Tonics, Bitters and Digestion

“What does bitter have to do with good digestion?” an American
might ask, promptly making an awful face to indicate that a bitter flavor
is the last thing in the world he or she would voluntarily let past their

In fact, bitter gets a pretty bad rap in this country, as evidenced by common
American sayings, such as “that was a bitter experience,” “he
was very bitter about it,” or “she cried bitterly.” Doesn’t
bring to mind soothing, relaxing or enjoyable images, do they?

Reluctant though we may be about bitters, they really are good for us–in
moderation, of course. Our tastes have become jaded as we have more and
more sought refined and bland foods over the last 60 or 70 years. Virtually
no bitter, coarse or fibrous foods are included in our diets. The shelves
of any market (including natural foods stores) are lined with products that
have had much of their bitter flavor replaced with sweet and salty ones.
However, more than 100 years ago, we couldn’t go to the corner grocery and
buy a variety of refined, bland food. We had to grow our own or go into
the fields and woods and pick our own. When I was in Greece recently, I
saw many people picking wild greens and eating them with gusto. They also
ate unripe plums at the table as a digestive tonic. The little green plums
have a decidedly bitter, sour and astringent flavor. As children, we instinctively
go for bitter greens and unripe fruit. Many times well-meaning parents will
warn us that all these things are bad for us, when in fact, very few are
poisonous, and the flavorful wild foods are superb for stimulating the digestion.
Of course, because there are a few poisonous plants, it is important to
learn which are good and which are not and to show the children, who are
always enthusiastic and eager to learn, as I’ve experienced on many herb

We evolved as humans eating a variety of bitter greens (many wild greens
have a bitter taste)and probably had a variety of taste experiences each
day. Our digestion became quite accustomed to these many flavors over the
millenia, and now, without them, digestive ills abound.

I have the opportunity to counsel people as I travel around the country
lecturing on health and herbs. In Southern California recently, on one day
I had consultations with nearly 20 people, 16 of whom had moderate to severe
digestive problems. This tells me that our digestive tract is not getting
the care and love it needs.

Of course bitters are not the only factor in poor digestion. Notice the
sidebar: Building Strong Digestion.


Building Strong Digestion

Exercise in the morning before eating

Chew food well

Never eat while tired or upset

Happy, positive thoughts while eating

Never eat too late at night– give the digestion a good rest each night

Eat slowly

Never overeat–always undereat slightly

Take a walk after dinner

Never combine sweet fruits and cooked protein

Get a variety of flavors at each meal

Eat whole food, reduce refined foods

Take your bitters!

Good Elimination

Don’t eat too early in the morning or too late at night

Take time for a mid-day “movement”

Keep your feet up on a small stool during elimination

Drink enough water (at least 4 glasses a day)

Eat a raw salad every day with a variety of vegetables

Walk every day and breathe deeply

Use bowel tonic herbs where needed

Try an intestinal cleansing program once a year, with liver flushes

Take your bitters!

Many herbalists and naturally-oriented health practioners feel that good
digestion and elimination are the foundations of good physical health.

I try to go to Euorope every year. When I’m traveling there, I can’t help
but notice how healthy, vital and slender many people seem. Overweight is
not the problem it is here in America. In Germany, there are 20 million
doses of bitters taken every day. The Italians and Swiss are also famous
bitter-takers. Of course, every race or country has their own common health
imbalances, but in Germany, there is not nearly the digestive problems that
we have here.

Let’s look at a few ways the digestion can become underactive or not function
properly. First of all, what symptoms are usually experienced when the digestion
is not working properly? Usual symptoms are constipation, gas, bloating,
aches and pains in the digestive area and diarrhea. But it can go beyond
these “first-line” symptoms. When our digestion is not at optimum
potential, our energy suffers, and we feel really tired; also, we may have
aches or pains because of metabolic by-products that are not being properly
eliminated. We might experience symptoms of allergy, such as diarrhea or
fatigue because of undigested proteins that can become allergens to us.
Also, when our assimilation of nutrients is not good, especially if this
goes on for more than a few months or even years, our immune system can
suffer drastically. We may be more open to a variety of viral and other
diseases, such as chronic fatigue syndrome or candidiasis. Thus, it becomes
apparent that our digestion really is the foundation of health.

