“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.
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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.
- Gentian root.
- Licorice root.
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:
- Acid reflux.
- Upset stomach.
“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:
- Gallbladder disease.
- 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:
- Brussels sprouts.
- Dandelion greens.
“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.