Bitters are bitter-tasting plants that promote digestive & metabolic function, to keep things moving and counteract excess & stagnation. The bitter taste triggers what is known as the bitter reflex, which sends cascade of digestive secretion through the GI tract, increasing the release of saliva, stomach acid, digestive enzymes and bile. The overall effect is improved digestion and assimilation of nutrients, blood sugar balance, restoration of gut tissue, reduction of food allergies & inflammatory conditions, as well as reduction of gas, bloating, constipation and other signs of weak digestion.
Until very recently in human history, bitters have played an important role in our ancestral diets. Even today, many cultures still imbibe in bitter drinks and delicacies before or after a meal as digestive aids (Campari, Amaro, Espresso, Dark Chocolate, Endive salad). Many of the herbal liqueurs that survive today were once considered cure-alls because of the bitter and aromatic plants with which they were infused. In Appalachian history, many of the herbal remedies that were touted as tonics and cure-alls contained bitter roots foraged from the mountainsides.
Most bitter flavor has been bred out of our cultivated foods, but our wild foods are still laced with bitterness. You only need a little bit of bitter taste to achieve a tonic effect. In fact, small is better with bitters if you are using them regularly, as their cold, dry and downward-bearing nature can harm digestion in large doses, especially in those with cold/dry constitutions. In small amounts, however, bitters can be employed universally. They can also be combined with warming herbs to balance out the cold energetic.
Bitter herbs range from strong to mild, and most of our best medicines have some level of bitterness to them. The bitter compounds in plants (which include sesquiterpene lactones, terpenes, alkaloids, iridoids and tannis) are all secondary metabolites, meaning that they do not directly nourish the plant (or us), but rather are produced by the plant for protective functions. In our bodies, these compounds offer a similar protective quality and regular use tends to fortify not only digestion, but our entire metabolic system. Bitters are categorically detoxifying, cooling, moving, toning, and drying, which make them very useful for damp, stagnant, or hot conditions (a lengthy conversation for another time). Let’s just say for now that most Americans would benefit from small amounts of bitter in their diet, because as a culture, we are prone to excess, stagnation and irritation.
And be sure to check out Tonic’s unique line of Mystics Bitters, which take bitter therapeutics to a whole new level. Our bitters are formulated to balance different constitutions and energetic imbalances, and can work on either the physical or energetic bodies, depending on how you use them. Read more about energetic dosing here, and click on the links below for details on each formula.
Want to learn how to make your own bitters with plants from your garden? Sign up for a one-on-one tutorial with Jurga, our resident pharmacist, herbalist & gardener.