Bitters is — as the name implies — an infusion that’s created from predominantly bitter ingredients. These ingredients comprise aromatics and botanicals that can include any combination of herbs, roots, bark, fruit, seeds, or flowers.
If you’ve visited a cocktail lounge lately, you’ve probably noticed additions like Angostura bitters on the mixed drink menu. But you can find bitters everywhere from the bar to the medicine cabinet.
While bitters are a trendy craft cocktail component, that’s not what they first started as. And it’s certainly not all that they are.
This apothecary staple was first marketed in the 1700s as a remedy for common ailments such as digestion irregularities. Medicinal herbs and botanicals were preserved in alcohol and touted as a cure-all.
Throughout the next few centuries, bitters would be used for everything from a stimulant for the troops in the 1800s to a proposed treatment for malaria before making their way to the modern happy hour menu.
Now, with emerging science to back up the benefits, bitters have once again gained popularity for aiding digestive health, curbing sugar cravings, boosting the immune system, and even easing stress.
This guide will review exactly how bitter ingredients affect our health, who can benefit from bitters, and how to make them at home.
How is simply eating something bitter-tasting better for your health?
Scientists label bitter as one of the seven basic tastes.
Our body contains tons of receptors (T2Rs) for bitter compounds in not only our mouth and tongue, but our stomach, gut, liver, and pancreas.
This is mostly for protective reasons. Our bitter receptors are built as a “warning” to our body, as most dangerous and poisonous things are highly bitter tasting.
The stimulation of these bitter receptors promotes healthy digestion by increasing digestive secretions. This leads to better absorption of nutrients, natural detoxification of the liver, and — thanks to the gut-brain connection — bitters can even have a positive effect on stress.
But remember, bitters are not a primary treatment. Think of them as a health boost to help the body run more smoothly — from kick-starting the digestive tract to boosting the immune system. They shouldn’t replace any treatment a doctor has prescribed.
Digestion and gut benefits
When your digestion needs a little support, bitters can facilitate stomach acid and act as a digestive aid.
This can not only ease indigestion, but also heartburn, nausea, cramping, bloating, and gas.
Immune and inflammation benefits
Burdock is an inflammation fighter that has been shown to have positive effects in people with osteoarthritis.
The anti-inflammatory compounds in these ingredients have powerful antioxidant effects to protect the body from autoimmune diseases.
Sugar and appetite control benefits
Curb sugar cravings quickly with the help of bitters, which help counter the brain receptor that drive us to consume sweets.
Liver health benefits
Certain bittering agents help support the liver at fulfilling its main job: removing toxins from the body and regulating our metabolic processes.
Bitters give the liver a boost by aiding in the elimination of toxins and detoxification, coordinating the metabolism of sugar and fats, and helping release gallbladder-supporting hormones like cholecystokinin (CCK).
Bitters can also have a positive effect on blood sugar levels, healthy skin, and stress.
- Dandelion root is a powerful antioxidant that can reduce inflammation.
- Artichoke leaf contains the flavonoid silymarinTrusted Source, a powerful liver protectant, and has been shown to help liver cells regenerate (in mice).
- Chicory root aids in digestion and bowel function and can help regulate blood sugar.
- Gentian root contains cancer-fighting compounds and is used to relieve indigestion, loss of appetite, and heartburn.
- Wormwood aids in overall digestion and can help increase appetite.
- Licorice root is anti-inflammatory, boosts the immune system, and can soothe digestive issues.
- Wild cherry bark boosts the immune system and is shown to have an anti-proliferative effect on colon cancer cells.
- Burdock root is an antioxidant powerhouse that detoxes the blood and helps remove toxins.
- Black walnut leaf contains tannins which aid in inflammation and is considered beneficial to skin health.
- Devil’s club root is used as a treatment for respiratory, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal issues.
- Angelica root is used for heartburn, intestinal gas, loss of appetite, and improved circulation.
- Sarsaparilla can improve overall liver function (as shown in rats) and has positive effects on certain skin conditions and arthritis due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
Other bittering agents may include:
- Oregon grape root
- orris root
- calamus root
- barberry root
- cinchona bark
- quassia bark
Here are some aromatics typically used to make bitters:
- Herbs and flowers: mint, sage, lemongrass, peppermint, sorrel, lavender, chamomile, hibiscus, passionflower, yarrow, rose, milk thistle, and valerian
- Spices: cinnamon, cassia, turmeric, cloves, cardamom, chiles, fennel, ginger, nutmeg, juniper berries, star anise, vanilla beans, and peppercorns
- Fruit: citrus peels and dried fruit
- Nuts and beans: nuts, coffee beans, cocoa beans, and cocoa nibs
You only need a few drops
Bitters are very potent, and dosing and frequency will vary on what you’re using them for. But often a few drops will do.
You can take them internally either by placing a few drops from a tincture on the tongue or diluting with another liquid, such as sparkling water or in cocktails.
When you take it might matter though: If your goal of using bitters is to ease digestive issues, consumption should occur either directly before or after meals.
How often you take them differs for everyone. While you can use bitters at low doses as part of your daily routine, you may find that bitters help you when used as needed.
In the beginning, it’s best to start with small doses of bitters before assessing its effectiveness and your body’s reaction.
Before you make your own, learn the basics
Bitters contain two things: bitter ingredients and a carrier, which is typically alcohol (although we’ll also review nonalcoholic bitters further below). Aromatics and spices may also be added to bitters.
Spices, botanicals, and herbs are added as flavoring agents but in some cases they also provide additional benefits (i.e. lavender in a stress-relief bitters).
You can eat your bitters too
While bitters aren’t the magical cure-all they were once marketed as, they certainly have their benefits.
If waiting and making your own bitters doesn’t sound like your ideal way to spend time, you can also gain similar benefits by simply eating bitter foods.
The benefit of bitters can be found in these foods:
- bitter melon
- dandelion greens
- Brussels sprouts
- dark chocolate