What can be done with herbs to make sure our digestion is operating at maximum
efficiency? Foremost among herbal treatments for digestion are the bitters.
What do bitters actually do? As soon as the bitter flavor hits our tongue
and activates the bitter sensors, a signal is sent out to the entire digestive
tract. This may be a mechanism that was created in our natures many thousands
of years ago as we picked wild bitter greens and ate them. It was a signal,
telling our digestive tract that food was coming, so it better start preparing.
This signal, then, increases the tone and strength of peristaltic waves
(the regular movements of the digestive tract to mix the food with digestive
juices and keep the resulting wastes moving to be eventually eliminated.)
In addition, the production of all the digestive juices, such as hydrochloric
acid and bile are stepped up. Exciting new studies show that bitters can
even activate immune function through sensors in the small intestine! Thus,
overall digestion and elimination can be greatly improved. For people wanting
to lose weight, it will be interesting to note that regular use of bitters
can help increase the metabolism and enhance elimination. They can really
play an important role in a weight-loss program.

One way to get our bitters is to eat bitter greens, such as kale, mustard
greens, collards or endive. Wild greens such as dandelion greens, plantain,
dock, mallow or sow thistle are even better. However, if you live in a place
where it is difficult to pick your own wild greens, eat at least one serving
of green leafy vegetables a day. This will help but still may not provide
for our “daily minimum requirement” of bitters, because many store-bought
greens are cultivated for a bland sweet taste.

Fortunately, there are a variety of bitter products on the shelf of the
natural food store. People ask me sometimes if they can take their bitters
in a pill form, but this is cheating. How can one really get the full benefits
of bitters if you can’t taste them? Now, they may well have some benefit
and be better than nothing if one will absolutely not have anything to do
with the flavor of bitter, but bitters in a liquid form are much superior.
Consider this axiom: “the more we react to or are disgusted by bitter,
the more we need it.” Perhaps when our digestive energy is freely flowing
and functioning normally, we will not mind our bitters.

The liquid bitter products contain a variety of herbs , but among the most
famous are gentian, artichoke leaves, centaury, aloe, barberry, dandelion,
wormwood or mugwort (or other Artemesias) and blessed thistle. Most traditional
bitter formulas also have 2 other categories of herbs added to help the
bitters work better and to help us be more receptive to them. The first
is aromatic herbs. These herbs help mask the harshness of the bitter flavor
and also function to help warm and activate the digestive juices, counteracting
any tendency of bitters to cause contraction, as is its nature if too much
straight bitter is taken at one time. Aromatic herbs that are commonly found
in bitter tonic formulas are angelica, orange peel, fennel, cardamon, caraway,
dill, nutmeg and ginger. Finally, sweet herbs are often added to help counteract
the aftertaste of the straight bitter herbs. When we think of a “bittersweet”
experience, we are not as disgusted by the thought of it as a bitter experience.
It even sounds kind of nice. As a sweetener, licorice is very often used,
but interestingly, the herb gentian, one of the most important ingredients
of bitters, is by nature bitter and sweet. Ginseng root is also bitter
and sweet and is often used in Chinese medicine to help build people up
who are recovering from illness and have weak digestion or assimilation;
or for old people whose digestion tends to be not quite as strong as when
we are younger. Sometimes laxative herbs (such as senna or aloe) are added
to a bitter formula–this type of formula can be effective during times
of constipation.

Once you become accustomed to the bitters, you may well find that you don’t
want to do without them. This may be kind of a reverse Pavlov reaction–you
will be feeling so good when you think of them, the excellent association
will improve your digestion and elimination even without tasting them.

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Written by Christopher Hobbs LAc AHG

Explore Wellness in 2021