What Are Digestive Bitters?
Bitters are botanical preparations made out of plants that stimulate the body's digestive secretions via the bitter flavor. Contemporarily, certain bitters formulations are used primarily as flavorings in alcoholic beverages, though historically bitters were formulated for their digestive power. Even today, we can see digestifs and aperitifs such as amaro, vermouth and, other herbal liqueur consumed around mealtime as a functional - and delicious - ritual.
In contrast to bitters that may be more beverage focused, digestive bitters are specifically formulated to aid digestion through the stimulation of digestive secretions like saliva, bile, enzymes and hydrochloric acid.
The Evolutionary Role of Bitters
Did you know that the bitter taste and liver function are intimately tied and rooted in our evolutionary process? Research shows that roughly 200 million years ago our capacity to sense bitterness became embedded in our gene coding. This was likely due to the fact that many poisonous plant toxins are bitter. Humans and other animals that developed bitter taste receptors were better able to discern whether something was safe to eat or not and therefore had an evolutionary advantage over those that did not.
Benefits of Bitters
As some of you may already know from personal experience, poison is not the only thing that is bitter. Many nutritious vegetables also activate our bitter taste receptors. Because of our evolutionary need for these taste cells, we continue to have a strong reaction to things that are bitter. Whether the bitterness we are tasting is potentially toxic, or promises nutrients, the body prepares to process it. Bitterness signals for the liver to produce bile and the gut to produce stomach acid and enzymes, activates the immune system, modulates levels of hormones that affect appetite and metabolism, and engages the parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve, so that we are relaxed while digesting.
While bile plays a role in aiding digestion, breaking down fats, and removing waste from the blood, gastric acid and digestive enzymes work to break down proteins and extract nutrients and vitamins from your food. Additionally, both the digestive system and the immune system function best when the parasympathetic nervous system (sometimes referred to as ‘rest & digest’) is at the forefront. When the autonomic nervous system is in this state - as opposed to the sympathetic activation (‘fight or flight’) - the body's resources are more geared towards rest, repair, and replenishment.
Today, even though we are not usually discerning whether our next meal will be poisonous or not, the bitter taste continues to communicate to our bodies that it’s time to prepare for digestion.
How to Take Digestive Bitters
Bitters work best when taking 5-15 minutes prior to eating. This gives our liver time to begin producing bile, the digestive time to get going - producing saliva and initiating peristalsis, and giving the nervous system time to enter the parasympathetic state. Supporting the body this way can significantly improve how we process a meal - possibly increasing the amount of nutrients we are able to extract from our meal and how comfortable our bellies feel throughout the digestive process. However, if you forget to take bitters 5-15 minutes before you eat, you can also take them right before eating or even afterwards - which can be especially helpful after a particularly rich or large meal. For specific dosage, follow the manufacturer's recommendations or find the suggested dose for our Digestive Bitters here.
Digestive Bitters vs Enzymes
While supplemental digestive enzymes can be helpful for some, we always recommend taking Digestive Bitters regularly to stimulate our body's own natural secretion of enzymes. In many cases this can be a very effective way to support enzymatic health throughout the entire digestive tract.
Balanced Bitters Formulation
The components of digestive bitters can typically be broken up into three categories: bitter, aromatic, and carminative. These qualities work together to prepare the body for receiving food. The aromatic components stimulate the olfactory senses that are already deeply intertwined with how we signal to the body that food is on the way. The carminative (warming & stimulating to the gut) quality helps awaken the stomach and get things moving so that food doesn’t fall into a cold system. The bitter taste triggers the production of bile and along with the other digestive functions, invites the body to literally ‘rest & digest.’ While we can break these down into three categories for understanding function, in practice many herbs are both carminative and aromatic, or bitter and aromatic.
Most bitter herbs, however, tend to be exceedingly cool in nature. The best bitters for digestion are balanced with warming herbs so the bitter herbs do not, over time, dampen necessary digestive heat. When we formulate our Digestive Bitters we balance the plants energetically so you are able to receive all the benefits of bitters along with warming and stimulating energy needed for digestion.
While all bitter tasting plants have the capacity to stimulate bile production and indicate to the body that food is on the way, dandelion bitters are particularly powerful as a digestive aid and ally to the liver. Dandelion is an incredibly abundant, weedy plant that is edible from root to flower and an amazing source of minerals, nutrients, and bitter goodness. While the roots of this plant have an affinity for the liver and the leaves for the kidneys, the whole plant is overall supportive of our detoxification pathways. This means that it supports the organs responsible for eliminating waste from the body.
The main herb used in our Digestive Bitters recipe is dandelion root. While cooling bitters like dandelion and burdock do stimulate digestive fluids, taken over time on their own they can also suppress the heat that is necessary for healthy digestion. When combined with warm components like angelica or turmeric, however, a blend has the necessary balance to support both actions and should generally be appropriate for long term use. We combine our Digestive Bitters this way to complement the cooler natures of the other roots and leaves in the formula.
Bruner, R. C. (2014, May 1). The Evolution of Bitter Taste | EvolutionShorts. ScholarBlogs. Retrieved April 6, 2022, from https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/evolutionshorts/2014/05/01/the-evolution-of-bitter-taste/
De La Foret, R. (2017). Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods and Remedies That Heal. Hay House.
Marchione, V. (2016, October 10). Bile function and liver: Foods that help increase bile production. Bel Marra Health. Retrieved April 6, 2022, from https://www.belmarrahealth.com/bile-function-liver-foods-help-increase-bile-production/
Sabogal, D., & Cirino, E. (2020, April 23). The Parasympathetic Nervous System Explained. Healthline. Retrieved April 6, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/health/parasympathetic-nervous-system#responses