Search IconSearch

What To Know Before You Try Digestive Bitters

They could help with digestion … or make existing symptoms worse

using digestive bitters

“Bitter” isn’t typically a glowing descriptor, but the benefits of digestive bitters might make you reconsider the word. Long used in traditional Chinese medicine, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: tinctures (a medical substance in an alcohol carrier) of bitter herbs said to aid and improve your digestion.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

You may already be familiar with bitters (liquor flavored with pungent-tasting plant extracts) added to fancy cocktails, and digestive bitters are actually pretty similar. Registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD, LD, explains what these herbal elixirs can (and can’t) do for your digestive health.

What are digestive bitters?

The basic idea behind bitters is that they stimulate your taste buds to create more saliva (spit), which in turn jumpstarts your digestive system. You might not realize it, but saliva is one of the keys to digestion, contributing to the breakdown of starches and fats.

Herbs commonly used in digestive bitters include:

  • Artichoke leaf.
  • Bitter melon.
  • Burdock root.
  • Dandelion.
  • Gentian root.
  • Licorice root.
  • Wormwood.

Think about it: Cocktails that contain bitters (like negronis, Aperol spritzes and Sazeracs) are known as apéritifs, beverages you drink before a meal to rev up your digestive system.

Digestive bitters do the same thing — you just don’t need an entire glass of them. And you wouldn’t want one, either, because in their pure form, they’re much more bitter than the cocktails that sometimes contain them.

The benefits of digestive bitters

There aren’t yet enough conclusive studies that delve deep into the benefits of bitters. But the biggest reason to try them is that they may give your digestive system a boost.


“Some people have gastrointestinal issues due to the fact that they don’t have enough stomach acid. In these cases, bitters can help create some of that extra juice to help break down food,” Czerwony says. “They increase the amount of gastric juices in your stomach, which ultimately helps with digestion.”

Can digestive bitters help you lose weight?

Though some people believe bitters can help with weight loss, the evidence itself is slim. “Some bitters do stimulate the production of hormones in our stomach that suppress the appetite,” Czerwony says. “For the most part, though, the level of acid in bitters just kills your appetite because they don’t taste great.”

How much should you take?

Amounts vary by product, so follow dosage instructions on the packaging. Typically, though, you’ll place a few drops (or sprays, depending on the format) onto your tongue about 15 minutes before a meal. This gives them time to kick in before you eat.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to avoid the taste of bitters, as the impact of bitterness is the whole point. “If it doesn’t taste bitter, you’re not going to get the results that you’re looking for,” Czerwony notes.

3 possible side effects of digestive bitters

Bitters aren’t for everyone. Czerwony weighs in on who should avoid them — but first, she offers a bit of blanket advice for anyone who’s considering them.

“Like supplements and vitamins, bitters aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so you can’t know for sure what the concentrations are,” she says. “You should always check with your doctor before adding something like this into your repertoire.”

Here’s what to know about the possible risks of taking digestive bitters:

1. They can cause tummy troubles

If your gastrointestinal tract is working well on its own — or if it’s already working overtime — consuming bitters may actually backfire. Bitters create more gastric acid in your stomach, which can actually contribute to digestive issues in people who are predisposed to them:

“If you’re already prone to these things, bitters aggravate them by making your digestive tract a little bit more reactive,” Czerwony cautions.

2. They can interfere with medications

Think about bitters like you would any other supplement or vitamin — that is to say, they can interact negatively with medications you’re already taking. And again, you should always check with your doctor before giving them a try.

“Bitters can react with blood pressure medications, insulin, hypoglycemics and other medications, so it’s really important that you be cautious and talk to your doctor before taking anything them,” Czerwony advises.

3. They can worsen existing conditions

Skip the bitters if you have any of the following conditions:

  • Diabetes.
  • Gallbladder disease.
  • Gastritis.
  • Hiatal hernia.
  • Kidney stones.
  • Liver problems.
  • Peptic ulcers.

It’s also important to remember that bitters are made with alcohol, so you shouldn’t take them if you’re pregnant or nursing, or if you’re in recovery.


Can’t bear bitters?

It should be no surprise that bitters taste, well, particularly bitter — after all, that’s the whole point. If you find that the taste just isn’t worth the potential payoff, there are still other ways to lend your digestive system a hand.

“Bitters definitely aren’t the only option,” Czerwony says. “These ingredients are found in nature, and you can work some of them into your diet pretty easily.” Foods that can aid in digestion include:

  • Arugula.
  • Brussels sprouts.
  • Cacao.
  • Cranberries.
  • Dandelion greens.
  • Kale.
  • Radicchio.

“Instead of turning to bitters for digestive benefits, you can just work them into your diet in the everyday normal route,” Czerwony advises. The bonus there? For the most part, there’s no need to check with your doctor before digging into a leafy green salad.


Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Person looking in fridge, filled with salad, milk, berries, veggies, juice
June 12, 2024/Wellness
Power Up: 10 Ways To Boost Your Energy Naturally

Making certain food and lifestyle choices can help keep your battery full

Shirataki Miracle noodles on chopsticks and in red bowl
May 20, 2024/Nutrition
4 Reasons To Give Shirataki (Miracle) Noodles a Try

Fiber-rich shirataki noodles may improve blood sugar, aid in digestion and help with weight loss

Assorted healthy foods spread out over a table and cutting boards
May 20, 2024/Digestive
What To Eat When You Have Diverticular Disease

Reducing inflammation is key when you’re in a flare-up, but so is having a preventive nutritional plan in place when you’re not

Healthcare provider talking with patient with overweight in office
May 17, 2024/Weight Loss
The HCG Diet Is Ineffective and Unsafe

The U.S. FDA prohibits HCG use without a prescription — and the hormone isn’t approved for weight loss at all

Bowl of white konjac noodles in wooden bowl
May 15, 2024/Nutrition
5 Ways Konjac Can Help Boost Your Health

The glucomannan fiber in konjac can be good for your digestion, heart, weight loss and more

Field of barley
May 13, 2024/Nutrition
Bank on Barley for a Health Boost

Eating this grain could help keep tabs on your appetite and protect against diabetes and cancer

Bowl of partially peeled tamarind
May 8, 2024/Nutrition
5 Reasons To Try Tamarind

With a sweet, tangy flavor, this tropical fruit is super versatile and high in antioxidants

Mason jar filled with water and raisins
May 7, 2024/Nutrition
Is Raisin Water Really All That Beneficial?

Raisins have a number of health benefits when eaten — but raisin water probably won’t do much for you

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims