Digestive Bitters: Better than Probiotics!

P1080965Digestive bitters were on the top of my “mad scientist” list this year…I had SUCH fun tinkering in the kitchen with my bitter herbs!  If you’re wondering why I would even be interested in using things that taste nasty and bitter, I’ve got some COOL stories and info for you.Got tummy issues? Potty issues?  Rumbly or uncomfortable digestion?  Eczema and food sensitivities?  This post is for you…you need to know about digestive bitters!

If you’ve got digestive issues, you’ve probably heard a lot about enzymes and probiotics.  If you use expensive probiotics and enzymes to assist your digestion, then digestive bitters are WORTH looking into.  They are, in my opinion are a BY FAR a better long term option than probiotic powders or products.

Weeks of Bitterness

Today, let’s have a quick talk about bitter taste receptors, and then talk about what bitters are and what we think they do…and you’ll get to hear some cool stories about what they’ve done for me and for a few of my friends!

  • Next week, I’ll post some really cool reference material: videos to watch and an AWESOME podcast to listen to if you’d like to know more, and I’ll also give you links to pre-made digestive bitter blends.
  • In part III, we’ll talk more about which herbs are considered digestive bitters, and I’ll post my home blend digestive bitters recipe!

I guess you could say it’s a BITTER end to the summer here on Gwen’s Nest.  (Wonka-wonka!) I’m telling you…it’s ALL fun and games here, people.  But I promise you…this is really great info, and I’m excited to share this with you. :)

Let’s dive in with a little review from grade school:

Taste Receptors

Remember in grade school, when you studied taste receptors?  And different students were picked to be blindfolded in front of the class, as the teacher gave you bites of different foods, and you got to proclaim, “salty!” or “sweet!”  And when it was your turn, and you were blindfolded, your teacher shoved a GIANT soup ladle full of sour cream into your mouth?  And everybody died laughing as you gagged for your life?


Just me?

Dang.  Let’s just say I NEVER forgot that lesson: never let another person feed you stuff while blindfolded.

But back to bitter taste receptors…remember those?  They’re the taste buds that specialize in specific flavors, and are located in different zones on the tongue, like this:

taste receptors

Tongue photo courtesy of Wikipedia

But I swear, y’all, I could taste that ladle full of sour cream ALL OVER my tongue.

Today, we’re going to just focus in on the bitter taste receptors.  Those little guys way at the back.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably spent your whole life trying to avoid stimulating those bad boys.  Bitter stuff (and sour cream in large amounts) is just nasty.  Right?  Am I right?

I thought avoiding bitter flavors was a great personal priority, but it turns out, I am probably wrong on this one.

The other thing I’m wrong on is that the taste buds are only on the tongue thing.  Now, this is where things get weird.


Bitter Taste Receptors WHERE?

Scientists have been quite surprised to discover these little taste receptors in unexpected places in the body.

“The other recent revelation in taste research is that the receptors …are not restricted to the tongue. They are distributed throughout the stomach, intestine and pancreas, where they aid the digestive process by influencing appetite and regulating insulin production. They have also been found in the airways, where they have an impact on respiration, and even on sperm, where they affect maturation.”1.

The bitter taste receptors (T2 receptors) are located in the following areas of the body

bitter taste receptor locations

T2 bitter taste receptors are found in the esophagus, stomach, pancreas, bile duct, and small and large intestines.

Isn’t that bizarre?  These little guys are found in almost every organ of digestion.

A Big Job Description for Bitter Taste Receptors

But what are they DOING there?  Thankfully, my experience with the sour cream ended when I swallowed…the thought of tasting something all the way through the digestive tract is less than appealing.

“Despite the similarities in receptor molecules and transduction cascades, the emerging picture is that the diverse chemoreceptive systems do not all evoke a sensation of taste, but rather serve different functions according to their location.” 2.

What that means in English is, “We’re not real sure what they do yet, but they do cool stuff besides tasting.”  It appears, from a variety of research angles, that the taste receptors are actually a communication system for the digestive organs.  Historically, bitters were used to enhance digestion and strengthen filtering organs.  Modern science seems to be backing this up as well:

“Dr. Osborne’s lab had previously proposed that T2Rs trigger a hormone that stimulates the digestion of fat and protein and limits the absorption of dietary toxins. But exactly how was unclear.

The new experiments suggest that the hormone in turn stimulates neighboring enterocytes—the intestinal cells that absorb nutrients—to produce more of a protein called ABCB1, which transports a variety of chemicals—and toxins—out of cells.” 3

When you taste something bitter on your tongue, your bitter taste receptors are triggered.  In turn, they begin to trigger or ‘ping’ all of the other bitter taste receptors all the way down your digestive tract, stimulating your organs of digestion.  The espophagus undulates, the pancreas produces enzymes and your own blend of probiotics, the gall bladder dispenses bile to break down fats, and the intestines get primed and ready to digest the food that’s about to come down the hatch.

