Anyone can experience sluggish digestion from time to time. Symptoms like bloating , heartburn, and acid reflux can be signs that your digestive system could use a bit of help to keep things running smoothly. One supplement that can help? Digestive bitters, which can give your entire digestive system a boost when things are off.
“Every part of our digestive system becomes a little more effective with bitter in the mix,” says Erica Zellner , a certified nutrition specialist and health coach at Parsley Health. But what exactly are digestive bitters and who needs them? Find out more below on how they work, who can use them, and more.
“Digestive bitters are distilled-down, concentrated blends of different bitter herbs and plants,” says Zellner. According to Zellner, a herbalist will create specific blends of digestive bitters based on the intended effect like to help improve digestion, detoxification, or blood sugar, for example.
The bitterness from herbs helps stimulate the digestive system, can be taken before meals to trigger digestive enzyme production, helps the stomach produce bile, and balances hydrochloric acid (HCl) levels in the stomach.
It sounds counterintuitive, but stomach acid is actually a good thing. Contrary to popular belief, you need enough stomach acid in order to digest food well—and in turn prevent annoying digestive symptoms.
Although digestive bitters are picking up in popularity, they’ve actually been around for quite some time.“Humans have been using bitter flavors medicinally for centuries,” explains Zellner. “Traces of bitters have been found on pottery jars in Egyptian tombs. In ancient Rome, it was common practice to infuse wine with bitter herbs to boost digestion,” she says.
“Nearly every culture has used bitter herbs in some way throughout their history. Even today, in India you can find bitter melon chutney as an accompaniment to meals. In China, you’ll find bitter herbs to cleanse the internal organs. In Venezuela, you’ll find the well-known Angostura bark, where our beloved Angostura Cocktail Bitters get their bite,” says Zellner. But if you’re not in one of those countries, you can still get access to the benefits of digestive bitters.
Almost anyone can use bitters for extra digestive support, but there are specific symptoms and conditions that may lead Zellner to recommend them to her members at Parsley Health. “At Parsley, we’re often using bitters as an initial gentle form of support for our members who aren’t digesting their food very well. Bitters are a great first step to help bloating, gas , low stomach acid levels, protein breakdown, fat absorption, and even constipation ,” says Zellner.
“They can also be used to calm an upset stomach, support healthy blood sugar levels, balance appetite, support liver/detox functions, and can help curb sugar cravings,” she says.
The ideal timeframe to take digestive bitters is right before a meal, or about 10 minutes before you start eating, according to Zellner. “Bitters can also be used after a meal, especially if you’ve eaten a little too much (Thanksgiving dinner, anyone?) or if you’re feeling bloated or gassy,” says Zellner.
How to take digestive bitters: “To take bitters, drop one serving (usually around ¼ tsp) onto your tongue and hold them in your mouth for about 10-15 seconds, until you start to salivate. You’ll want the bitter tincture to fall all across your tongue, as we have bitter receptors on our entire tongue,” says Zellner. Holding the bitters in your mouth activates the T2R taste receptors which send a signal to the vagus nerve in your brain. “The vagus nerve then relays the bitter sensation to the salivary glands (loaded with enzymes), our stomach (where HCl is stimulated) our pancreas (where we have pancreatic enzymes), and our liver/gallbladder where our bile is created and concentrated,” explains Zellner. After holding the bitters for about 15 seconds, you can then swallow them and your digestive system is ready for your meal.
Although digestive bitters are generally safe to use, not everyone can use them, which is why certain people may need to avoid using digestive bitters or consult their clinician before using. “Those who are pregnant need to be very careful about the ingredients in a bitter tincture, as some herbs are contraindicated for pregnancy,” says Zellner. Other people who may need to avoid them are people with gallbladder disease with bile obstruction, duodenal ulcers, appendicitis, active nausea or vomiting, intestinal obstruction, or undiagnosed abdominal pain, or hydrogen sulfide-type SIBO . At Parsley Health, your provider and health coach will help you find a safe option for you based on your individual health.
Since there are many different types of digestive bitters, the specific benefits can vary based on the blend of herbs, but Zellner points out that bitter tinctures and bitter foods can help with heartburn , indigestion, bloating, and stomach upset. A 2012 literature review in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition found that in general, bitter, aromatic, and pungent plants can have digestion-enhancing activities.
Specific benefits of some plant ingredients in digestive bitters include:
“In general, digestive bitters will have many of the same digestive supportive ingredients including dandelion leaves, burdock root, or gentian root,” says Zellner. When you shop for digestive bitters, you’ll find many different blends and types of products.
According to Zellner, some formulas will be targeted to specific conditions, and some examples include:
The easiest way to get digestive bitters is to purchase them from health food stores, or online from companies like Urban Moonshine . (Parsley Health members get 20 percent off using their Parsley Perks.)
If you’d prefer to try your hand at making them at home, Zeller recommends the Homemade Citrus Spiced Dandelion Bitters from Traditional Medicinals . The ingredients are relatively minimal, containing white rum, fresh orange peel, dried dandelion root and leaf, fresh ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom.
While digestive bitters can be one helpful tool for easing digestive symptoms, Parsley Health’s holistic medicine providers can help you get to the root cause of your digestive issues and heal. If digestive bitters aren’t helping with your symptoms, reach out to your provider to rule out any serious health concerns.
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She is passionate about translating expert and science-based wellness advice into accessible and engaging content. Her work is featured on Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading, trying out new recipes, and going to new workout classes all over New York City.