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Bitter spirits and aromatics, made from bitter-tasting roots, herbs, bark or flowers, are prominent in trendy cocktails and booze-free mocktails. But that’s not how it started: bitters have been an important part of our diet (and traditional medicine) long before they hit the happy hour circuit.
Bitter is one of the seven basic flavors identified by the tastebuds. And while it was once thought only the tongue has bitter flavor receptors, it’s now known those receptors are prominent throughout the digestive system and in other organs and systems, including the pancreas, kidneys, liver and immune system.
In ancient times, bitter flavors were common; back then, our ancestors weren’t so picky—they ate what they could get. But as agricultural systems evolved and more foods were readily available, bitter flavors slowly disappeared; because bitterness often signals toxic compounds, we’re genetically programmed to regard them with wariness. Now, they’re rare in modern cuisine, where sugar and salt predominate—and the most common bitter foods in our diet, coffee and chocolate, are usually sweetened.
But they’re important: bitter flavors prime the digestive tract for action, prompting the production of stomach acids and enzymes, and encouraging movement of food through the stomach and intestines. And beyond your belly, certain bitter herbs can reduce cravings, balance blood sugar, regulate inflammation and support your liver. Five benefits of bitters (plus a super-simple recipe for a DIY digestive blend).
They amp up digestion
Bitter herbs like dandelion, gentian root and angelica—traditionally use to improve digestion, relieve gas and bloating—work by triggering receptors in the digestive tract, stimulating stomach acids and enzymes needed to break down food. Astringent flavors also stimulate peristalsis—the wavelike motion of the digestive system that moves food through the intestinal tract. Some, like andrographis, also support beneficial gut bacteria and promote microbiome balance. And by amping up digestive juices and improving gut health, bitter flavors also enhance nutrient absorption.
They curb cravings
In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, bitters have long been used to reduce sugar cravings and regulate appetite (maybe in part because bitter-tasting plants, roots and herbs are often toxic). Modern research shows bitter flavors inhibit sweet-responsive neurons in the brain, block the response to sweet taste and shutting down the desire for sugar. And when bitter taste receptors in the digestive system are stimulated, they trigger the release of hormones involved in hunger and appetite, and some studies suggest taking bitter herbs an hour before meals can significantly decrease the number of calories consumed, while also improving levels of hormones that enhance digestion.
They balance blood sugar
Foods and herbs like bitter melon and Chinese rhubarb have been used for thousands of years to regulate blood sugar. By curbing sugar cravings, bitter herbs help decrease the intake of sweets, naturally supporting blood sugar levels. Also, the pancreas—responsible for producing insulin, the hormone that regulates blood glucose levels—contains bitter taste receptors that regulate hormones involved in metabolic processes, like insulin. When these are activated, they trigger the release of insulin, and research suggests bitter flavors improve glucose balance and may reduce the risk of diabetes.
They support liver health
Foods and herbs like burdock root, dandelion and artichoke leaves are traditionally used to enhance liver health and promote detoxification. Bitter flavors support the liver in its two most important functions: they trigger the production of bile, a digestive compound that breaks down fats and improves nutrient absorption, and boost the liver’s detoxification efforts. Like other parts of the digestive system, the liver contains bitter taste receptors that, when activated, trigger metabolic hormones, and studies suggest these flavors can decrease liver lipid accumulation, a factor in fatty liver disease.
They cool inflammation
In traditional Chinese medicine, bitters are thought to have a cooling quality, removing heat—what we know as inflammation—from the body. Research shows bitter herbs like berberine, the Chinese herb ku dou zi and naringenin (the bitter compound in grapefruit) modulate inflammatory chemicals and reduce inflammation; berberine in particular has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities, both preventing inflammation and repairing damage. Other bitter herbs, like burdock, have been shown to decrease C-reactive protein and other markers of inflammation while improving antioxidant status in people with osteoarthritis.
DIY Belly Bitters Recipe
Makes about 1 pint
This easy-to-make digestive bitters blend uses traditional gut-supportive herbs. Be sure to use the dried versions; you’ll find them at most large natural foods stores or herbal markets, or online. For flavor, add about a teaspoon of dried orange peel or a sprig of rosemary. To use, take 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon 15 minutes before meals, or add to sparkling water for a post-dinner digestive aperitif.
1/4 cup dried dandelion root
1/4 cup dried burdock root
3 tablespoons dried angelica root
3 tablespoons dried gentian root
2 tablespoons dried ginger root
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
About 16 ounces vodka
- Combine dandelion, burdock, angelica, gentian, ginger and fennel in a pint-sized glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add vodka, leaving about half an inch of room at the top. Screw on the lid and shake vigorously.
- Store in a cool, dark place for 4 weeks, shaking mixture daily to help extract the herbs’ beneficial compounds.
- To use, line a fine-mesh strainer with cheesecloth and set over a glass bowl. Pour the mixture through the cheesecloth, squeezing firmly to extract as much liquid as possible (or use a nut-milk bag). Transfer to a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and store in a cool location away from direct sunlight.
Read on for more gut- and liver-health improving articles: