Bitter herbs and bitter tinctures offer wonderful health benefits. Using bitters for health, we can improve our digestion, find relief from gas and bloating, end sugar cravings, and even improve skin conditions like eczema and acne. But most importantly, using the gut-brain connection, bitters can improve our mood and offer relief from chronic stress. I will share my favorite homemade bitter tincture recipe and show you how to make a bitter tincture.
What are Bitters?
The bitter taste is not well appreciated, and the very word “bitter” is often used to describe painful or unpleasant experiences. Yet bitter is a flavor with a long history of use as a healing and strengthening tonic, and is used in cultures worldwide to improve digestion and cleanse the body.
Bitters act primarily on the digestive system by increasing secretions that help with the breakdown, digestion, and absorption of food and nutrients.
But just as significantly, bitters have an effect on our nervous system that can offer profound benefits.
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Bitters – The Link Between the Digestive System and the Nervous System
Chronic stress has a way of wearing down the body. A significant consequence of chronic stress is the affect stress has on our digestive system. Without a healthy digestive system, our bodies cannot properly break down and absorb the food and nutrients we are eating on a daily basis.
How does chronic stress interfere with healthy digestion?
When we sense danger, either perceived or real, our sympathetic nervous system takes over, preparing our body for “fight or flight”. This response results in a cascade of events, one of which is to send more blood flow to the heart, lungs, and large muscles of the body to help us fight or flee the danger.
When we suffer from chronic stress, our body’s response is to shut down or delay the digestive process as we live in a constant state of preparing for fight or flight. This can lead to many temporary and long-term health issues including:
- Malabsorption and malnutrition
- Skin issues like eczema and acne
- Autoimmune disorders
These long-term physical effects on the body can be devastating.
Bitter Herbs for Health
Using bitters, we can reverse this situation, allowing us to properly receive the nourishment we need from the foods we eat and improve our elimination of wastes with good bowel movements.
The bitter taste on the tongue causes a signal to be sent by the vagus nerve to stimulate the digestive organs. Bitters cause an increase in the digestive secretions – saliva, bile production, digestive enzymes, and insulin from the pancreas. This starts the digestive process, enabling the body to function efficiently at breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and eliminating waste.
Equally valuable to supporting the function of the digestive system, bitters stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system response, allowing us to recover from stress, relax, and digest. This response relieves our stress-related symptoms.
Bitters not only stimulate the digestive process, but activate the parasympathetic response, allowing the body to rest and digest.
How to Use Bitters
What are some ways we can re-introduce bitter foods into our daily lives, and what are the best sources for bitters?
If bitter foods are not currently a part of your diet, start with small “doses” of bitter-tasting foods. Not only do the bitter greens stimulate healthy digestion and the calming parasympathetic response, they provide us with a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
When making a salad, add a small amount of the more bitter greens, some of which can be found right in your own backyard, such as good old dandelion leaves. At the grocery store, try some of the arugula, watercress, endive, radicchio, and mustard greens. You can use them to top sandwiches or garnish your pasta dishes. If you find them difficult to consume, start with small amounts mixed with your usual salad greens.
Bitters and Sugar Cravings
In addition to stimulating a healthy digestive process and promoting the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response, bitters might help with our rampant sugar cravings. As herbalist jim mcdonald writes;
“…bitters also seem to be very useful when addressing cravings, particularly of sweets. I believe the craving our minds feel for sweets is literally the craving our bodies have for bitters. In their natural form, most sweet flavors are associated with some degree of bitterness (sweet foods and herbs such as pure sugarcane, licorice root, and stevia all possess some bitterness). Any bitter flavor, though, is removed entirely when sugars are refined. Our bodies evolved with this association and they still remember it; hence, sweet cravings are a way our bodies have of asking us for bitters, and they can often be sated by tasting things that are bitter.”
Starting your meals with the bitter foods gives you the biggest benefit, since you will be receiving digestive stimulation, calming the stress response, and receiving significant nutrition from your greens.
But bitters can be consumed as medicine as well, especially in the form of tinctures. Typically taken before a meal, a few drops at a time, tinctures offer the same digestive and parasympathetic stimulation as the bitter greens.
How to Make a Bitter Tincture
Tinctures are a great way to preserve herbal properties, are an easy way to use herbal remedies, and tinctures have a very long shelf life (years). Most often tinctures are made with dried plant material in alcohol, but tinctures can also be made using vegetable glycerine in place of the alcohol. The glycerine-based tinctures are sweeter and have a shorter shelf-life. See the Herbal Academy’s Blog for instructions on How to Make Herbal Glycerites.
Making a bitter tincture is actually quite easy once you have your ingredients.
Here is the basic process for making a tincture:
- Using a pint-sized jar, fill your jar 1/2 to 2/3 full. When working with dried roots, it is better to only fill the jar 1/2 full since the roots will swell significantly as they take up the alcohol.
- Add enough alcohol to fill the jar and cover your herbs completely. Put the top on the jar and give a shake to help settle the herbs. Add more alcohol if needed to cover all the herbs.
- I like to use these plastic canning jar lids to prevent corrosion of the metal lids from the alcohol.
- Label and date your tincture and let it sit four-to-six weeks.
- Strain the herbs using a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth and bottle your tincture.
