Bitter Is Better: 7 Digestive Bitters to Boost Your Gut Health

December 17, 2019

If you struggle with digestive problems, I get it. In fact, part of what led me to study naturopathic medicine was my own health journey. And that journey included a lot of gastrointestinal cramping and discomfort before I figured out how to improve my digestion.

As I’ve shared before, my digestive difficulties caused me to miss out on a lot in life—everything from experiencing nice dinners and quality time with my husband to needing to leave parties early to avoid the embarrassment of yet another digestive disaster. You see, regardless of what disorder several doctors tried to label me with, the truth is that I have low stomach acid. This means that regardless of what I ate, my gut constantly became inflamed. So, I decided to take matters into my own hands and come up with my own set of “tools” to help improve my situation. And one of those tools that I still use today to help my digestive system is digestive bitters.

So, you may be wondering, “Dr. Pingel, what are digestive bitters?” Well, the simple answer here is that digestive bitters are bitter-tasting herbs. And the way they work is fascinating! They actually cause the bitter taste receptors on your tongue to stimulate the production of digestive “juices” (known as digestive enzymes) in your gut.

I know it may sound far-fetched, but it really does work that way. In fact, researchers have now confirmed what practitioners of traditional and folk medicine have known for centuries: These bitter substances help relieve dyspepsia, or indigestion, and other gastrointestinal distress such as diarrhea and flatulence. The benefits of bitters also include anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties as well as compounds that help to improve blood flow. [1]

Adding bitters to your diet can be a great way to help improve your digestive health, but sometimes they can be an acquired taste. Don’t worry, though; I’m going to walk you through which digestive bitters best support your gut health and how to use them.


7 Digestive Bitters to Support Your Gut Health

Bitter herbs for digestion are a cosmopolitan bunch, ranging from the seriously bitter gentian, bitter melon, wormwood, horehound, and goldenseal to the milder-tasting dandelion, chicory, endive, lettuce, chamomile, yarrow, and milk thistle.

While all of these can help support healthy digestion, for this article, I’m focusing on the list of digestive bitters below. These seven herbs provide a broad range of health benefits and will give you a good starting point if you’re new to eating bitters.


  1. Gentian (Gentiana lutea)

Gentian has been used as an herbal remedy for hundreds of years. It’s known for its very bitter taste and is often used in digestive tonics. There are about 400 species of Gentiana, which typically have blue flowers (though some species have yellow or white or even red flowers) and grow in temperate and alpine areas.

Many varieties of the Gentiana genus are used in the pharmaceutical, food, alcohol, and traditional medicine industries. Several species are used to help treat a variety of ailments, including jaundice, pneumonia, pain, constipation, cough, and fever.

A scientific review of the literature found that there are many compounds that enable the medicinal benefits of so many species of gentian. The researchers also advised that more research is needed to better understand these mechanisms as well as to research other species that have not been studied as closely. [2]

Research has also revealed that the Gentiana lutea species (“yellow gentian”) of gentian may help certain skin conditions, including eczema and very dry skin. [3]


  1. Bitter melon (Momordica charantia)

Cultivated in Bangladesh, China, India, and Korea and grown in several other tropical regions, this unassuming climbing shrub is used medicinally to help treat several conditions. Bitter melon is actually a gourd and it can be prepared as part of a stir fry for a quick meal, though it is often an acquired taste.

The most common traditional medicinal use of bitter melon is for diabetes management. While more conclusive research is needed, compounds in the plant appear to help manage blood sugar levels, fat metabolism, and cholesterol. There is also some research that suggests that it may also offer cardiovascular and anticancer benefits [4, 5, 6]


  1. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

Goldenseal was used by Native Americans for a variety of ailments. It was adopted as a medicinal remedy during the United States Civil War, often in combination with other ingredients. Many of the claims about goldenseal’s ability to treat certain conditions still require further research. However, it’s often used as a digestive aid and to help treat inflammation of mucous membranes in the respiratory tract and genitourinary tract. [7, 8, 9]

Lab studies show that goldenseal contains compounds (particularly berberine) that have antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, which allow it to help relieve inflammation and infection. [10, 11]

Animal studies also show that berberine, one of the key compounds in goldenseal, may help to alleviate colitis. [12]

If you have liver or kidney problems, high blood pressure, heart disease, or you are pregnant, don’t take goldenseal. As with any supplement, check with your healthcare provider first before taking it. [13, 14]


Digestive bitters - Dr Pingel

  1. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Some initial lab studies indicate that it might be helpful in treating type 2 diabetes, but further research, particularly human clinical trials, is needed. [15]

Dandelion also has liver detoxifying and protective effects, which can help to support digestion and overall health. [16]

The whole dandelion plant is edible. For example, you can add the green leaves to a salad or steam them. Dandelion can also be taken as a tincture or as a dried powder in capsule form.


  1. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

You may have heard that chamomile can help with relaxation and sleep, but you may not know that it also has many other health benefits. Chamomile has been used for centuries in traditional medicine and modern studies now show its efficacy in helping to relieve inflammation and infection.

For digestive purposes, chamomile can help to relieve diarrhea, indigestion, and flatulence. Tinctures of chamomile used in sitz baths have also been shown to reduce the inflammation in hemorrhoids. [17]

Chamomile is most often consumed as an herbal tea, but you can consume it as a tincture or capsule. Note that it’s a member of the daisy family, so if you have ragweed allergies don’t take chamomile.


  1. Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)

Milk thistle is one of my FAVORITE and most-used herbs in practice. I also take it every night personally. It’s incredibly hepatoprotective—meaning it helps to protect the liver. [18, 19] Many people don't realize that the liver plays a role in the digestive system, but it does, so this is a good herb to include. It’s a great filter for ingested toxins. Milk thistle is also an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.


  1. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Various species of Achillea, or yarrow, have been used for centuries throughout the world to treat a variety of ailments. Because of its antioxidant, antimicrobial, and protective compounds, yarrow has been used as a remedy for a variety of health issues, including gastrointestinal distress, wound healing, and infections. [20]


How to Use Digestive Bitters

To help aid digestion, try eating bitters before a meal in a salad that includes dark, leafy greens like dandelion or arugula topped with a dressing made of lemon juice and apple cider vinegar.

You can also try a half cup of gentian tea or an apéritif such as angostura bitters about 15 minutes before a meal. [21]

If these methods don’t appeal to you or they are not an option, you may also want to consider taking digestive bitters such as chamomile, goldenseal, or milk thistle as a supplement in capsule form.


Key Takeaways

  • Consuming bitter herbs for digestion can help with optimizing digestive
  • Health benefits of bitter herbs can include better digestion, anti-inflammatory properties, and liver protection and detoxification.
  • Some simple ways to take digestive bitters include drinking gentian tea before a meal, eating a salad of bitter greens, or taking a supplement.
  • Note that some herbs may cause allergic reactions or interactions with medications.


You might also enjoy: How to Choose a Probiotic That's Right for You (+ 5 FAQs)

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