By Dr. Shannon Sarrasin, ND
Bitter is an uncommon flavour that has largely disappeared from our modern palate. Bitter foods and herbs were a common part of the ancestral diet and are still used in Chinese medicine and Ayurveda with huge benefits to body and mind. Herbal bitters are an old medicine remedy for what seems to be an ever increasing problem, weak digestion.
Stress is the biggest factor that depletes our digestive system over time. A stressful lifestyle contributes to the “fight-flight” reaction which shunts blood flow away from our digestive system leading to reduced digestive juices. Combine this with a diet high in processed food, irregular meals, overeating or excess coffee/alcohol and the digestive system gets tired out. Digestive juices also deplete with age.
Signs that you are not digesting well include bloating/gas, belching, nausea, indigestion, heartburn, loose stool or constipation. With a stomach acid deficiency we may see vertical ridges on nails, white spots on nails and symptoms of Vitamin B12 or mineral deficiency (iron, zinc, calcium, magnsium).
Digestive bitters are herbs that support digestive function by stimulating bitter receptors on the tongue, stomach, gallbladder and pancreas. Their primary effect is to promote digestive juices such as stomach acid, bile and enzymes to breakdown food and assist in the absorption of nutrients. Digestive bitters may help to improve symptoms of IBS. Learn more about treating IBS here.
10 Benefits of Bitters
- Improves protein and mineral digestion and absorption
- Improves breakdown of fats and fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, K
- Reduce gas and bloating
- Relieve occasional heartburn
- Promote regular bowel movements
- Reduce food sensitivities
- Breakdown microbes and prevent SIBO & yeast overgrowth
- In Ayurvedic tradition, bitters are known to reduce sweet cravings and regulate blood sugar
- In Chinese medicine, bitters are cooling and remove “heat” from the body (aka inflammation)
- Eclectics promote digestive bitters for improved detoxification, healthy skin, improved joint pain and healthy mood.
Bitter herbs include dandelion, burdock, gentian, artichoke, chamomile, milk thistle, motherwort, goldenseal and angelica. As bitter herbs are considered “cold” in nature they are often combined with warming herbs such as cinnamon, cardamom and ginger to balance the formula. Be aware that some formulas contain laxative herbs. Your naturopathic doctor can recommend a formula best suited for you.
Bitters are best taken before a meal to support digestion. Take a dropper full in a small amount of water, tea or sparkling water shortly before a meal. If you suffer from heartburn, start with a very low dose and increase slowly as tolerated.
Cheers to happy and healthy digestion!