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, half dose is all that is needed (75 pounds half of 150 pounds). 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
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. Her work is dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household. She is a sought after lecturer around the world for conferences, summits, and podcasts.
Her work has been covered by major media including USA Today, ABC, NBC, and many others.