The Benefits of Bitters

By Zoe Helene / October 21, 2013

An easy (and enjoyable!) natural solution to digestive ills.

When your belly groans, consider a natural solution that cultures throughout the world have been turning to for digestive issues since antiquity: bitters. Typically reserved in Western culture for use in cocktails, formulas made from bitter aromatic herbs can soothe bloating, relieve occasional heartburn, and build digestive health.

What makes bitters work? We asked Medicine Hunter Chris Kilham, ethnobotanist, media personality and natural health expert, to explain the benefits of bitters.

What are bitters and what do they do?

“Bitters” are safe, effective, time-tested botanical formulas that aid digestion using bitter herbs. Bitter principles in herbs often mean those herbs are good for liver cleansing and digestion.

They are a great way to keep your digestion in really good shape. The herbs in these formulas detoxify the liver and enhance digestive enzyme production.

How do they work?

Our digestive system starts at the mouth, ends at the anus, and involves a lot of complex processes in between. Many people experience indigestion, and symptoms can include a feeling of being too full or sluggish or experiencing acidic stomach and queasiness, to name a few.

Herbalists have known for centuries that certain plants, especially those that are bitter or aromatic, can aid digestion, reduce digestive discomfort, and actually improve the daily function of the digestive system. Bitters also help to feed the micro-bacteria that becomes healthy intestinal flora.

Why do they have to taste bitter?

Bitter compounds in plants stimulate the production of digestive juices and help detoxify the liver. In addition, they promote regularity. In our culture we don’t tend to favor bitter that much—we’re very into sweet—but in India, China and Southeast Asia, they seek out bitter foods and flavors because they understand this.

Why have bitters typically been put into cocktails?

Herbalists have known for centuries that certain plants, especially those that are bitter or aromatic, can aid digestion, reduce digestive discomfort, and actually improve the daily function of the digestive system. Bitters also help to feed the micro-bacteria that becomes healthy intestinal flora.

Why do they have to taste bitter?

Bitter compounds in plants stimulate the production of digestive juices and help de- toxify the liver. In addition, they promote regularity. In our culture we don’t tend to favor bitter that much—we’re very into sweet—but in India, China and Southeast Asia, they seek out bitter foods and flavors because they understand this.

Why have bitters typically been put into cocktails?

Bitters have always been part of the alcohol-making world. The single most popular bitters product is Angostura Bitters, which can be found in just about any bar in the world. Bitters are sometimes added to cocktails for flavor, but they do a lot more than add to the flavor profile.

Your cocktail recipe calls for maple bitters.

The original is my favorite, and the maple-flavored one works well in a mulled cider.

Unlike cocktails, digestion is not exactly a glamorous subject.

No, but what bitters do is great! If you don't have a healthy, strong, functioning digestive system, all sorts of other health disorders arise—and that can really be unglamorous.

Is it better to drink them before or after a meal?

After a meal is actually a little better, but you can take them before a meal too. Either way is good. I put a couple of teaspoons in a glass of filtered water. Or you can serve my “Grateful Belly” mulled cider concoction with maple bitters (recipe below) in festive glasses with a cinnamon stick.

And will this keep you from having heartburn?

That all depends on what you’ve eaten and if you’ve eaten too much. Bitters can soothe your passage. Some people sit down for a holiday meal and plow through seventeen thousand calories: pounds of turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, gravy and potatoes—and then the desserts come out. So they eat cake and pumpkin pie and apple pie and ice cream and whipped cream, and then they need help. And this is help.

So it is smart to have bitters handy when you know you're going to eat.

Oh, I think bitters should be mandated for the holidays.

"Grateful Belly" Mulled Cider with Maple Bitters (Makes 6 cups)

Maple bitters are an excellent complement for apple cider. The cinnamon and cloves in this recipe aid digestion, and ginger is good for the belly. Orange slices give it delicious zest.

Ingredients:

10 cloves
4 cinnamon sticks
4 thick orange slices
2 tablespoons grated ginger root
1 quart certified organic apple cider
6 tablespoons maple-flavored bitters
(1 tablespoon per cup)

Pour cider into a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Stir in cinnamon sticks, cloves, ginger and orange slices. Let the mixture simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add bitters toward the end or put 1 tablespoon into each cup before ladling in the mulled cider. Garnish with a cinnamon stick.

Note: Mulled cider is not the same as bottled apple juice, which has been pasteurized. You can buy local apple cider during harvest season or pick up a bag of organic apples and juice them for fresh energy and flavor.

Urban Moonshine Original Bitters

The bitters contain the best herbs for enhancing digestion, including dandelion, burdock, yellow dock, gentian, fennel, ginger and more. This is artisan herbal manufacturing done beautifully, with fine ingredients, good concentration—and with a great group of women running this company. Plus, they’re certified organic, and they’re from Vermont! urbanmoonshine.com

Zoe Helene
Zoe Helene

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