A well-functioning digestive system is not only foundational to good health but also to simply feeling good. It promotes the efficient breakdown of food, makes nutrients easier to absorb and assimilate, and also encourages strain-free elimination. 

Trouble is, as time marches on, our digestive systems age along with the rest of us, and our bodies produce less of the digestive enzymes necessary for the proper breakdown of food. As a result, digestion and elimination suffer, which begs the question: how to slow the slide and right your digestive ship? 

One of the easiest ways to get back on track is to ‘get bitter with it’ – as in, start sipping and munching more bitter liquids and foods to help stimulate the release of those digestive enzymes, kick-start your digestive process and support digestive health, all without a whole lot of extra effort. Sound good? Let’s dig in:

Sweet may be fun, but bitter is better – a lot better.

Most people aren’t naturally drawn to bitter flavors. When presented with a sweet taste, adults and babies alike tend to react with a happy gurgle or a pleased grin. A taste of something bitter tends to elicit a less enthused response, perhaps a wide-eyed look of displeasure or an unhappy squeal. (Baby is not amused.) 

But our aversion to bitter flavors is more than just a kids-stuff preference talking – there’s also some evolution at work. It appears to be an adaptation which may have helped keep our hungry ancient ancestors from inadvertently chowing down on poisonous plants. These days, however, the risk of running into potential killers at your local market is just about nil. Consequently, we’re able to take advantage of bitter benefits – and put them to work as a force for digestive good.

Bitter benefit #1: they help flip your digestive on-switch.

Why do they matter? Well, for starters, digestion starts in the mouth, and bitter foods and drinks help kick off the digestive process with a bang. Within moments  of touching down on your tongue’s taste receptors, key digestive wheels are set in motion. Saliva starts to flow. The salivary enzymes begin to break down the carbs while they’re still in your mouth and the saliva itself acts as a lubricant, ensuring a smooth trip down the digestive tract. The gastric juices in the gut are cued to start pumping, giving the gut a head start processing the incoming meal and prepping it for the elimination to follow some hours later. You can think of bitter edibles and drinks as a sort of digestive ‘on’ switch that gets your gut factory ready for action, stimulating the release  of the enzymes necessary for breaking down all the macronutrients: protein, carbs and fats. 

That bitter-boosted digestive action comes with the bonus of fewer problems with partially digested food particles which can enter the bloodstream and cause inflammation, triggering digestive downers like gas, bloating, constipation, IBS and other GI issues. What’s more, diving deeper into the universe of bitter foods will provide some extra detoxification and support for the liver. In short, there’s a lot to like about this super-simple digestive hack.

Bitter benefit #2: they keep things moving to the (not so) bitter end.

As mentioned, as we age, our bodies produce less of the enzymes needed for good digestive function (and by the time you hit your 60s, things can get a bit sludgy if you’re not paying attention). Supplementing with digestive enzymes taken with meals is a good way to help close the gap between what you have and what you need. 

Adding vegetables with a bitter bite to your daily routine adds another layer of support. Not only will it aid nutrient delivery and add gut-loving plant fiber, but bitter edibles have been shown to actually encourage the peristalsis ‘wave,’ moving food along the digestive tract. That makes bitter veggies and beverages your secret weapon for healthy and regular elimination, digestion’s final phase.

Bitters benefit #3: Tame tummy troubles.

You may not realize it but people have been using liquid combinations of botanical ingredients, called, naturally, “bitters,” as a medicinal, for hundreds, if not thousands, of years to combat belly troubles like nausea, heartburn and upset stomachs. Far more than just an ingredient in hipster artisanal cocktails, bitters are a highly-effective, natural home remedy go-to (no fridge required). To settle a troublesome stomach, a few drops of bitters in water or seltzer will take the edge off, without your having to go anywhere near a hot pink Pepto Bismol bottle. 

Bitters benefit #4: Give sweets the slip.

Another reason to get into bitters? In addition to stimulating your natural digestive enzymes, they may also help you give sweets the slip. Granted, bitters are by no means a cure-all for sugar addiction, for some people they can be helpful for curbing cravings for sweet flavors. How to put them to use when battling the sugar monster? Here are a few ways to go:

  • Try pre-gaming meals with a pump-priming bitters ‘mocktail’ that combines a few drops of herbal/botanical ‘Angostura bitters’ or ‘Swedish bitters’ mixed with seltzer. This drinkable digestive/dietary aid will help to slow the entry of sugar into the bloodstream and help curb cravings. 
  • Add a tablespoon of organic apple cider vinegar mixed well into a tall glass of water.
  • You can also take a slug of Swedish bitters or apple cider vinegar straight up, without additional liquid, or take a few drops in tincture form.

Though most bitters contain alcohol, you can buy alcohol-free versions, some of which use apple cider vinegar as a base – but always check the label if that’s a concern. More of a DIY type? You can make your own which usually involves a combination of botanicals, high-proof liquor, water and flavor agents.   

Put bitter goodies to work.

Though we might not instantly associate the word bitter with good things – think bitter feud, bitter cold, bitter end, bitter pill, and so on – when it comes to your food, bitter is definitely better, and if you’re new to the bitter game, the good news is that with this category of ‘functional food’ there are a bunch of ways to work them into your digestive life. To do that, consider these four simple ways to bitter up your day (in a good way):

  • Sprinkle them on: You can boost your bitter intake in a variety of forms – i.e., seeds, spices, herbs and tinctures – all while adding a tasty kick to all sorts of dishes. Among the easiest bitter foods to slip into your daily routine, start with flavor boosters like aniseed; chamomile; citrus fruit; fennel; ginger; lemon balm and peppermint. 
  • Dive into leafy greens: When it comes to nutrition-made-easy, leafy greens are superstars. So, it should come as no surprise that many of those superstars are also esteemed members of the bitter-with-benefits club, and loaded with compounds that help boost that all-important saliva production and turning on the tongue’s bitter receptors so digestion can get cracking. Among the best of the leafy bitters are amaranth leaves; artichoke; arugula; beet greens; Brussels sprouts; endive; broccoli rabe; curly endive; dandelion greens; escarole; kale; mustard greens; nettles; radicchio; Swiss chard; turnip greens; and watercress. 
  • Get the good stuff: Pick up bunches at the farmer’s market or CSA, buy organic at the market, or grow your own if you’ve got a little space and a (leafy) green thumb. Then add the bitter booty to smoothies, salads, soups, stir fry or enjoy raw – and savor the grown-up bitter flavor.
  • Drink up the benefits: Ditch sugared sodas or that same old glass of water and accompany meals with a bitters-based drink. 

NOTE: While enjoying bitter foods and drinks are generally well-tolerated, check with your doctor first before using if you are pregnant, have ulcers, acid reflux, gallbladder disease or ulcers— or you’re on prescription medications, as bitter foods and drinks can interfere with absorption of medications.

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