Bitters are herbs that have a predominantly bitter taste. 

How Bitters Work

In most herbal bitters there is a chemical principle that is present called “The Bitter Principle”. This is often a volatile oil, an alkaloid or sesquiterpene. In each case they appear to work in a similar way by triggering a sensory response in the mouth. The sensation of bitterness is directed by the nerves to the central nervous system. From here a message goes to the gut giving rise to the digestive hormone gastrin. These leads to a whole range of ramifications, all of value to the digestive process and general bodily health.

Bitters stimulate the flow of digestive juices from the pancreas, duodenum and liver. This aids a great range of problems that have their basis in digestive weakness. Bitters aid the liver in it’s work of detoxification and increase the flow of bile, and has a regulatory effect upon the secretion by the pancreas of the hormones that regulate blood sugar, insulin & glucagon

A holistic perspective of Bitters

The traditional medicine concept of tonic herbs is different than that of most American and European herbal treatments. In western herbalism, the term tonic, which implies an agent the nurtures and strengthens the body, is usually given to cold bitter herbs like gentian or golden seal. These are thought to increase vitality by stimulating digestion. By increasing nutrition the herbs are thought to strengthen the body and its organs, while at the same time giving proper tone to muscles and tissues. This herbal action is said to increase the elimination of toxins, waste products, and to purify the blood. Tonic herbs are thus prescribed for any convalescent or run-down patient.

In traditional medicine, the use of bitters is not always appropriate or helpful. Bitter taste is the coldest, most drying, most depletive and reductive of tastes. It is not tonic in the sense of being nutritive – promoting tissue growth or building up the body. Its effect are of a catabolic or reducing nature, detoxifying, promoting the depletion or elimination of tissue, while depressing or sedating most of the organic functions of the body.

Its proper use is more in reducing toxins and excesses, not in building up deficiencies. Bitter herbs are part of a purification, sedation, heat dispelling or reducing therapy.

Bitter herbs stimulate digestion, but only in small amounts, and mainly for patients suffering from heat, fever or high Pitta conditions. They are not often prescribed for the chronically weak or emaciated. Higher dosage is thought to depress digestion, weaken assimilation and derange peristalsis.

Bitter herbs dry up the tissues and vital fluids and may cause rigidity of the muscles or even muscle spasm, rather than promote proper tone of muscles, organs and tissues. Under many conditions bitter herbs will have a reducing effect.

While modern herbalism prescribes these herbs for convalescence and debility, traditional medicine regards them as unhelpful in such conditions. Many cases of convalescence are Vata in nature – cold, dry and tissue depleted. They require a warming, moistening and nutritive therapy. Bitter herbs are of Vata nature and may be useful as tonics for conditions of debility caused by excess Pitta or Kapha, such as in febrile diseases or an overdose of toxins from heavy meat-eating, drinking of alcohol and so on. Modern vegetarians, particularly those of Vata constitution, would be weakened by over use of bitter herbs as tonics.

Tonic herbs in traditional medicine are generally sweet in taste, nutritive, that build tissue, strengthen vitality, increase vital fluids, improve sexual energy and aid longevity. Bitter herbs can deplete vitality, depress sexual energy and promote the aging process. Although known as bitter tonics, their action should not be confused with tonics that are nutritive and rejuvenative.

Bitter tonics are very important herbal medicines. They are the strongest herbs to bring down fevers, to cleanse the body and to kill toxins. They reduce fever, Pitta, toxins and fat from the body. Fevers due to colds or the flu should be treated with diaphoretic therapy by inducing sweating to open the pores, restore circulation and dispel the chill causing it. However, when the fever is high, in the blood or in the interior of the body, when there are signs of thirst, sweating, big pulse, inflammation or infection, usually a Pitta condition or from a Chinese medicine perspective a condition of fire in the blood level or of the liver, then bitter tonic herbs are most appropriate. Bitter tonic do not merely suppress the fever but destroy the infection which causes it, catabolizing the pathogen. Bitters destroy phlegm (Ama), the toxins which have entered into the tissue and caused the fever.

In reducing heat, acidity and toxicity, they cool and detoxify the blood; they also possess an alterative or blood purifying action. They are like alterative herbs, but are a degree stronger in action. 

Bitter tonics regulate liver function, control and reduce the production of bile and acid in the body, reduce fat and weight, regulate sugar metabolism, regulate spleen function, purify the blood and have anti-tumor properties. Their strong destructive powers give them antibacterial, antiviral, anthelmintic and anti-parasitic properties. Care should be taken to use them only to the point when these pathogens are destroyed, beyond that their destructive powers will weaken the body’s own tissue.

Typical bitter tonic and antipyretic herbs include Aloe Vera, Gentian, Goldenseal, Neem. 

Bitters also have important Secondary Actions, including:

Nervines – Humuluslupulus (Hops)  &Gentianalutea (Gentian)

Antimicrobials – Hydrastiscanadensis (Goldenseal) &Berberisaquifolium (Oregon Grape)

Anti-inflammatory – Achilleamillefolium (Yarrow) & Calendula off (Calendula)

Warming – Angelica archangelica (Angelica)

Cooling – Menthapiperita (Peppermint) &Gentianalutea (Gentian)

Herbal Examples

Artemesiaabsinthium (Wormwood)

Gentianalutea (Gentian)

Achilleamillefolium (Yarrow)

Angelica archangelica (Angelica)

Berberis vulgaris (Barberry)

Hydrastiscanadensis (Goldenseal)

Matricariarecutita (Chamomile)

Taraxacum off. (Dandelion)


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