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Bitter Herbs: An Ally of Digestive Wellness

Bitter Herbs: An Ally of Digestive Wellness - Harmonic Arts

Giuliana Alfano |

Processed and packaged foods have become a convenient norm for many people in North America, with sweet, savory and salty flavours being the most popular. As a result, many people now suffer from chronic digestive ailments like IBS and leaky gut, leading to imbalances throughout the entire body. Within our modern palate, bitter flavours are not often part of the average diet but are a key flavour to maintaining digestion.  If we look back in time, our ancestors foraged and consumed many bitter herbs to fortify digestive wellness. 

Disclaimer: This blog is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your health care practitioner before adding any new herbs to your wellness routine. 


Traditional Use

The use of herbal bitters was first documented in ancient Egypt, often added to wines during celebratory feasts. This suggests that bitters may have been used as a digestive aid for large elaborate meals. Historians speculate the bitter taste was added during celebrations as a bittersweet reminder that life brings both joy and suffering. 

The age-old traditional Peruvian bitter, cinchona bark is still used by Indigenous healers in South America. Cinchona bark is the inspiration behind today’s tonic water. Traditionally, tonic water is mixed with distilled spirits containing other cooling and antimicrobial medicinal herbs, helping protect from tropical-borne diseases.  

In the early 1700’s, bitter herbs were a cure-all in European apothecaries. These blends consisted of many bitter botanicals, using the optimal medicinal parts of plants such as roots, bark, berries, leaves, and flowers. 


Benefits of Bitter Herbs

Enhanced Digestion

When we consume bitter herbs, the receptors in our taste buds send a signal to the brain to increase the production of saliva, digestive enzymes and stomach acid (1). This supports proper breakdown of food and absorption of nutrients throughout the digestion process. Bitter herbs also increase appetite by stimulating the gustatory nerves, causing the blood vessels in the stomach to dilate (1). Aromatic bitters help soothe indigestion by relieving spasms in the intestines and reducing gas (2).  

Balanced Blood Sugar

There are receptors throughout our entire digestive system that register bitterness, and they have an impact on the regulation and balance of sugar and energy in the body (3). Certain bitters, like Bitter Melon have been shown to significantly reduce blood glucose levels in those with type 2 diabetes (4). In Traditional Chinese Medicine, bitters may be used to counter the negative impacts of sugars in the diet by increasing the metabolism of carbohydrates. 

A Natural Filter

Bitter herbs support liver function by helping to filter waste from the blood. Their anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties work to fortify the immune system (5) and balance the endocrine system. Bitter herbs have been shown to help the body metabolize iron, which in high doses, can produce free radicals that damage the liver (6). 


Our Herbal Bitters Tincture

Formulated by Clinical Herbalists, our Herbal Bitters tincture was crafted to stimulate digestion and boost nutrient absorption.  

It includes herbs like Artichoke, Meadowsweet and Dandelion to encourage the production of digestive enzymes in the stomach and bile in the small intestine. Nervine herbs like Licorice and Chamomile are used to support the guiding herbs in this formula. These allies promote relaxation and calm a nervous stomach. 

Herbal Bitters can provide soothing relief from poor digestion, gas, bloating or stomach pain after eating. 


How to Take Bitters

In modern times, bitters are a common ingredient in cocktails. The bitter flavours help round out and harmonize the sweet and sour ingredients that make alcohol more palatable.  

The classic use of herbal bitters in tincture form can also be found in modern apothecaries and health food stores. Enjoy our Herbal Bitters tincture on its own before a meal, or in a tasty mocktail like this Herbal Bitters Aperitif.

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      1. McMullen, M. D. (2017). The Use of Bitter Herbs in Practice. International Journal of Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 6(5).
      Role of Ayurvedic formulation in digestion. (2012). International Research Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, Volume 2(8), 187–192.

      2. Chou, W. (2021). Therapeutic potential of targeting intestinal bitter taste receptors in diabetes associated with dyslipidemia. Pharmacological Research, 170, 105693.

      3. Selvakumar, G., Shathirapathiy, G., Jainraj, R., & Paul, P. Y. (2017). Immediate effect of bitter gourd, ash gourd, Knol-khol juices on blood sugar levels of patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus: A pilot study. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, 7(4), 526–531.

      4. Sivakrishnan, S., & Kavitha, J. (2019). Herbal Drugs, Diet and Lifestyle Changes for Liver Diseases- A Review. Journal of Global Pharma Technology, ISSN: 0975-8542.

      5. Wang, Z., Zhang, Y., Zhang, Q., Ao, Q., Luo, C., Wang, B., Bai, C., Ge, X., Wang, Y., Wang, J., Qian, Y., Yu, H., & Gu, X. (2022). On the Core Prescriptions and Their Mechanisms of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Hepatitis B, Liver Cirrhosis, and Liver Cancer Treatment. Journal of Oncology, 2022, 1–17.