Bitter Medicine for Good Digestion
One missing component of modern diets that is so crucial for good digestion is the bitter taste. I have written about bitters before, because I am so passionate about them, but I wanted to dig in a bit more today and give a recipe you can make at home, too!
The increase in processed foods over the past century or so, paired with a decreased intake of wild plant foods, has made the consumption of bitter foods today extremely low compared to traditional diets. Our ancestors had robust, diverse palates and bitter-tasting plant foods were commonplace and even desirable to them for their health benefits. By contrast, most people today are so limited in what foods and flavors they seek, that now bitter foods are not as appealing. Modern eaters are mostly seeking out sweet and savory flavors above all, leaving bitter behind. There are a few areas in which bitter has not only remained in the modern diet, but has even thrived in recent years: alcohol (think hoppy IPA's or bitter liqueurs for cocktails), chocolate (love that 80% dark chocolate!), and coffee (Starbucks is doing just fine). The acceptance of these foods, even if they shouldn't be staples in the diet, does give me hope that people may be ready to enjoy more bitter foods again.
Why is this change in bitter food consumption important? This shift matters because foods that offer these bitter flavors, and even the bitter taste itself, are important in supporting gut health. So many people struggle with poor digestion now, because of the assault on our bodies from modern foods, stress, pollution, and more, and we need to look to traditional wisdom to turn this trend around. I like to emphasize adding in what is missing in the modern diet in order to promote better digestive, and overall, health, rather than focus too much on elimination. Along with probiotic-rich fermented foods and collagen-rich bone broths, adding in more bitter foods is the perfect way to add balance to the modern diet and get us back to our wild food roots.
What Are Bitters? How Do They Benefit Digestion?
The bitter taste is found mostly (but not exclusively) in plant foods, and this notable flavor comes from various chemical compounds, such as alkaloids, that are present in the plants. These compounds are detected by the bitter taste receptors, signaling digestion and movement throughout the body. "Bitter" is the only taste with receptors throughout the digestive system, not just on the tongue in taste buds.
These compounds work by signaling stimulation, increasing efficiency in metabolic processes and detoxification. By challenging the body, especially the liver, bitters increase resilience against toxins and other assaults from the outside world. The bitter taste is heralded for promoting digestion, helping to decrease bloating, gas, nausea, and heartburn, improve liver detoxification, balance the microbiome, and promote regular bowel movements. Besides its benefit to digestion, the bitter flavor has also been associated with regulating blood sugar and increasing satiety after meals, which can help promote weight management.
The bitter taste can be incorporated into the diet either through foods, beverages, or herbs. These can range from mildly bitter, such as ginger, chamomile or fennel, to strongly bitter, such as radicchio, orange peel or dandelion root. The peels of many fruits and vegetables offer bitterness, so leaving these on whenever possible is an easy way to add more bitter to the diet. Both in cooking and herbal remedies, the bitter taste is often balanced with other flavors--such as sweet, acidic, or aromatic-to increase palatability but also to provide other benefits these different herbs may offer.
What Are Digestive Bitters and How Do You Make Them?
Many foods and herbs offer us the digestive benefit of the bitter taste, but the term "bitters," or "digestive bitters" is typically used to describe an herbal extract made from bitter herbs. This is usually in the form of a tincture, where the herbs are extracted in alcohol, which is then used medicinally to soothe and improve digestion. You may see them under the names "bitters, "digestive bitters," or "Swedish bitters" on store shelves.
While there are many great store-bought bitters out there, such as the brand Urban Moonshine, I am all about DIY herbal medicine. Making your own tincture from dried herbs is really easy and can be done with many herbal remedies, not just bitters. If you follow a basic formula, you can make extracts from a variety of herbs, empowering yourself to improve and protect your own health.
I use a basic tincture formula for my bitters, which I learned from various sources, including Richo Cech's book "Making Plant Medicine." There are other methods out there, such as the "folk method," which doesn't use exact measurements, but I prefer the method I will outline below that uses weight and volume measurements for more precision. The formula I use to make tinctures from dried herbs is this: weigh out dried, cut and sifted herbs (not powders, fresh herbs or large pieces of dried herbs) in grams; use a ratio of 1 part dried herbs (in grams) to 5 parts alcohol (in mL) to figure out how much alcohol you need for extraction; measure your alcohol by volume in milliliters; cover your herbs with the alcohol in a jar, shake regularly to macerate and let sit to extract for about 1 month; once extracted, strain the herbs and use the tincture.
