You’ve probably heard of them being used in craft cocktails, but were you aware that bitters have traditionally been used to support healthy digestion.  While the bitter taste is relatively unused in American cuisine, many cultures naturally include the bitter flavor in their diets: burdock root, bitter greens, and even bitter drinks before dinner (heard of an aperitif!). 
You can probably think back to a time when you ate something really bitter, and you will likely remember the result - salivation. Bitters are an excellent way to prime the pumps of digestion and the organs associated with it.
Besides making us salivate, bitters are thought to “stimulate the appetite, stimulate the release of digestive juices, aid in liver detoxification and increase the release of bile, help regulate pancreatic hormones, and help the gut wall repair damage to itself.”  All of this combines to make the bitter flavor a powerhouse in the world of digestion.
The trusted sidekick of the bitter action is a carminative. Often in “bitters” blends you will see plants with these two properties placed together. While bitters can help with digestion, carminatives are known to ease the discomfort created by gasses in the digestive process. The two actions blend together nicely to help with overall digestion.
Bitters Made Simple
While you can go to the store and buy a bottle of bitters crafted by an herbalist (Urban Moonshine has a great line), you can also find simple ways to incorporate bitter plants and foods into your diet. The list below includes plants that have traditionally been used for their bitter flavor, as well as carminatives. For a great tasting tea with digestive properties try messing around with a bitter and carminative pair!
Dandelion leaf is mildly bitter and makes a wonderful tea. I love to combine both dandelion and chamomile for a soothing evening blend with bitter, nervine, and carminative properties. The fresh leaves can also be used in salads, smoothies, and as a vegetable sauté.
Both a bitter and a carminative, chamomile is a well-loved plant for both the nervous and digestive systems. This soothing flower makes a calming evening tea on its own or blended with other herbs.
Burdock root can be decocted (see our post on how to make tea) into a tea, pickled or eaten as food, and taken as a powder in smoothies. This bitter root is a staple in many Asian cuisines and is a useful hepatic and diuretic. 
Orange peel is a great tasting carminative that makes a great addition to any tea; a specific for flatulence. 
Fresh ginger has been known to act as a warming diaphoretic and carminative. This useful and tasty root has also been historically used to treat nausea and motion sickness.  Add fresh ginger to your tea for not only a pleasant taste but to help settle the stomach and aid in flatulence.
As a carminative and a sialagogue (causes salivation), this spicy herb not only helps with flatulence , but also has a pleasant and comforting flavor. It is a great addition to add flavor and purpose to your tea.
* Bitters can be contraindicated in pregnancy, kidney stones, gallbladder disease, dysmenorrhea, gastroesophageal reflux disease, hiatus hernia, gastritis, and peptic ulcers. 
 Hoffmann, David. “Materia Medica.” Medical Herbalism: the Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine, Healing Arts Press, 2003, pp. 587–588.
 Mase, Guido. The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants. Healing Arts Press, 2013.
 Alfs, Matthew. 300 Herbs: Their Indications & Contraindications. Old Theology Book House, 2003
By Anna Beauchemin
Anna is a Clinical Western Herbalist. She works and studies at the Ohlone Herbal Center in Berkeley, California. She also has a Bachelor of Science in Conservation and Resource Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and has worked as a biologist doing research on native pollinators.
Photos taken by Anna Beauchemin
These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.