How do bitters work?

Many of us know bitters as alcohol-based botanical extractions that lend their distinctive flavor to classic cocktails, but bitters have played an important role in digestive health since at least the Middle Ages where they were considered general health tonics and used to relieve digestive ailments from dyspepsia to constipation. Interestingly, taste does play a role in the function of bitters, but their merits reach far beyond flavor profile to strengthen digestion and support better overall health.

Bitter flavors on the tongue, even in small amounts, stimulate the vagus nerve – the nerve that governs the entire digestive system. With the digestive system called into action, stomach acid, pancreatic enzymes and bile are released to help with the efficient breakdown of macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins). This makes it much easier for us to use those macronutrients for energy and extract vitamins and minerals from our food. Less energy used and more energy gained leaves us with plenty of reserves to use elsewhere. Maybe you’ve been exposed to a virus and your immune system needs energy to fight the good fight. Or say you want to go hiking without running out of steam before you make it to the scenic lookout. If your digestion is functioning optimally it will require less energy to make use of your food and you’ll have more energy left over to meet other needs.

Breakdown by digestive juices also allows the probiotic bacteria in our intestines to do their job well. When larger chunks of food make their way to the intestines, either because our digestive juices aren’t flowing properly or we haven’t chewed well enough they hang around and become food for pathogenic microorganisms, allowing those populations to dominate the internal ecosystem. This can lead to problems in the digestive system and beyond – bloating, constipation, yeast infections, rashes, fatigue, brain fog, and more. Properly broken down food supports balanced gut flora and greater overall health.

Finally, stimulation of the vagus nerve encourages peristalsis, the wave-like muscular contractions that move food through the digestive tract supporting optimal transit time. In other words, it moves things along at a comfortable pace and helps to alleviate constipation. While it’s always best to eat mindfully and not over-consume, supporting all these aspects of digestion – the chemical components like stomach acid, enzymes, and bile, and the physical action of peristalsis – can also help ease the discomfort of overindulgence.

Using bitters before meals is like warming up your muscles before a workout. Herba Flora’s Original Bitters and Gentle Bitters formulas combine select bitter herbs with additional botanicals to support specific digestive conditions and create a pleasant flavor experience. Make bitters part of your routine and set your digestive system up to make the most of every meal.


These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. Always consult a healthcare professional if you have questions about any medication you are taking or if you are considering taking herbs.