Bitter Herbs - The Basics

Photo of Sharol Tilgner

In the late winter or early spring, it is traditional to use stimulating bitters. Some people eat them prior to their meals. What exactly are bitters and why do people eat them?


What is a "Bitter"?

The word “bitters” is used to describe herbs that are bitter to the taste. We all know what a bitter food tastes like, so you can easily identify any bitter tasting herb as being a "bitter".  Besides indicating the taste of the herb, bitters also indicate a group of herbs that are stimulating and supportive to the gastrointestinal tract.


Bitter Herbs Are Good For Your Health

Through their stimulation of the gastrointestinal tract, they affect the entire body in a positive manner. They also have been found to have some specific effects on individual non-digestive organs that are more than just the enhancement of general digestion.


How Bitters Support Sluggish Digestion

This category of herbs are useful as more than a simple spring tonic. Bitters have a supportive effect upon the digestion; they increase the tone of the gastric mucosa and enhance the digestive organ’s blood supply, which facilitates overall digestion. Bitter plant constituents start their work by locally stimulating the bitter sensory response of taste buds in the mouth and throat.  Bitters also increase digestive secretions from the stomach, pancreas, liver and gallbladder.


When Bitters Are Used

Bitters are indicated for sluggish or improper digestion when there are indications of poor digestive activity or enzymatic activity. This would include undigested food in the stool, gastrointestinal pain not due to more serious conditions, spasms, belching, and gas. Bitters are used to stimulate appetite,  to relieve constipation, gas, heartburn, and nausea. They are also helpful in gastroparesis, for anorexics, people not producing enough hydrochloric acid (HCL), or people needing their general digestion stimulated. Often the elderly benefit from bitters.


How They Are Used

The best effects are seen with long-term use of bitters. They are usually ingested before meals in small amounts. This allows them to stimulate the normal digestive juices just as an individual is getting ready to eat.


Which Herbal Bitters Are Used

Examples of mild bitters:

  • Artichoke - Cynara scolymus
  • Blessed thistle - Cnicus benedictus
  • Burdock - Arctium lappa
  • Bupleurum - Bupleurum chinense
  • Dandelion - Taraxacum officinalis
  • Elecampane - Inula helenium
  • Skullcap - Scutellaria lateriflora


Examples of strong bitters:

  • Bitter root - Picorrhiza kurroa
  • Bogbean - Menyanthes trifoliata
  • Calamus - Acorus calamus
  • Catnip - Nepeta cataria
  • Chamomile - Matricaria recutita
  • Gentian - Gentiana lutea (spp.)
  • Goldenseal - Hydrastis canadensis
  • Horehound - Marrubium vulgare
  • Hops - Humulus lupulus
  • Motherwort - Leonurus cardiaca
  • Yarrow - Achilea millefolium
  • Wormwood - Artemisia absinthium

For More Information on Bitters

For an in-depth look at bitters, check out the "Digestive System" chapter in my newest book called "Herbal ABC's - The Foundation of Herbal Medicine".


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