Bitters

What are “Bitters”?

Bitters are a class of plants and herbs that taste bitter.  We have bitter receptors through our digestive tract – the mouth, pancreas, liver, ear, nose, throat, brain and genitals all have bitter receptors.

Herbs for Bitters Star Anise, Ginger and Cinnamon
Herbs for Bitters

Most poisons are actually bitter, so we need to be very alert to the bitter flavor / compound.  When we have bitters our digestive system response increases, our gut motility moves through better, increasing stomach acid (which is part of our immune system and helps break down food into the smallest components that won’t activate our immune system in improper ways).  They also help to stabilize blood pressure, increase detoxification, help the gallbladder which in turn helps to digest fat.

Our daily diet should include dark leafy greens like kale, arugula, and dandelion leaves.  Orange zest, chamomile and dandelion root tea.  Add a variety of these components to your diet every day.

The Swedes are famous for their bitters and you can find bitter tinctures in all Swedish Pharmacies.  Swedish Bitters are herbal remedies that has been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments. The recipe for Swedish Bitters was first developed in the 16th century by Swedish physician Dr. Claus Samst, who was a professor of medicine at the University of Lund. The recipe was passed down through generations and eventually became a popular remedy for digestive issues, skin problems, and other ailments.

Indications: Taking a bitter tincture stimulates the body’s digestive system thereby assisting with the elimination of waste products and the results of poor digestion such as: Headaches. Nausea. Indigestion. Constipation. Swedish Bitters are also believed to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and detoxifying effects. Additionally, they are thought to improve circulation, reduce bloating, and help with weight loss. Additionally, Swedish Bitters are thought to help with liver and gallbladder function, reduce bloating, and improve circulation

The word “aperitif” comes from the Latin “apertivus” derived from “aperire” which means “to open”, therefore to whet the appetite.

What is a Bitter Tonic or Tincture?

Digestive Bitters are a combination of bitter or astringent herbs and spices steeped in some type of alcohol. This creates a herbal tincture.

Taking this tincture before you eat will trigger your digestive system to produce more saliva and gastric juices to aid digestion.  A 1/4 teaspoon or less is sufficient to aid digestion, if you don’t like the idea of taking this tincture as it is, you can mix it in a small glass of water and drink that.

Why Take Digestive Bitters?

As we get older, our digestive enzymes start to reduce and this can start as early as our 20s.  This reduction in digestive enzymes means that we won’t absorb all the nutrients from the food we eat.  Have you ever noticed that you suffer from indigestion?   If you are a regular sufferer, you will find that taking a bitter tincture before a meal will help.  Bitters also help us with motility which is directly related to stomach emptying and ensure good throughput for waste elimination from our bodies. You can read more about constipation here.

What Ingredients Can I Use to Make a Digestive Bitter?

There are a variety of different herbs you can use to make bitters.  Here are a list of common ingredients:

Common bittering agents (bitter plants for infusing):

  1. artichoke leaves– liver protectant, liver cell regenerator
  2. dandelion root– antioxidant, tonifies liver, anti-inflammatory
  3. dandelion leaf– digestive aid
  4. Burdock root– detoxifies the blood
  5. gentian root– tonifies liver, digestive aid, promotes gut health, cancer fighting compounds
  6. citrus peel – rich in flavonoids, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory
  7. yarrow – anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory, reduces flatulence
  8. chamomile– anti- inflammatory, digestive aid, calms body and mind
  9. mugwort– anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, digestive aid
  10. sarsaparilla – anti-inflammatory, helps overall liver function
  11. wild cherry bark – boosts immunity
  12. licorice root – anti-inflammatory, soothes digestive tissues, immune tonic
  13. cinchona bark -digestive aid
  14. Rhubarb Root – anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory
  15. Saffron – antioxidant, treat depressive symptoms, anti-spasmodic
  16. Angelica root – sooth heartburn, gas bloating, circulatory, insomnia
  17. Myrrh – anti-inflammatory, pain relief
  18. Senna leaves – constipation relief

What is the best liquid to use to make Bitters?

The best liquid is alcohol, so something like vodka is a great alcohol to use when making digestive bitters because it is colourless and tasteless. You can use vinegar, such as apple cider or white vinegar.

Can Anyone Take Digestive Bitters?

It is important to not that herbs are powerful ingredients and have a number of therapeutic effects.

It is recommended that digestive bitters are NOT taken by pregnant women or nursing mothers. 

If you are immune compromised or have another medical condition, then always speak to a health professional to find out if there are any contraindications to the ingredients.

Equipment

  • 1 Large Jar with lid 500ml / ½ Liter
  • 1 Fine mesh strainer
  • 1 Measuring jug or cups

Ingredients

Autumn/Winter Digestive Bitter recipe
  • 2 tbsp Angelica root
  • 1 tbsp Ginger root (You can replace with  1 teaspoon ground ginger or a 1 inch piece of fresh ginger)
  • 1 tbsp Dandelion root
  • 1 3 inch Ceylon cinnamon stick (You can replace with a 1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon)
  • 1 Star anise (You can replace with 1/4 teaspoon anise seeds)
  • 1 tsp Dried orange zest (You can replace with a quarter to a half of the peel of an orange with the pith intact, you can also use other citrus peel)
  • 400ml of Vodka (or apple cider or white vinegar)
Digestive Bitters for Spring and Summer
  • 2 tbsp Angelica root
  • 1 tbsp Dandelion root
  • 1 tsp Fennel seed
  • 1 tsp Fresh mint, minced (You can replace with 1/2 teaspoon dried mint)
  • 1 sprig Fresh rosemary (Tbsp dried)
  • 1 tsp Dried lemon zest (You can replace with a quarter to a half of the peel of an orange with the pith intact, you can also use other citrus peel)
  • 400ml Vodka (or apple cider or white vinegar)

Instructions

  1. Add the ingredients to your jar and fill the jar with vodka up to about 2 cms/1 inch  from the top of the jar.
  2. Fit the lid and make sure it is secure then shake it a few times.
  3. Put in a cool, dark place, such as in a cupboard.
  4. Shake the jar every day for about 3-4 weeks.  The longer you leave it the more it will extract.
  5. After it has steeped for (at least 3) 4 weeks, strain the liquid using the fine mesh strainer.  You can also use a cheesecloth but you will need to leave it hanging and allow to drip through.
  6. The liquid is now your digestive bitter.  Ideally keep it in an amber coloured jar somewhere cool.
  7. If you store in a dark cupboard or refrigerator, they will keep for about 1 year.
  8. To use the digestive bitter either take a 1/4 teaspoon and place it onto your tongue or mix with a small amount of water and drink it.  
  9. It can be used either before a meal (ideal) or if you don’t like the idea of taking it every meal, it can be used if you have indigestion.

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