cabbage, and sauerkraut. Would these be safe to use for someone with an hiatal hernia?

    February 19th, 2016 7:27 pm Reply
  • Stacy

    Can you recommend a brand or website where we can find quality bitters?

    February 18th, 2016 10:22 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Links to quality brands are provided in the post above.

      February 19th, 2016 8:27 am Reply
      • Maria

        Hi I use Shakeology and it has enzymes and stuff in it. I want to do bitters because I have intestinal parasites,candida and a red rashy itchy food for over 10 years. I want to use urban moonshine bitters 1teaspoon 3 times a day. Would I take it begin or after shakeology/food

        Thanks.

        June 1st, 2016 5:01 pm Reply
  • Louay

    Many people are asking where to locate a good source of bitters and one site I found is granaryherbs.co.uk. They are based in the UK but ship worldwide.

    February 18th, 2016 8:53 am Reply
  • James Higgins

    I submitted this the other day, but for some reason haven’t received any e-mails. I have been struggling with severe digestive issues forever. I am currently off all sugar, dairy, and very little intake of carbs. I am trying to wean myself off of Nexium, because I have been told that this is probably the culprit to all my digestive woes. Currently taking a probiotic daily, tried digestive enzymes, but probably will switch to the bitters to see if that will help. I also had my gallbladder removed a few years back. Also seeking your advice in regards to weaning off of Nexium, I heard that was the right way to go??? Do you agree with this? Or can I just get off of them and continue to take the probiotic and bitters? Thank you for all of your great advice.

    February 17th, 2016 12:15 pm Reply
    • Kathy

      If you have digestive difficulties, have you considered/explored the possibility of lactose intolerance? I went off dairy for a year, carefully reading ALL labels. Even breads may have milk products. Concluded I was lactose intolerant. Now I drink raw milk – and this allows me to eat any other dairy product at the same meal without “issues”. Raw cheese can also be used for the same purpose. This has also cured my historically bad breath, unless I go off the wagon and consume pasteurized milk or other dairy without some raw dairy OR a lactase capsule. If you use lactase capsules, note that not all brands have 9,000 IU of lactase in ONE capsule.

      March 11th, 2016 10:09 pm Reply
  • Annie

    I’m wondering if Charcoal capsules work as good as bitters do?

    From what my Sister in-law said she feels SO much better when (no reflux & no gas) taking a charcoal capsule about 1/2 hour to a hour before eating .
    There easy,and you do not taste anything. (Her homeopathic Dr. recommended charcoal caps)
    They have to be taken before meals, and before or after a hour or so of taking vitamins..

    Open a charcoal capsule and brush your teeth with it after using your toothpaste everyday.
    It will whiten your teeth, and No chemicals.

    February 16th, 2016 4:04 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      I would not recommend using activated charcoal (AC) before a meal as it prevents you from absorbing the nutrients themselves … it really should only be used in cases of food poisoning or when you absolutely do not want to absorb what you’ve just eaten (as in the case of someone who is gluten intolerant who accidentally eats something with gluten). Using AC regularly can cause nutrient deficiencies so only use in emergencies.

      February 16th, 2016 5:17 pm Reply
  • Kathryn

    Hi Sarah, I’m curious can you make your own bitters? Does a simple chamomile tincture work in the same way? Thanks!

    February 16th, 2016 3:29 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      I’m sure you can … but unless you are a trained herbalist, I would stick to buying it. Concentrating herbs of various kinds and various proportions is tricky. It’s easy to concentrate a single herb into a tincture, but multiple ones would be a challenge.

      February 16th, 2016 5:19 pm Reply
  • Kristina

    We have created a special remedy called d’mix (based on an ancient Ayurvedic remedy) that includes bitters BUT the difference is that you have to chew the mixture of herbs and seeds to activate all the lovely digestive enzymes and juices. We have all forgotten to chew our food or rely on eating food that is too soft which we were never designed to do. We have become lazy in our digestive habits!.

