Bitters: The Secret to a Happy Tummy

In today’s world, digestive problems are super common. Whether it’s indigestion, heartburn, or occasional constipation, an estimated 60-70 million Americans have some kind of digestive difficulty.<1> Turns out, our ancestors knew something about how to achieve the digestive harmony we’ve forgotten. What’s their secret? Bitters!

What are bitters?

Bitters are alcohol-based extracts of the flowers, leaves, bark, and roots of bitter-tasting plants. You may think of them as an essential ingredient to a good cocktail, but they’ve been used medicinally for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found traces of bitters on Egyptian pottery, and Romans infused wine with bitter herbs specifically because they noticed bitters helped with digestion.* A nineteenth-century American recipe that was sold as a stomach remedy became the basis of bitters used in cocktails to this day.<2>

How do bitters work?

Bitters stimulate the bitter receptors on the back of the tongue, which causes a cascade of reactions:
  1. Digestive juices flow from the exocrine glands in the mouth, stomach, pancreas, and intestines.*
  2. The liver and gallbladder are prompted to produce and release bile.*
  3. Bile helps the body break down fat, lessens feelings of fullness and gas, and keeps you regular.*

Meet the bitter herbs

Over the centuries, different cultures have discovered dozens of bitter herbs that are helpful for easing digestion.* Here are some of the most well-known: Gentian You can’t get more classically bitter than gentian. This European herb has been called “the most popular of all gastric stimulants” with good reason.<3> It is widely used to help alleviate occasional indigestion, heartburn, and nausea.* Angelica A common garden plant in Britain, angelica does double duty in a bitters formula. It is a classic bitter herb, so it prepares the body for digestion.* But it also has a distinctive flavoring, which is why so many mixologists are fond of the herb. Artichoke leaf Artichoke leaf is another herb you’ll commonly see in bitters formulas. You probably know artichoke as a food—in fact, one of the oldest veggies in the world!—but its leaves have traditionally been used as a bitter digestive tonic.* Dandelion Those annoying weeds detracting from your lawn are actually good for something: your tummy! As anyone who has ever sampled dandelion leaves knows, they are mildly bitter. Bonus: they also support normal water balance.* Yarrow Native to Europe and Asia, yarrow is found in mild climates across the globe. Many people know yarrow for its support of upper respiratory health, but this mildly bitter herb also gets the digestive juices flowing.*

Meet the aromatic herbs

Typically, bitter formulas also contain aromatic herbs to help soften the flavor. These aromatic herbs usually have digestion-enhancing qualities of their own. For example, in addition to being aromatics, fennel, cardamom, and cinnamon are also carminatives, which means they work by warming up the digestive tract.* This helps you digest your food more quickly and completely and reduces occasional gas.*

Get your bitter on

Carrying on the time-honored tradition of using herbs to aid digestion, Flora offers two formulas. For those who are new to bitters, Gallexier Herbal Bitters is a mild formula that features bitters such as artichoke, dandelion, gentian, fennel, and yarrow, as well as aromatics like fennel and cardamom. It is the perfect accompaniment for a heavy meal.* For more advanced support, try Maria’s Swedish Bitters (also available without alcohol) This formula was developed by Austrian herbalist Maria Treben and features herbs traditionally used to reduce gas and bloating and support healthy digestion, including the bitter herb angelica, plus the aromatic herbs cinnamon and cardamom.* References <1> Digestive disease statistics for the United States. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease. NIH. 2014 Nov. <2> 4 historical bits about bitters. Berkeley Wellness. 2017 Apr 4. <3> Wren RC. (1985). Potter’s New Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs & Preparations. Essex, England: The C.W. Daniel Company Limited. *These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not meant to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent any disease.