The Basics Of Bitters

Sure, bitters make cocktails taste great. But that’s just the start.

The following is an excerpt of  Botany At The Bar: The Art And Science Of Making Bitters by Selena Ahmed, Ashley Duval, and Rachel Meyer.

Bitters And The Body

Bitters have been used since prehistoric times, and bitter infusions of medicinal plants are still widely used to treat and prevent illness in health-care systems around the world. Today, approximately seven thousand modern medicines are derived from bitter plant medicines. Bitters can be classified on the basis of their physiological effects on the human body, with digestive bitters being among the largest class.

Medicinal Bitters

The bitterness of bitters mostly comes from some well-known phytochemical classes: alkaloids, phenols, polyphenols, flavonoids, isoflavones, terpenes, and glucosinolates. All of these are also known for health benefits, including having antifungal, antiseptic, antidepressant, cardio-protective, hormone regulating, immune boosting, and blood sugar-regulating properties. Among the most powerful effects far preventative health are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity; because inflammation can lead to chronic diseases and many types of cancer, it’s not surprising both botanists and doctors are looking to bitters.

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Less than 20 percent of commonly used medicinal plants have been comprehensively researched for their efficacy, and even among those that have been researched, it is another story when they come to be mixed in bitters. A bitters made of whole herbs of caraway, fennel, and anise, for instance, is known to have antispasmodic activities, but the isolated essential oils of each of the plants do not have this function and can even induce an opposite effect.

Digestive Bitters

Bitter tasting compounds often are helpful to the digestive system. The bitter reflex can be thought of as a series of stimulation and secretion throughout the body. The appetite and certain mechanisms repairing the lining of the intestines are stimulated, and enzymes and bile that aid detoxification, plus pancreatic hormones that regulate blood sugar, are secreted.

This explains why digestive bitters are one of the largest classes of bitters in traditional medicinal systems, known to help with constipation, gas, bloating, loose stools, food allergies, and acid reflux. In addition, the bitter reflex is considered to improve nutrient and mineral absorption, increase the appetite, promote healthy blood sugar levels, protect liver function, and heal inflammatory damage to the intestinal walls.

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Digestive bitters can be taken before or after a meal, depending on their function and flavor. Many digestive bitters are taken before a meal to prepare the body for eating; other digestive bitters with strong aromatic profiles are taken after a meal to help digestion as well as to freshen the breath.

Bitters, herbs, and other therapeutic products used to relieve bloating and intestinal gas are known as carminatives. Many carminatives have rich volatile essential oils; for example, peppermint oil has been shown to serve a carminative role to relieve bloating. Likewise, the peel of bitter orange is frequently found in bitters not only as a flavoring agent but also as a mild carminative.

Several species in the celery family, Apiaceae, have seeds with known carminative effects that are often taken following meals. These include fennel, anise, dill, caraway, and cardamom; “Mukhwas” in India and ammos in Italy are popular after-dinner examples.

Bitters For Stress

There is a long history of botanicals being used for their anti-anxiety and relaxant properties. Exactly how they work varies from compound to compound, but broadly speaking, they tend to work one a few ways.

Adaptogenic bitters boost your body’s ability to adapt and recover, improving your general well-being. Some common adaptogenic ingredients are ashwaganda, American ginseng, and Siberian ginseng.

Other bitters have a more targeted effect. Anxiolytics, for instance, are mild sedatives that relieve apprehension without affecting the body’s faculties as a whole. Sedative plants in general can function as analgesics (relieving symptoms of pain), common examples are often found in bitter tonics include hops, valerian, wormwood, chamomile, and mugwort. There are also nervine remedies, which means the plants have a calming effect on nerves and stress.

Playing Safe

If you are on any medication, be aware: bitters can interact with or affect the absorption of medicines. Medicinal plants used in bitters can also have adverse effects if used incorrectly, such as through overdose or improper preparation, or else because you unknowingly bought contaminated or adulterated material Research and source carefully, and if you are not sure, seek medical advice and err on the side of caution.


From Botany at the Bar  by Selena Ahmed, Rachel Meyer, and Ashley DuVal © 2019 Selena Ahmed, Rachel Meyer, and Ashley DuVal. Reprinted in arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.


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Meet the Writers

About Selena Ahmed

Selena Ahmed is an assistant professor of Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. She is a co-author of Botany at the Bar: The Art and Science of Making Bitters. 

About Ashley DuVal

Ashley DuVal is a cacao geneticist working on ex situ conservation of genetic diversity, and breeding relating to tree architecture and tolerance to abiotic stresses in cacao. She is a co-author of Botany at the Bar: The Art and Science of Making Bitters.

About Rachel Meyer

Rachel Meyer is a research director in conservation genomics at the University of California, developing citizen science initiatives to get outdoors and monitor biodiversity. She is a co-author of Botany at the Bar: The Art and Science of Making Bitters. 

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