Homemade Bitter Tincture Recipe
There are a variety of bitter herbs to choose from, some more strongly bitter than others. Two of my favorite ingredients are herbs I am able to wild-craft from my yard and neighboring fields – dandelion root and burdock root. If you are digging your own roots, be sure the area you collect from has not been sprayed with chemicals.
You can also purchase organic dried dandelion and burdock root online.
- Using a pint-sized jar, fill your jar 1/2 to 2/3 full with equal parts dried dandelion and burdock root
- Add two cinnamon sticks
- Add 1 teaspoon dried fennel seeds (optional)
- Add 1/2 teaspoon milk thistle seeds (optional)
- Cover with 80-proof alcohol, put the lid on and give it a gentle shake. Add more alcohol if needed to cover the dried roots.
- Label and date. You will want to check on it the next day – often the roots will absorb so much of the alcohol you will need to add a little more to keep everything completely covered.
- Allow to sit for 4-6 weeks.
- Strain off the plant material and reserve your alcohol.
I purchased a 12 pack of 4-ounce amber tincture bottles, and these tiny funnels for filling them. Having a dropper bottle makes taking the tincture much easier, and I can wash and reuse the bottles as needed.
For this bitter recipe, I added milk thistle which I had collected from several plants (liver health), fennel seeds (flavor and digestive aid), and cinnamon (flavor and warmth). All of these are optional ingredients – it is the bitter dandelion and burdock root which offer the most benefits.
I hope you enjoy the benefits of bitter herbs.
Let me know if you have questions.
If you want to learn more about the amazing benefits of herbal remedies the herbal academy offers rich and beautiful online courses for all levels. Each of their courses offers detailed information on the body systems, herbal remedies, and recipes.
I’ve recently been mixing my own bitter mixes. I chose the herbs including the intention to balance the cooling and heating herbs. When I realised I could not add bitter orange, due to the blood pressure raising aspects of it, I instead doubled the dose of ginger tincture. The bitters I’ve now made have a very overpowering ginger taste and sort of burn. I am wondering if this is ok or will it be burning the tissues in the oesophagus. I have taken bitters for years and benefittedfrom them enormously. I understand its important to take neat. Although the bitters I usually take do have ginger in there, its not that strong. In my better mix I had one part of several herbs. I had two parts Angelica and two parts ginger. So I suppose I’m really asking, is it safe to take ginger tincture neat? Is it safe to take a bitter mix neat with a strong ginger component? Thanks so much
Seeking Joyful Simplicity says
All of my herbal teachers suggest it is okay to take tinctures in a small amount of water. Of course, the undiluted alcohol tincture directly on or under the tongue speeds the absorption. I wonder if you can’t combine your ginger tincture with another or several other tinctures, to dilute it? And that way you would be adding the warming property of the ginger to the other tinctures. Personally, I started with simples – single herbal extracts so I could feel how I responded to each one. Later, I started combining my tinctures. Is it safe to take the strong ginger tincture? Not sure. The gingerols in ginger have a similar structure to the capsaicin found in hot peppers – which can burn the tissues. So I guess I would use with caution. I hope I answered your question. And let me know how it goes!
Thank you so much!
What is the dosage for adults and children to take? Thank you for the recipe and information.
Seeking Joyful Simplicity says
Recommended doses vary depending on the herbs you use, but 1 full dropper of tincture mixed with a little water is a common dosage for digestive bitters. Take about 20 minutes before eating. Dosages for children – the Herbal Academy has some tips for using bitter herbs with children https://theherbalacademy.com/how-to-use-bitter-herbs-with-children/
Thank you so much!
This may be a really dumb question, but do you have to swallow the tincture in order for it to work? I just bought a bottle of swedish bitters and I think I’m reacting to the dandelion ingredient. I have ibs and dandelion is considered high in fodmaps. I have no idea whether or not the other ingredients are safe, there are too many. The tincture is without a doubt helping with lower intestinal gas/bloat/pain. In fact those symptoms are gone altogether, but now I am experiencing burping & silent acid reflux.
My skin seems better & acne cleared. The bottle directions said to take 1 tsp before each meal which gave me diarrhea. So I’ve bumped it down to 7-10 drops. I now have upper body swelling, less burping.
Anyway, back to my question: do I HAVE to swallow these bitters to get the benefits? Or can I gargle & swish to get the bitter taste all over my mouth/tongue before spitting it out, and still reap the benefits? I dont want to give up just yet.
Seeking Joyful Simplicity says
This is actually a really interesting question! I think your instinct is right – you can still benefit from the bitters without having to ingest them. Give it a try and follow and see how your body responds.
When I first started consistently using bitter tinctures, I noticed my stools became much looser, but only for about a week. Of course it’s different for everyone, and with IBS you really have to listen to your body.
Herbalist Rosalee (writer for Learning Herbs) has some great recipe ideas for bitters – just search her site for “bitters” https://www.herbalremediesadvice.org/digestive-bitters.html
Let me know how things go for you Amber!
Hi, I’m new to making bitters and am prepping my first with grapefruit and dried flowers and herbs….I have Everclear, 190 poof, and am wondering if I should dilute it with filtered water at the start of making it or at the end of the mascerating period?
Seeking Joyful Simplicity says
I have never used Everclear for making my tinctures – only vodka or brandy. Mountain Rose Herbs has an article with information on using different alcohol strengths – https://blog.mountainroseherbs.com/guide-tinctures-extracts#4.
I hope it turns out great!