I use a simple kitchen scale to weigh my herbs and, other than some dropper bottles for storing the prepared tincture, that is about the only special equipment you really need. For the alcohol menstruum (extracting liquid), you can use good quality vodka or a 50/50 blend of high-proof grain alcohol (around 190 proof alcohol such as Everclear). Alcohol, and not just water, is necessary to use for the menstruum, as many of the bitter compounds are fat-soluble, and must be extracted using alcohol.
Some of my other favorite herbs to use in bitters formulas (other than the ones in my recipe below) include:
How to Make Cardamom-Black Pepper Digestive Bitters
The particular blend of herbs in my Cardamom-Black Pepper Bitters is amazing because it combines sweet and spicy, along with the decidedly bitter flavor, for the perfect flavor balance. This formula is great to use as-is whenever digestive upset or discomfort arises, but also goes great in cocktails or mocktails, adding a burst of bitter and aromatic flavors to your favorite beverage. Even just a few drops in sparkling mineral water makes quick digestif for any time of the day.
To use these bitters medicinally (or as otherwise advised by herbalist or healthcare provider), take 10-30 drops directly on the tongue or dissolved in a few ounces of water. To add to a beverage, add 1/2-1 dropper-full of bitters to a cocktail or other beverage for a bitter flavor bomb.
Recipe: Cardamom-Black Pepper Digestive Bitters
Makes about 1 quart of tincture
28 grams whole cardamom pods, crushed
28 grams whole black peppercorns
28 grams dried orange peel
28 grams Oregon grape root
28 grams gentian root
28 grams cinnamon bark (can be in chips or whole sticks)
28 grams yarrow, aerial parts not roots
Menstruum (alcohol-based extracting liquid):
980 milliliters vodka (or 490 mL each 190-proof grain alcohol and water for a 50/50 blend)
1. Place the dried herbs in a half gallon-sized glass jar.
2. Pour the alcohol or alcohol/water mixture over the herbs. Tightly screw on the jar lid.
Shake the mixture for several minutes to combine and macerate. Label with the ingredients and date, then set on the counter or in a cabinet, away from direct sunlight.
3. Shake the container daily (or at least every couple of days, whenever you remember to do it!) for a few minutes, to macerate and infuse your liquid with the herbal constituents. Let the herbs infuse, shaking daily, for at least 1 month. You can let it sit longer if you prefer.
4. When ready to strain and use, shake vigorously one last time. Pour the mixture through a mesh strainer to collect the liquid and separate out the used herbs. Use a gloved hand to gently squeeze the herbs, releasing any liquid they may have stored in them. Discard the herbs (compost, etc.) after pressing.
5. Cover the jar of liquid (your tincture) and let sit overnight. Then, pour this mixture through a coffee filter, tea towel you don't mind staining, or fine mesh strainer; this removes any more solids or "sludge" that may have settled. This step is not totally necessary, but will result in a tincture with very little solid residue left behind and a nice, clear liquid.
6. This final tincture can be stored in a glass jar or decanted into individual amber dropper bottles, making it easy to use whenever needed. Clearly label your vessels, whichever you choose to use for storage, with the contents and date. Tinctures made in this way will keep for several years.
Want to Dig Deeper?
If you are interested in learning more about gut health and even need a little help on your gut-healing journey, go to my online health coaching and nutrition counseling website, www.laurapoerd.com, where you can schedule a free 15-minute discovery call or book a package to work with me!
If you are wanting to nerd out more about bitters and herbal medicine, I highly suggest the work of Guido Mase. His books "The Wild Medicine Solution" and "DIY Bitters" (the latter written with herbalist Jovial King) both go in-depth into the science of bitters, characteristics of various bitter herbs and offer many recipes for making your own bitters at home.
Here's a toast to both the bitter and the sweet that life (and foods) have to offer!
Brine & Broth
I am a gut health-focused nutritionist and online health coach based in Southwest Wisconsin. My recipes and philosophies center around traditional, nutrient-dense foods that support robust gut health.