The Importance of Bitters
February 2024, Health Matters

The Importance of Bitters

By Kathy Abascal

The holidays are definitely over, and most of us are now working on trying to recover from our excesses. These excesses usually involve too much sugar, too much of the wrong fats, too much alcohol, and too many late-night meals.

The ultimate effects of these excesses vary, but all involve an overwhelmed digestive system. Our food choices have thrown off our ability to properly digest and absorb nutrients. To make matters worse, many of the nutrients we really need are absent from our diet. The result: digestive “upsets,” weight gain, poor sleep, reduced immune function, aches and pains, and even depression. It is startling how many ailments and discomforts are due, at least in part, to the disorderly secretion of digestive juices.

Digestion is meant to follow an organized sequence that begins with chewing. As we chew, we mix our food with enzyme-rich saliva that starts to break down carbohydrates. Chewing also signals to the stomach that food is on the way. The stomach then produces acid to break down proteins in the food, while bile and pancreatic enzymes begin to be secreted into the intestines to digest fats and finish carbohydrate digestion, so we can absorb the nutrients they provide.

If we are eating healthy foods and digesting them properly, we provide our intestinal flora with the “right leftovers” and do not suffer digestive problems.

However, when stress is present (and for most of us, it is), our stress response shuts down the orderly secretion of digestive fluids, including saliva. Without adequate amounts of saliva, we do not begin to digest carbohydrates in our mouth. We also fail to produce enough stomach acid, bile, and pancreatic enzymes. We do not break down our food properly, and end up feeding the intestinal flora very different leftovers, leading to the growth of the “wrong” flora, with far-reaching negative effects.

Getting the body to produce digestive juices when they are needed is quite simple: Take some bitter-tasting herbs before meals. The idea of beginning meals with a bitter-tasting substance is a foreign concept in the American food culture, especially after a holiday filled with non-stop sweet tastes – from cocktails, candied yams, and glazed hams, to pies, cookies, and other desserts.

It is easy to become addicted to the taste of sweet food and to be put off by the idea of taking something that tastes bitter. However, we need bitters because our digestion cannot work well without them.

The taste of something bitter causes a reflex secretion of saliva, stomach acid, bile, and pancreatic enzymes. Perhaps because so many of the wild foods we evolved to eat were bitter, we are designed to respond effectively to any bitter taste. That taste makes us salivate. It makes our stomach juices flow.

Herbalists take advantage of those reflexes when they prescribe a bitter tonic. Shortly (5-15 minutes) before meals, the person takes some drops of a bitter herbal tincture mixed in water. This immediately starts the flow of saliva and transmits the message to the gut that food is on the way. This simple measure re-establishes proper digestion.

There are many bitter formulas on the market. Most contain the root of the beautiful flower Gentiana lutea (gentian), often combined with some other, more aromatic bitters, like ginger or orange peel. Unfortunately, many species of gentian are endangered today so, unless you know how the gentian tincture you are considering was sourced, I recommend instead a formula that uses one of the Artemesias spp. I personally think A. absinthum (wormwood) works very well.

Usually the effects of bitters become stronger the longer they are used, probably because we absorb important nutrients, including vitamins like B12, more effectively. So do give bitters a try, you will be amazed at what a difference this simple change will make in how you feel.

February 9, 2024

About Author

kathy I was born in Chicago, but mostly grew up in Sweden. After completing high school, I moved back to the US to attend college and graduated with a degree in neurobiology with a minor in biochemistry and French from the University of California at Berkeley. Immediately after graduating, I spent a year doing quality control testing at Chevron's pesticide factory in Richmond and then transitioned to working on a number of medical research studies. I helped conduct physician peer reviews at a San Francisco hospital and, when I eventually began looking for more challenging work, the doctors I worked with recommended that I apply to medical school. In retrospect, I should have followed their advice, but I instead decided to get a juris doctor degree from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. I worked as a research attorney at the California Court of Appeal for a number of years before going into private practice specializing in complex consumer litigation. As time passed, the California courts became more conservative and less receptive to consumer litigation and I found myself once again looking for a new direction. Now, I teach online classes on how to quiet inflammation. I am a professional herbalist and have written several books. You can learn more about my work and classes at