Bitter herbs are an incredibly powerful tool for fixing digestion. Digestion starts in the mouth, and herbal bitters help kick start this process. The “bitter” taste hits our taste buds and starts to stimulate the production of gastric juices. When I work on gut healing for my clients, I am always aiming to add in things that will help to retrain the body to do what it needs to do. Things like bitter herbs, apple cider vinegar, and aloe vera help to do this, whereas things like HCl, pepsin, and ox bile are only replacing what is being lost- these are just crutches in the long term.
Herbal bitters help to:
Regulate stomach acid
Balance blood sugar levels
Boost bile flow for fat absorption and detoxification (bile is a basically a natural laxative- and poor bile is a huge cause of constipation)
Aid liver function
Boost the immune system
Increase nutrient assimilation
And they can even help with stress and anxiety
Encourage digestive enzyme production (which is why I recommend them over most regular enzyme supplements)
“Bitter tasting herbs have a very direct relationship with the nervous system and the gut. When taste buds on our tongue detect the bitter taste, a signal is sent via the vagus nerve to prepare the body for digestion. This means that the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and digestive secretions increase (including bile from the liver, insulin from the pancreas, and digestive enzymes from the stomach). Thus, bitters not only increase the digestibility of food but also calm the nervous system so that you are more emotionally prepared to eat! Any plant that you think tastes bitter will do—you just have to taste it! Bitters should be taken 15-20 minutes before meals so that the digestive system has time to get ready for what you are about to eat.”
My Favorite Bitter Herbs
Most people already know how much I love dandelion root. One of the reasons why it is so helpful is because of its role as a bitter herb. Dandelion helps stimulate bile flow in the liver, which is an important factor for people trying to regain their health and detox effectively. One source that it actually quadruples bile flow!
My favorite ways to use dandelion include tea or a decoction. You can get the recipes here, or check out these photos so you can Pin them for later!
Gaia Herbs “Sweetish” Bitters
Gaia Herbs “Sweetish” Bitters are great! This blend includes Anise Seed, Cardamom, Fennel, Gentian, Ginger Root, Milk Thistle, Turmeric, and more. You just put 60 drops in a little bit of liquid about 15 minutes before each meal to help with digestion. So easy! I usually recommend to start with just a few drops at first just to work up to the full dose because increasing bile flow can start to initiate some detox.
Herb Pharm Better Bitters
Herb Pharm is another one of my favorite herbal companies. They offer several herbal bitter options: liquids(like the Gaia herbs formula above) or they even have sprays. The sprays are even easier (and great for on-the-go use!) as all you do is spray it 4 times in your mouth about 10 minutes before a meal. The sprays are STRONG tasting but it is kind of the point when it comes to bitters. We want to taste the bitter flavor as much as we can to help stimulate the gut.
The Herb Pharm bitters have a few flavors to choose from. I went with the Classic and Bittersweet sprays, and honestly there is not much of a difference in taste. They are both pretty strong tasting, but both effective!
Comparing Bitters with Similar Supplements
I wanted to update this post a bit and add a comparison between bitters and the other supplements that could be considered similar.
Bitters help with stimulating stomach acid, digestive enzymes, and bile flow. They retrain the body to do what needs to get done.
Typical supplements that people use for these purposes would be HCl, digestive enzymes, and ox bile. These add in these components to replace what is lost- they do not stimulate the body to make its own.
Two of the main bitter supplements we recommend are Herb Pharm Better Bitters and H&A Bitters (both sprays). Each of these is about $12-13. The Herb Pharm is 4 sprays per serving, and each bottle has 49 servings. The H&A bitters are a bit stronger- 2 sprays per serving and over 100 servings per bottle.
Looking at popular brands of each of these, a month’s worth of HCl, enzymes, and ox bile it would cost around $48 if you follow the instructions on each bottle to take 1 capsule of each with each meal.
So for bitters:
Much more affordable
Helps to retrain your body to do what it needs to do
More of a long term solution instead of a crutch
Easy- one a few sprays on the tongue before each meal
For the others:
Can be triple the price per month
Does not help your body to fix itself on its own in the long run
Can possibly trick your body into NOT making these things on its own
You would be taking 9 pills a day JUST for digestion
Note for Nursing Mamas
Most of these bitters aren’t good while nursing (which stinks because we need that bile support postpartum!). I have found 3 options that are OK while nursing. This lactation formula has bitters in it, so it can help with milk supply as well. And this one is good while pregnant so I would think it is OK while nursing.
Dandelion tea is also ok while pregnant and nursing, I just wouldn’t overdo it. Maybe 1 cup a day would be good just for a bit of support. Obviously eating or drinking things like beets, artichokes, Apple cider vinegar, lemon water, and healthy fats help with bile as well as those are definitely safe during these times where we need lots of nourishment.
My name is Kristin, and I've been on the path to help people achieve better health using whole food nutrition, mineral balancing, and holistic healing principles for almost 7 years now. The body is a whole and we must treat it as such! I have my Bachelor of Science in Natural Health Sciences, certificates in Herbal Studies from Herbal Academy, and I am constantly learning more about health to help my clients and followers.