Should You Be Using Digestive Bitters?

Natasha Burton

Urban Moonshine

All trends are cyclical, whether we’re talking about fashion, beauty, or wellness. So, it’s not totally crazy to see the health trends of yore come back in style, so to speak.

Like, for example, the practice of of ingesting digestive bitters. Bitters–which you might be familiar with from seeing them as cocktail ingredients at fancy bars—are said to aid digestion, relieve bloating, upset stomach and occasional nausea and heartburn, as well as to support liver function and healthy skin. Not too shabby, eh?

We asked health and nutrition expert Joe Colella, MD, author of The Appetite Solution, about the revival of these herbal remedies and he said that while “their best use might be as a digestive aid, bitters may also make some sense as a pre-meal partaking to help you eat less.” (Foods such as arugula and olives, he adds, can also act as “bitters” to lessen your craving for sweet or salty taste.)

But why are bitters making a comeback today? Well, given that gut health has become a big topic when talking about overall wellness—and even beauty—combined with the fact that many of the popular processed foods we eat tend to veer on the sweet and salty side, we don’t usually get a lot of that crucial bitter taste in our diets.

To further explain, we interviewed Guido Masé, the chief herbalist at Urban Moonshine, which makes digestive bitters from certified organic Vermont herbs and roots, in addition to other globally sourced ingredients, about how bitters work and why we might want to try them.

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How exactly do bitters work? 

GM: Our digestive tract is finely tuned to perceiving bitterness: receptors for bitter compounds are found in the mouth, stomach, pancreas, intestines and colon—even in the liver and gallbladder, and beyond! When bitter-tasting substances found in plants like dandelion, artichoke, and gentian stimulate the bitter receptors, they trigger activities that improve the breakdown, digestion, and detoxification of what we eat. This is part of a protective response: some of the most poisonous, difficult-to-digest foods taste very bitter.

First, this response increases the secretion of important digestive juices: saliva in the mouth (you experience this immediately), balanced hydrochloric acid and pepsin production in the stomach, pancreatic enzyme production (amylases, proteases and lipases) and bile secretion from the liver. Our bodies have an incredible ability to secrete the right amount of enzymes and digestive juices to optimally digest our foods, even as we age—they just need the right cue, and bitter plants provide it. When you can break food down completely in the digestive tract, you see less fermentation, which means less inflammation, bloating, spasm, gas, cramping and discomfort.

Second, bitters have an astringent effect on the smooth muscle that lines the digestive tract, but especially on the muscular valve at the bottom of the esophagus (the throat). Bitters make that valve tighten, leading to less reflux and symptoms of heartburn. They also allow food to remain in the stomach longer, ensuring that it is optimally digested.

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How can bitters curb cravings for sugar and balance appetite?

GM: Bitters have a dramatic role on blood sugar balance. This is partly because of their effects on the liver, our major sugar storage and processing organ, and also because they slow the rate of entry of sugar into the bloodstream (the glycemic index).

This translates to some immediate, important effects: bitters can block sugar cravings. When we feel cravings for sweets, our bodies want quick nutrition: bitters “trick” the body into thinking it has eaten, reducing the craving and helping us make a healthier choice. And the more sensitive to bitters we are, the less we overeat, and the more balanced our blood sugar is. Fortunately, the more you taste bitter, the more bitter taste receptors we make and the more pronounced these effects become!

Can they do anything for the skin?

GM: By reducing systemic inflammation through their “cooling” action bitters have the ability to “cool off” skin rashes and acne. This is part of the gentle, daily detoxification bitters provide, and can counteract the worsening of skin complaints that comes from exposure to difficult foods or synthetic chemicals from the environment.

How can people get the best result from incorporating bitters into their diets?

GM: One of the most important considerations is to make sure that you are actually tasting the bitter flavor: the high quantity of bitter taste receptors on the tongue makes this a very important site of action. This is why bitter formulas are almost universally liquid!

For digestive health, a small amount of bitters will do—the taste does a lot of the work. Take bitters before eating to prevent cramping, bloating, or irregular bowel habits. Take bitters after meals to address indigestion, heartburn, nausea or upset stomach in the moment. You can also mix some bitters with a little sparkling water and serve it as a pre-appetizer course for your family or friends.

Are there any people or circumstances who shouldn’t use them?

GM: Bitters should not be used by people who have active ulcers. Traditional bitters formulas should also not be used during pregnancy.