Would you like some indigestion with that? As I scroll through food photo after food photo on Instagram, I can’t help but think that too many meal pairings are an absolute digestive nightmare. Nothing says “Hey there, sexy thing” like following up a romantic dinner with gas, bloating, belching and acid reflux. Be sure to light those candles for a nightcap of antacids like old uncle Jimbo McBurperson.
I get it: We’re not all going to live a life of perfect nutrition. A light salad of microgreens with dressing on the side isn’t going to cut it ever, let alone when festive food options are everywhere, so what can we do? Get bitter about it? Actually, yes! That’s exactly what we’re going to do. Allow me to introduce your new secret weapon for healthy digestion: digestive bitters.
What are digestive bitters?
Digestive bitters are the real deal. You can’t escape the wince-inducing power of this blend of bitter herbs, typically tinctured in alcohol and taken with a dropper or small shot. Digestive bitters are used in herbal medicine to enhance the production of digestive juices before, during or after a meal.
Most formulas include a potent bouquet of bitter herbs, each of which has its own unique and specific action in the body, which makes the combo a bit of a digestion.
From an evolutionary perspective, humans are naturally inclined to dislike anything bitter.
It’s a warning sign to keep us safe from poison. As a biological response to bitter tastes, the body increases digestive juice production as a protective mechanism to help us break down and eliminate the poison.
Most traditional diets have bitter components, but not in westernized society. We primarily enjoy two flavours: sweet and salty. Bitter, however, is where medicine lies. Some of the most bitter foods in our diet are cruciferous veggies, such as kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. If we are a little adventurous, perhaps we’ll try dandelion greens (though usually sparingly, in a salad alongside candied nuts to offset the bitter taste).
As I mentioned, our digestive system is programmed to respond to bitter tastes by increasing our production of juices that aid in the digestive process. Taking antacids is actually counterproductive to addressing the root of indigestion. We don’t need less stomach acid when we’re burping and belching away; we need more to break down that heavy steak and get it to the next stage of digestion. (Psst: Phytoplankton can also help also improve digestion.)
You’re really not going to like me for this, but you have to take bitters straight up.
Ideally, you take a dropper or a capful of bitters 20 minutes before a meal and let that bitterness sit in your mouth for a moment before swallowing. You need to taste the bitterness in order for it to work. Though taking bitters before a meal is optimal, you can take them anytime during or after a meal. You’ll find a few different digestive bitter formulas in health food stores, traditional grocers and pharmacies. Josh Gitalis, a Canadian functional medicine practitioner based in Toronto, sells my preferred blend on his website (joshgitalis.com). Because this falls into the supplement realm, it’s always best to check with your natural healthcare practitioner for any contraindications—specifically, if you have a history of stomach ulcers or gastritis or take antacid medications. Determining whether it’s safe to take bitters during pregnancy and breastfeeding depends on the herbs used in the blend, so be sure to check with your primary care team.
Your bitters glossary
- Gentian: works as a stomach tonic.
- Dandelion: helps stimulate the digestive tract.
- Black walnut: known to help reduce “toots”.
- Globe artichoke: increases bile secretion to help support fat digestion.
- Turmeric: helps stimulate activity throughout the digestive tract.
- Burdock root: stimulates stomach acid production.
- Ginger: acts as a general digestive aid.
Next, try this 10-minute yoga routine for better digestion.