Digestive Bitters: Benefits and the Fascinating Evolution of Bitter Taste Receptors

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. 

As some of you may already know from personal experience however, 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.  

Digestive Bitters

Using Digestive Bitters 

Bitters work best when taking 15-20 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 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 15-20 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.

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 stimulates 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, and the bitter taste - as discussed above - 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. Interestingly enough however, most bitter herbs tend to be exceedingly cool in nature. Nevertheless, when we formulate our Digestive Bitters we aim to balance the plants out energetically so you are able to receive all the benefits of the bitter flavor 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 is 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. 

Dandelion flowers, leaves and roots (not pictured) are all tonics for the liver and make a great component for Digestive Bitters

The main herb used in our Digestive Bitters formula 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 a warm component like Angelica, 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, along with a touch of turmeric, which is also warming, to complement the cooler natures of the other roots and leaves in the formula.

Digestive Bitters vs Digestive 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!

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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


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