Above & Below Apothecary
What They Are And What They Do
The term “bitters” is a generic term used to describe a medicinal tincture or alcohol-based extract made with medicinal herbs that are bitter. The exact blend of herbs varies from country to country, and tradition to tradition, but generally, a bitter tonic contains a combination of bitter roots such as ginger, turmeric, burdock, and dandelion, and then often other herbs that are beneficial for digestion are added to that base as well. You can use any bitter herbs you like, or that are easy to access! (like dandelion) Making bitter herbs into a tincture is the easiest and the most effective way to enjoy their powerful benefits.
When making my bitter tonics, I always use a base of Ginger, Turmeric, and Dandelion, and then I add to that mixture whatever other bitters are in season and available to wildcraft or are growing in my garden.
batches contain things like of course the fresh organic ginger, turmeric, dandelion, and burdock root, but also things like calamas root, lemon verbena, fresh fennel fronds, star anise pods, or green cardamom. Pretty much any herb with a bitter taste or herb that is beneficial for digestion in some way can be added in! The world of bitter herbs is your oyster!
What do bitters do for our digestion?
The taste of bitterness in the mouth causes a chain reaction in the body, that starts with what we call the “bitter reflex” on the tongue.
This bitter reflex stimulates the brain to release a digestive hormone known as gastrin. When the hormone gastrin is released, this causes a whole cascade of positive chemical reactions in the brain and endocrine system.
The reactions gastrin causes in the body result in things like:
*Appetite stimulation (good healthy appetite, not empty cravings)
*Release of digestive enzymes from the pancreas, duodenum, and liver
*Stimulation of the smooth muscle of the stomach which increases the rate of gastric emptying, making it exceptionally helpful with conditions like gastroparesis and slowed digestion that causes a sour feeling in the belly after eating. This same stimulation of the smooth muscles causes a contraction of the esophageal sphincter, which helps prevent the movement of acidic stomach contents back upwards into the esophagus, thus helping relieve heartburn.
*Bitters aid the liver in detoxification and increase the flow of bile which aids in more nutrition being extracted from the food eaten, and eases digestion of proteins particularly.
*Helps aid the secretion of pancreatic hormones that regulate blood sugar, insulin, and glucagon, which helps stabilize blood sugar levels and prevent drastic spikes.
*Stimulates mechanisms that repair the gut wall.
Bitter foods used to be a staple in every culture around the world, particularly during certain seasons. This bitter flavor profile, however, has been steadily eliminated from most modern cultures' diets as our taste buds become more and more saturated with sweets and carbs. But this flavor being eliminated from our diets has caused a cascade of unwanted symptoms and ailments. Incorporating bitter foods back into your diet is the best and healthiest way to live, in my opinion, but since we typically aren’t taught how to cook with bitter flavor profiles, a bitters tincture is an easier way to get these vital bitter compounds into our diet every day. A few droppers full of a bitters tincture can help balance digestion and aid the absorption of nutrients in a big way.
In addition to the bitter compounds and how they affect the digestive system, the herbs in these types of bitters tonics also have many other fantastic properties that are very nourishing and healing for the body. Here is a short description of what a few of the most common bitter plants are best known for: (aside from its digestive benefits)
Ginger Root: aids in pain reduction, reduces inflammation, and helps the body fight infections while improving brain function.
Turmeric Root: is anti-inflammatory, contains numerous bioactive compounds that benefit the body, boosts brain function, and dramatically increases the antioxidant capacity of the body, which helps boost the immune system, among many other benefits.
Dandelion Root: is extremely anti-inflammatory, boosts kidney health, helps lower cholesterol, helps balance blood sure, helps boos skin health and radiance, aids in soothing arthritis pain, helps the body absorb iron more easily into the cells, aids weight loss, helps balance an overactive bladder, and is excellent for liver health.
Cardamom brings us a host of benefits and is something I use in my diet almost daily. It has powerful antioxidants, is thought to contain cancer-fighting compounds, is amazing for the digestive system, helps heal ulcers, aid absorption of nutrients, helps boost circulation, is anti-inflammatory, warming, helps the body process oxygen, helps the body balance blood sugar levels, acts as a liver protector, and helps reduce anxiety.
Burdock Root: helps remove toxins from the blood, and helps the liver flush old stuck waste. Burdock root is full of antioxidants, helps reduce inflammation, treats bladder infections, helps prevent infections, boosts the immune system, balance blood sugar issues, and ease arthritis symptoms.
Milk Thistle Seeds: help boost digestion, increase liver function and flow, helps the body remove toxins from the bloodstream and flush them out of the body, can help reduce the damage done by free radicals in the body, and improves overall health and vitality.
Instructions For Taking Bitters Tonics:
Take 2-6 ml of Bitters tonic, (approximately 1/2-1 tsp) at least twice a day, or before every meal.
Do not dilute the bitters too much, because the taste in the mouth is very important, as stated above in triggering the full digestive benefits. It is most effective to take the bitters straight in your mouth undiluted, but the alcohol can be irritating and cause a burning sensation in the mouth if taken straight that some people find unpleasant, or painful. So, if you do not like taking the bitters straight in your mouth, dilute it in as small of an amount of water as possible for digestive benefits. If dilution is needed, try starting with between a tsp and a tbsp of water, so it stays strong and bitter, but the alcohol is diluted.
Bitters are NOT easy to take too much of without really trying, so don’t be afraid to add in an extra dose if your tummy still isn’t happy. Most of these roots are eaten in quite large amounts in certain countries with no ill effects, quite the contrary in fact. So you can safely take up to 1-2 TBSP of a bitters tonic daily as long as it does not contain any herbs that get toxic in higher levels. But most bitters contain primarily herbs that are also foods, so they can't easily reach toxic levels in medicine like this.
Bitters can also be taken 1 ml at a time every 20 min until relief is achieved, up to 8 times, as needed for heartburn, indigestion, and nausea. This as-needed dosing for specific symptoms can be used in addition to daily doses of 4-6 ml. I typically recommend not exceeding 1-2 tbsp total daily, not particularly because of toxic danger, but rather because if that amount of bitters is needed to bring relief, it's quite clear something more significant than a bitters tonic alone can help. So another underlying issue needs to be addressed, rather than just ramping up the consumption of the bitters even further. However in my experience over the last decade, very few Americans have a digestive system that would NOT benefit from bitter herbs. Almost every single person in America needs bitter herbs added back into their diet, to have better digestion, better absorption, and promote liver health.
Bitters are excellent for symptom relief and can be taken as needed for heartburn, gas, bloating, cramps, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, liver distress, gallbladder issues, etc.
For long-term best results, take daily, even if symptoms do not persist for 4-6 weeks to aid digestive healing, and prevent the return of unwanted digestive upsets. Immediate results can be seen for many digestive issues, but some chronic issues need a bit more time to heal and work with the plant medicine on a deeper level over time, and for those issues, 4-6 weeks minimum is recommended to take the bitters tincture daily.