Curious about how to improve your gut health? Digestive bitters are the simple folk medicine that can have a big impact on not just your gut, but your overall wellbeing.
Did you know that we have bitter taste receptors on our tongues and in our guts? Bitters aren’t just a flavour type, they’re a medicine we’ve evolved with. They’re an important part of creating optimal digestion and detoxification.
Bitter flavours are everywhere in nature, but in recent years we’ve ditched them in favour of sweet and salty flavours. Yet, nature is abundant with bitter flavoured fruits, vegetables and herbs - both culinary and medicinal. And they don’t just add to the flavour profile of a meal, they also prime the metabolism and digestive system. As we are coming to understand why an over-representation of sweet and salty foods in the diet isn’t so good for our health, now is the perfect time to re-introduce our taste buds to more complex flavours such as bitters.
What are digestive bitters good for?
When the gut is unprepared for the task of digestion and absorption, it can lead to a whole range of other health issues. Bitters support the whole digestive process from the time the first bite of food is taken. From here, the flow-on effect that bitters have on our health is nothing short of astonishing.
Here are just some of the highlights for how bitters influence our health and wellbeing:
- Improves digestion and absorption: Bitters begin by stimulating digestion - once they hit the bitter receptors of the tongue and the gut lining, they help to signal the release of digestive secretions, including hydrochloric (stomach) acid and digestive enzymes required to efficiently break down foods and allow for greater absorption of nutrients from the diet. Better breakdown means less likelihood of nutrient deficiencies, gas, bloating, constipation, reflux, diarrhoea and even skin conditions like eczema and acne.
- Supports the liver: At the same time, bitters also improve the production of bile in the liver. Bile is a crucial part of the digestive process and is particularly important for breaking down fats and allowing for the absorbtion of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. In fact if you are someone who feels nauseous after eating a meal with good fats such as wild salmon, nuts or avocado, bitters can reduce that symptom by providing support for fat breakdown. The other way that bitters impact the liver is through their support of detoxification. Many bitter herbs are also considered liver detox herbs for this reason.
- Reduces sugar cravings: Sugar and carbohydrate cravings are not just commonplace, they’re notoriously difficult addictions to shake. Because bitter foods and herbs help to regulate digestion, they also regulate metabolism and appetite. As the taste buds grow more accustomed to complex flavours
- Gut healing: Bitters also contain complex carbohydrates, alkaloids, vitamins and minerals that have antioxidant, antiviral, and antispasmodic properties. These bitter herbs and foods work together to reduce inflammation, control pain, relax muscles, stimulate the repair of the gut wall lining (leaky gut) and improve digestion and elimination.
To learn more about leaky gut syndrome, click here.
- Nervous system regulation and vagal tone: Bitters aren’t just magic for the digestive system - they also stimulate vagal tone, making them an essential tool in regulating the nervous system. If you haven’t heard about the vagus nerve and how important it is for a healthy nervous system - I’ve written about it here.
The vagus nerve is an integral part of how bitters stimulate digestion. This major nerve is the highway used to relay information from the bitter receptors to organs of digestion, including the stomach, pancreas and liver.
Having good vagal tone also means that the cardiac sphincter (opening to the stomach) and pyloric sphincter (opening from stomach to small intestine) remain closed when they are meant to be closed.1 In short, this prevents symptoms such as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, heartburn, bloating, nausea and even vomiting.
Where can digestive bitters be found?
Bitter compounds are found all throughout nature. Herbs famous for their bitter flavour include gentian, angelica, black walnut, barberry, goldenseal, andrographis, wormwood, dandelion root, globe artichoke and chamomile. If you are patient of mine I can prescribe a herbal tonic of digestive bitters like these. Please call 02 9380 7863 or email us firstname.lastname@example.org
Nature also supplies us with an abundance of bitter flavours via many common fruits, vegetables and spices that are easy to include at every meal. Bitter foods include radicchio, rocket, endive, whitlof, dandelion leaves and root, globe artichokes, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, chicory, bitter melon, grapefruit, lemon, orange, eggplant, kale, cabbage, ginger, cinnamon, mustard seeds, cardamom, caraway seeds, rosemary, turmeric, oregano, sage and thyme. Check out our Summer Vegetable & Fruit Guide.
When to use digestive bitters
Unlike many other herbal formulas or supplements, bitter herbs and foods can be used consistently throughout the lifespan. Try adding them in either first thing in the morning or even before each meal to optimise digestion. Rather than providing a ‘band-aid’ solution to digestive issues, bitters actually re-train the gut to produce hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes.
Once upon a time an appetiser was often a salad made up of bitter lettuces with a simple vinaigrette, designed to be eaten before a main course - which was likely to be heavier in protein, fat and carbohydrates. Try to get into the habit of eating a bitter salad before the rest of your meal, or include bitter vegetables alongside your protein source at dinner.
Join our 21 Day Autumn Cleanse & Health Reset Online Program for delicious digestive toning & gut healing recipes.
Whether you choose to use herbal digestive bitters like the ones I make up in the clinic, or just include more bitter foods in the diet - you can benefit from ingesting them every single day for better gut health, a happier liver, a calm nervous system and yes, even clearer skin!
References:Sainz, E., Cavanagh, M.M., Guiterrez , J., Northrup, J.K. & Sullivan, S.L. (2007). Functional characterization of human bitter taste receptors. Biochem J, 403(3):537-43.