Previously Ottawa Holistic Wellness
Bitter herbs for IBS and other digestive complaints

Bitter herbs for IBS and other digestive complaints

The belief that herbal medicine has to taste bad to be beneficial is not always true. The spirited flavour of peppermint (Mentha piperita) or the sweetness of licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is both tasty and effective medicine. However, in the case of a class of herbs called bitters, it is true.

How do they work?

When the bitter flavour mingles with the taste buds on the tongue, it sets in motion a series of physiological responses that enhance the appetite, improve digestion and aid in the absorption of nutrients from food.

The bitter flavour on the tongue causes the stomach to release gastric juices, stimulates bile flow from the gallbladder and the pancreas to secrete insulin. The bitter taste does this by acting on the part of the nervous system that is responsible for digestion and assimilation of food, the parasympathetic system.

When to use bitters

In old herbal terms, bitters are used when the digestion is sluggish. Or in other words, bitters get things flowing.

Bitter herbs are useful when food sits like a lump in the stomach, causing bloating and constipation. Bitters are useful for those who have no appetite and continue to gain weight. Older folks who have lost their appetite find their hunger with the help of bitter herbs. At the other end of life’s spectrum, when a baby suffers from colic, mild bitters such as catnip (Cataria nepeta) or chamomile (Matricaria recutita) ease griping pain.

For those recovering from a chronic illness that has depleted the body’s resources, bitter herbs improve the absorption of nutrients from food. This, in turn, enhances energy levels and shortens recovery time.

When offering iron-rich herbs to those drained by anemia, a bitter herb in the formula will help the body absorbed iron.

How much to take

To benefit from all that bitter herbs can do for the digestive system, one does not need to take a significant amount of the herbs. All that is necessary is to taste the bitter flavour. Remember the medicine is in the taste.

To use bitters to improve digestion, whether three months or 90 years old, take a couple of sips of bitter tea 20 minutes before each meal. This primes the digestive system and prepares your body for an incoming meal.

Another way to take advantage of the bitter flavour is to have a salad of bitter greens before each meal. This method is particularly useful for those who suffer from bloating and constipation or have no appetite but continue to gain weight. Romaine lettuce is considered a bitter green, as are dandelion leaves and endive. Try the salad without dressing, or use a little vinegar and olive oil. Don’t mask the bitter flavour with sweet store-bought salad dressings.

Additional benefits

Bitter herbs also have a long history of easing depression which accompanies anxiety. This is because the part of the nervous system that primes the digestive tract, the parasympathetic system, also relaxes the mind.

Nature is economical. To digest food well, one needs to be relaxed. The mnemonic for the parasympathetic system is “rest and digest”. Bitters, by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, relax the mind and improve digestion. A two for one deal, all for a little bit of bitter!

How bitter is “bitter”?

The bitter herbs used to relieve depression and anxiety, are very bitter. Herbalists, actually have a scale that measures a herb’s bitter flavour. The two herbs considered the most bitter are gentian (Gentiana lutea) and wormwood (Artemisia absinthium).

Wormwood, although other bitters can be used, is the choice herb to relieve depression with anxiety. It is in my opinion that wormwood is the most unpleasant tasting herb. One of my clients complained bitterly about the taste of his medicine that contained wormwood.

“It tastes so bad; it has to work!”  

Fortunately, wormwood is considered a potent herb, and one only needs a small amount to be effective. Please note, I do not recommend using Wormwood without herbalist advice, as it has a narrow therapeutic range. This means that has the potential of becoming toxic to the body when overused.

A note of caution

Bitters, as useful as they are, are not for everyone.

If you suffer from a peptic ulcer bitters can increase the burning sensation and prolong the healing process. Because bitters are used to relieve constipation, avoid them if the bowels are loose.

In pregnancy, avoid herbs that have a strong, bitter flavour, like wormwood and gentian.

Come and find out more about herbs and their benefits!


This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Now I would like to hear from you. Do you suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome? What have you tried to help your symptoms? Let us know in the comments below.