    February 16th, 2016 1:56 pm Reply
  • Jamie

    great article , thank you, Would a sprig of parsley on each plate do?

    February 16th, 2016 1:14 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Parsley after a meal would be helpful, but not concentrated enough for someone who really requires the variety/concentration of liquid bitters.

      February 16th, 2016 5:21 pm Reply
  • Heather

    Are bitters similar to essential oils? Both are extracted from seeds, bark, etc. But bitters are put into alcohol solutions. Are they a less potent form of essential oil?
    Thanks!

    February 16th, 2016 12:52 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Bitters are completely different from essential oils.

      February 16th, 2016 5:20 pm Reply
  • Crystal

    Unfortunately, I had my gallbladder removed a few years ago. Do you have any thoughts on whether bitters would still be a good option compared to the just of enzymes?

    February 16th, 2016 12:27 pm Reply
  • Sheryl

    I have had an esophageal stricture for years, and recently was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. For the past few weeks I have been having increasing acid reflux and pain in the area of the esophageal stricture. Which of the remedies you suggested would be most likely to help with healing my esophagus, in addition to stopping the reflux? Is there something that will soothe the esophagus and encourage healing?

    February 16th, 2016 10:51 am Reply
  • christie

    Wonderful and timely article! I recently started taking bitters for my digestion due to bloating and burping after a meal. It has really helped. The taste takes some getting used to but it does make me feel so much better, so its worth it! Thanks for the article.

    February 16th, 2016 8:02 am Reply
    • joel

      which brand u use an how much u take after each meal? thanks

      February 16th, 2016 11:14 am Reply
  • Amy

    Is there a book or website that would give out recipes to do at home? I have 6 kids so I always look to places that are more economical. Thanks!

    February 16th, 2016 7:54 am Reply
  • lesleyfromkent

    I’ve got my son on digestive enzyme capsules – I’d heard of “bitters” from my childhood (I’m 58) but never realised what they were. Thank you so very much for this really informative article. I’m off to buy a bottle or two.

    February 16th, 2016 7:36 am Reply
  • Catherine Janosky

    Great article! I’m sure you did a lot of research for your article Sarah and perhaps you found a general rule of thumb on how much of the bitters you should take. Do you put a few drops on your tongue or what? Thanks.

    February 16th, 2016 7:18 am Reply
  • Megan

    Thank you for this great information! I have also tried several digestive enzymes (which seem to always give me a stomach ache and severe nausea) as well as HCL I even tried chewables, but they made my mouth itch. I have lots of money wasted on pills that haven’t agreed with me. I’m thinking this might be the answer to my problems. I’ll be searching for some bitters to try. Any brands or anything in particular to look out for or avoid (aside from the non-gmo alcohol)? Thanks again!

    February 16th, 2016 3:37 am Reply
  • Mary

    I am suffering from severe leaky gut & gastritis. What Natural type of bitter is recommended? Also, how much organic cabbage should I be eating? Thank you very much!

    February 16th, 2016 2:29 am Reply
  • Viviana

    Should the cabbage be eaten raw or cooked? Thanks, Sarah.

    February 15th, 2016 11:17 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      If you click through to the link on the cabbage in the article, it details exactly what to do :)

      February 16th, 2016 8:10 am Reply
  • Heidi

    I love using digestive bitters. They have so many benefits. I keep a large bottle in the house at all times.

    February 15th, 2016 10:57 pm Reply
  • Eli

    After switching to bitters from Betaine/HCI pills a few months ago, I was surprised at how well they work. They’re delicious, convenient, and since they are food and not a supplement, the body resumes its proper function and by itself makes the decision about how much acid to produce, which is really the only thing that works long term.

    February 15th, 2016 2:05 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      My husband tried brand after brand of digestive enzymes plus HCL pills for years when we were first married and none of them ever really worked very well. Needless to say, my opinion is that they are basically a waste of money. As you said, bitters and foods like cabbage that naturally stimulate digestive juices and proper intestinal function are the way to go to gently urge the body back into balance over time.

      February 15th, 2016 6:01 pm Reply

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