The Amazing Benefits of Bitters By Denise Brusveen, MS
As most of my clients know, digestive bitters are at the top of my list to help improve digestion. Lots of people are already taking things like digestive enzymes, betaine HCL, and/or ox bile but still have digestive complaints. Why is that?
Naturally as we age, our stomach acid production goes down after about our mid-30’s. Throw in the overuse of antibiotics, sugar, acid-reducing medications. Well, you get the idea. Most of us could use more stomach acid, not less! Even children are now experiencing symptoms of low stomach acid, and that needs to change.
So how do digestive bitters work, exactly? We have bitter receptors in our mouth, so when we consume something with a bitter taste (in this case digestive bitter herbs), this sends a signal to our digestive system to prepare for food, starting with an increase in stomach acid. We have bitter receptors all the way through our digestive system including our pancreas, small intestine, liver and gallbladder too, so the benefits of bitters don’t stop in the stomach! They help with digestion, absorption, AND excretion!
This is different than things like digestive enzymes or Betaine HCL, which can actually require you to increase your dosage over time because your body grows dependent on them. Bitters teach your body to do what it hasn’t been doing on its own, so they’re a great benefit, and you don’t have to increase your dose over time.
Which Bitters are Right for You?
Herb Pharm and Herbalist & Alchemist are my two favorite brands. I like them because they offer their bitters in spritz bottles so that they’re easy to take before meals, and they’re easy to take along when you’re not eating at home. I also trust both of these companies and the quality of the herbs they use in their products. But how do you decide which blend is right for you, since both companies offer multiple blends?!
One way to decide is based on taste. The sweeter the mix of herbs, the less potent they will be. Sure, they might taste better if they’ve got some sweeter flavors like licorice added in, but that defeats the purpose of the bitter flavor. I’m sorry to say it, but in order to work, they’ve got to taste bad. I promise the taste grows on you over time though. I actually crave mine now! And I’m taking the Herbalist & Alchemist bitters, which are much stronger tasting than Herb Pharm. So if you’re worried about the taste, I’d definitely suggest starting with Herb Pharm. I started with the Herb Pharm Classic and Bittersweet.
Let’s take a look at some of the individual herbs commonly used in bitters:
Dandelion root – Here at Sassy Holistics, we love dandelion root for increasing bile flow and enhancing liver function. It also has prebiotics to enhance healthy bowel flora growth.
Artichoke – Is hepatoprotective, lowers unhealthy blood lipid levels, and is great for reducing nausea.
Angelica – Is a great warming/moistening bitter to balance out the majority of the other bitters, which are cool/dry herbs.
Orange Peel – According to David Winston (owner of Herbalist & Alchemist), there is NOTHING else that exists that can increase the body’s own production of HCL like orange peel can. So for those looking to make a switch from supplementing with HCL, find a blend that includes Orange peel!
Gentian – Seems to be in almost every blend as it is a great bitter herb. This one is not safe for pregnancy or breastfeeding though. A favorite that pregnant and breastfeeding mamas like are these from Urban Moonshine.
Elecampane – This herb inhibits abnormal bacteria in the gut (think SIBO) and also inhibits intestinal parasites (giardia, crypto, etc.).
Carminatives – These are herbs like cinnamon and ginger that help to reduce gas. So if that’s an especially big problem for you, then look for a blend with these spices. H&A actually has a blend called Spiced Bitters! A note of caution here is that peppermint is also a carminative, but it is contraindicated if you have GERD because it can relax the esophageal sphincter, making symptoms worse.
Fragrant Bitters – If you’re really brave, or maybe really desperate, there is another type of bitter called fragrant bitters. These are generally the worst tasting bitters because the taste keeps coming back well after you’ve swallowed them and eaten. However, they are fantastic for killing amoeba and amoeba-like parasites such as blastocystitis hominis, giardia, etc. I’m putting a plug in for David Winston and his AP Compound as I recently heard him share a story of curing a man’s 20+ year giardia infection with this product!
What about Kids?!
We work with a lot of parents who are trying to help their kids, and like I mentioned above, we’re seeing more and more kids with symptoms of low stomach acid. The good news is that for kids 5 and older, Herb Pharm has confirmed to me that their Classic, Bittersweet, and Orange bitters are safe! For children younger than five, or if you’re not comfortable with the alcohol in the bitters (which is a VERY tiny amount), you could try a Dandelion glycerite, which would give the benefits of dandelion but not necessarily the bitter taste since glycerites are sweeter. Or dandelion tea would be great as well.