Historically, herbal bitters were blends of herbs, spices, roots, seeds, and bark used as a tonic to aid in digestion, particularly of heavy, fatty meals. In modern times, two distinctive varieties of bitters are sold: bitters typically marketed for use in alcoholic beverages, and those used as tonics in herbal medications.
Recipes for bitters can vary widely and contain dozens of ingredients. Formulas for commercial preparations are close kept secrets, but key constituents in these products, like oranges, cloves, or caraway, give each brand its distinctive flavor and appeal. With medicinal, herbal bitters, claims can vary widely for their use in treating illnesses, and the chemical makeup of each preparation will have an impact on its effectiveness.
Medicinal, herbal bitters contain blended ingredients in a water or alcohol (tincture) base. Originally sold as a digestive aids because of their ability to increase the production of saliva and digestive juices, bitters became popular in Europe in the 1600s. This was due in part to the opening of trade routes with China, where the origin of bitters can be traced back more than 5,000 years. Today, herbal bitters are used primarily as digestive stimulants, detoxifiers, and antibacterial agents, and can be taken either internally or externally, depending on the manufacturer and treatment.
Bitters contain complex carbohydrates, alkaloids, vitamins and minerals that have antioxidant, antiviral, and antispasmodic properties. These ingredients work together to reduce inflammation, control pain, relax muscles, and improve digestion and elimination. Bitters can also be effective as appetite stimulants in some people.
The following list contains some ingredients common to bitters. You can see even from this short list that the resulting pungent and tangy flavor of the tonic is almost inevitable:
- Angelica root
- Aloe vera
- Gentian root
Before starting a course of treatment with bitters, consult your doctor for possible adverse interactions with drugs you are already taking. Once on a treatment plan, remember, all bitters aren't created alike, and results can vary from brand to brand. Herbal remedy manufacturers can make grandiose claims about the success of their products, but use some common sense when evaluating these statements. If all long-life elixirs that rejuvenate and heal were completely accurate in their declarations, they would be flying off store shelves. When dealing with claims that are too good to be true, some skepticism is in order.
Bitters are sometimes used in the treatment of the following conditions:
- Poor circulation
- Loss of appetite
Cautions When Using Herbal Bitters
Avoid herbal bitters if you are pregnant or nursing, and do not treat children with bitters. You should also avoid or stop taking bitters if you have been diagnosed with the following conditions:
- Kidney disease
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Crohn's disease
- Chronic gall bladder issues
Bitters can also cause adverse reactions if taken in combination with other drugs like:
- Tetracycline antibiotics
Read the instructions and recommendations on the bottle carefully before you begin treatment, and do not exceed the recommended dosage for bitters or any other herbal medication. You should always consult a physician before beginning treatment.