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What to Know About Digestive Bitters

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 25, 2021

Digestive bitters are herbs that taste bitter. They’re often used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda medicine.

People have used herbs as medicine for a long time in lots of different cultures. Bitters and bitter cocktails were widely used in the 1700s when a doctor named George Cheyne started treating gout with a light diet, lots of fluids, and what he called his digestive bitters remedy. This remedy included:

  • Alcohol
  • Wormwood
  • Horseradish
  • Watercress
  • Angelica root

It quickly became popular and was sold for all kinds of health problems like seasickness and growing appetite. Eventually, some companies started selling bitters in bars as cocktails.

Today, bitters are a staple drink in cocktail lounges and are becoming popular again as herbal remedies.

How do Digestive Bitters Work?

People use herbs to help with digestion. Herbs like peppermint and ginger ease gas, stomach cramping, and nausea. They are also used to relieve irritable bowel syndrome.

Digestive bitters, specifically, are said to help digestion because of their bitter taste. They stimulate your bitter taste buds, which signal different activities in your digestive system to start, like making more saliva.

However, it’s not fully clear how digestive bitters work.

Health Benefits of Digestive Bitters

While we need more research, digestive bitters seem to have some health benefits.

Helps with diabetes. Bitter melon is used traditionally in India, Asia and South America as a natural remedy for diabetes. In people with diabetes, bitter melon lowers blood glucose levels. It might help your body release and use insulin, too. But we need more research to know for sure.

Eases appetite. A study showed that people who took bitter herbs ate less calories. Digestive bitters might act on bitter receptors in parts of the digestive system that make your body release gut hormones that make you feel full.

‌Helps you make more saliva. Your saliva has enzymes that help you start to break down your food. Bitters can help you make more saliva, which could help with digestion. 

Release gastric juice. Your stomach contains different chemicals like pepsin and stomach acid that help you break down food. Bitters can make your stomach release more gastric juice. This can help with heartburn, cramping, and indigestion.

Risks of Digestive Bitters

Poisonous herbs tend to taste very bitter, so taking digestive bitters might seem contrary. However, not all bitter herbs are unsafe to eat. There are many different kinds of herbs available. Some include:

Herbs can interact with some medications. This can stop them from working and might cause health problems.

Some herbs might not be safe for some health conditions like epilepsy, kidney disease, liver disease, low blood pressure, and bleeding disorders. You can also be allergic to the herbs used in bitters.

People who are pregnant and breastfeeding shouldn’t take bitters. They also shouldn’t be given to children as they often are infused in alcohol.

People who have gastrointestinal disease shouldn’t take bitters as they might irritate your digestive system. This includes people who have ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease.

There are many different kinds of herbs, so there are many types of possible reactions. You might experience:

  • Nausea
  • Cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Sore stomach

If you have any of the following symptoms, go to a hospital right away:

  • Swelling in your throat
  • Tongue swelling
  • Trouble breathing
  • Feeling faint
  • Wheezing
  • Clammy skin
  • Confusion
  • Losing consciousness

These could signal a dangerous, potentially fatal allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.

If you feel you need help with your digestion or you’re thinking about taking digestive bitters, talk to your doctor. They can help you figure out what herbs might interact with any medication you may be taking. Your doctor can also suggest other ways to help you.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics: “Review article: The physiologic effects and safety of Peppermint Oil and its efficacy in irritable bowel syndrome and other functional disorders.”

Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Disease: “Antidiabetic effects of Momordica charantia (bitter melon) and its medicinal potency.”

Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: “Bitters: Time for a New Paradigm.”

Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry: “Five bitter compounds display different anti-inflammatory effects through modulating cytokine secretion using mouse primary splenocytes in vitro."

Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility: “The Bitter Taste Receptor Agonist Quinine Reduces Calorie Intake and Increases the Postprandial Release of Cholecystokinin in Healthy Subjects.”

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: “Artemisia annua,” “Dandelion.”

Neuron: “A spoonful of bitter helps the sugar-response go down.”

The Lancet: “Bitter medicine: gout and the birth of the cocktail.”

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