Bitter Herbs for Better Digestion

Bitters _ greens-blogToday’s modern medicine is incredible for all that has been discovered about the body. However, even without modern science, our ancestors intuitively learned some pretty insightful things about the body. Using modern science to explain the mechanism behind such insights can be extremely fascinating.

One example of this is the use of bitter herbs. The use of bitters to aid digestion has a long history. We now understand that a reflex exists, termed the “bitter reflex,” that begins a cascade of actions in the body to prepare our digestive system for the food we are about to eat. The taste of bitter on the tongue stimulates the brain to release the digestive hormone, gastrin. This begins a chain of neural and endocrine actions including:

  • Appetite stimulation
  • Release of digestive enzymes from the pancreas, duodenum, and liver
  • Stimulation of the smooth muscle of the stomach to increase the rate of gastric emptying and contraction of the esophageal sphincter to prevent the movement of acidic stomach contents back upwards into the esophagus
  • Aiding the liver in detoxification and an increase in the flow of bile
  • Regulation of secretion of pancreatic hormones that regulate blood sugar, insulin and glucagon
  • Stimulating mechanisms to repair the gut wall

The best way to incorporate bitter into your diet and stimulate the bitter reflex is to eat a greens salad that contains dark leafy greens, such as: chicory, dandelion, arugula, radicchio or endive before your meal. Teas or tinctures that contain herbal bitters can also be used to stimulate the reflex. Common herbal bitters include:

Bitters _ Milk Thistle-blog

  • Chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla (moderate)
  • Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale (mild)
  • Gentian, Gentiana lutea (strong)
  • Goldenseal, Hydrastis Canadensis (strong)
  • Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum (moderate)
  • Peppermint, Mentha piperita (moderate)
  • Wormwood, Artemisia absinthium (strong)
  • Yarrow, Achilles millefolium (mild)

Herbs can have secondary actions, so always consult with a healthcare provider before beginning their use.

1. Hoffman, D. Medical Herbalism: the Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 2003.