Bitter flavors are perhaps the least appreciated and sought-after, yet bitter herbs and spices offer valuable benefits and can go a long way toward improving your overall health. Historically, bitter herbs have been primarily used as cleansing agents, vitality builders and digestive support.1 According to a paper published in the European Journal of Herbal Medicine:2

“With so many bitter herbs, most with a long history of medicinal use in multiple cultures, it is not surprising to read that ‘the urinary system seems to be the only system that does not derive direct benefit from the administration of bitters.'”

As noted by Weston A. Price Foundation, an organization dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research and activism:3

“It is unfortunate, then, that our modern diet seems to be completely lacking in the wild bitter tasting plants our ancestors considered so fundamental to their health. Many of the diseases riddling our modern culture — from indigestion and gastric reflux to metabolic disorders … seem to all point back to the deficiency of bitterness in our diets, and the lack of the protection and tone it imparts to our digestion and metabolic functions.”

Bitters Are an Important Part of Optimal Health

As noted by the Price Foundation, bitter-tasting foods are not necessarily “medicine” as much as they are a necessary part of a healthy diet, providing your body with components you cannot get elsewhere, and these components are important for overall good health.

The term “bitters” is an umbrella term for a collective of secondary plant metabolites that include iridoids, sesquiterpene lactones, sesquiterpene hydrocarbons, monoterpene iridoids, alkaloids and volatile oils, all of which have a bitter flavor.

Many bitters have been shown to have antifungal, antiseptic, antiprotozoal and even antitumor activity. Secondary plant metabolites are thought to serve no nutritional purpose per se. Instead, these compounds are part of the plant’s self-defense mechanism against microbes, oxidative damage and predators, which include us humans at the top of the food chain.

Typically, bitter-tasting plants are avoided both by insects and mammals. One hypothesis is that animals (including us) learned to correlate bitter taste with toxicity. Indeed, many bitter compounds are in fact poisonous. However, when consumed in small amounts, they can be significantly beneficial.

Much in the same way bitter compounds help protect the plant from harmful influences, they can be helpful in your body by inhibiting microbe growth, oxidation and inflammation. Importantly, these compounds tend to have a very stimulating and tonifying effect on your digestive system. This is an effect caused by what’s known as “the bitter reflex.”

The Bitter Reflex

When you eat something bitter, it triggers the release of a hormone called gastrin, which in turns supports and strengthens your digestive function by stimulating the secretion of:4

  • Saliva, which is where the digestion of food begins
  • Hydrochloric acid, necessary for breaking down proteins and enhancing the absorption of minerals from food. Hydrochloric acid also helps destroy harmful microbes, so taking bitters prior to eating not only prepares your stomach for digestion, but it may also offer some protection against foodborne illness, or at least reduce the potential effects of foodborne contaminants
  • Pepsin, an enzyme that breaks protein molecules into smaller pieces
  • Intrinsic factor, required for vitamin B12 absorption 



Bitters also stimulate the flow of bile, which improves digestion of dietary fats and helps prevent the accumulation of waste in your liver. Over time, consuming bitters in small doses on a regular basis ends up strengthening your entire digestive system, including your stomach, gallbladder, liver and pancreas.


The bitter reflex also has the effect of triggering appetite and actually preparing your body for the receipt of food by triggering contractions in your intestines. This is likely why bitters are generally recommended to be taken about a half-hour before food rather than after.

The bitter reflex also causes your esophageal sphincter to contract, thereby preventing stomach acid from migrating up through your esophagus — a condition known as acid reflux.