And check out the cool photo at the bottom of this short article illustrating how bitters enhance the cells ability to remove toxins!  (Told you this was really cool stuff!!!)

Awesome news, right?  Not really for people who avoid the ‘bitter’ taste.  And the taste seems to be key…covering the bitter taste with sweet seems to weaken the overall signals and benefits of digestive bitters.

Digestive Bitters

According to herbalist Guido Masé, the people and cultures that eat bitter foods regularly, the bitter taste receptors are hearty, vigorous, and plentiful.  For people (like me) and cultures (ours) that avoid bitter tastes, the receptors are far fewer, and they are less sensitive.  Weak, puny, paltry bitter taste receptors.

But Guido says that there’s hope: the more you stimulate the bitter taste receptors, the more they reproduce, and the heartier they become.  This means that if you begin to include bitter tastes in your meals, you can actually improve your entire digestive tract function!  Enhancing your own body’s production of probiotics is far less expensive and more effective than continuing to pop pricey pills, huh?

As with any natural remedy, I want to know if it really works in real life.  Turns out, it does…

Testimonials: Digestive Bitters Work!

For my own part, my younger two children both had some odd issues with <ahem> “number 2″.  One child was very constipated, and the other very loose…and this was with plenty of fluids and nearly identical diets. Something was funky in their systems.

This was to the point that the older had functional constipation and refused to go #2 during the day…so at almost age 5, she was still not fully potty trained, and I was waking up to nasty diapers every morning.  EVERY morning.  And these were abnormally awful, stanky and large stools.  Sorry.  It was wicked nasty.  Something was very wrong, and I didn’t want to give her habit forming meds at such a young age.  I wanted it FIXED.

I started offering bitters before meals, and saw a pretty rapid change with both kids.  Within weeks, both had properly formed stools, and they became more regular.  Both kids are potty trained now and are regular.  And they remind me about their bitters if I forget. :)

<photos not provided…you’re welcome.>

Here are a few other personal testimonies and experiences with digestive bitters among my online friends:

“I had eczema issues for 30+ years <gulp>, and had tried every diet and cream angle religiously. I was GF for 5+ years/sugar free at times, and had a very healthy/whole foods diet.I still battled painful bouts of eczema on my hands each year as winter set in.
I had heard about bitters being a possible remedy for eczema. I started taking Urban Moonshine’s digestive bitters before meals, and within a month (during the holiday season, even) my eczema cleared. I continued with the bitters, and found that I was not getting any more break outs. Even after indulging in gluten and sugar containing foods over the holidays…a FOR SURE trigger, my eczema did not return.” ~Jen B.
(And Jen is no longer GF!)

“They have helped me a great deal in relieving gallbladder pain, the area of my liver and gallbladder used to feel swollen to me. But it is normal these days. I haven’t had a gallbladder attack in a very long time. Also, no more heartburn!” ~Jennifer J.

“Bitters stopped debilitating stomach pain completely. I had tentatively linked the pain to my gallbladder. I took them regularly for several months but rarely do now. Yesterday afternoon, I felt a hard knot in my stomach that felt horrible, possibly due to undigested food sitting there causing gas. It was fast becoming painful enough to limit my movement and stop my plans for the day. I took some bitters and within 5 minutes, the pain was completely gone. Bitters are amazing!” ~Jessica I.

So, are you EXCITED to try these, yet?  Join me next Monday for the next part in this series, that will include videos/podcasts for learning more, and links to some great digestive bitters blends.


1. Neuroscience: Hardwired for taste Bijal P. Trivedi

2. Taste isn’t just for taste buds anymore, Thomas E. Finger and Sue C. Kinnamon (01 Sep 2011)

3.Taste receptors…in the gut? by Bruce Lieberman (01 Aug 2011)


    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

  1. Pat Baker says

    I have no clue what bitters are. I have eaten bitter foods but how do you take “bitters”? I will be watching for more info. Like how do you get your kids to take these?? I too have a problem with #2 and have tried almost everything. Now I take MOM every day or every other day to get things moving. I have read the magnesium is good for me but not sure if it is too much. Waiting…

    • Its_Gwen says

      Hi Pat,
      Milk of magnesium is not an absorbent type of magnesium, but it’s very good at moving the bowels. It won’t address magnesium deficiency or really benefit overall magnesium levels.

      I’m working on another post for you about bitter herbs, resources, and more. If you want to be sure to get the posts, then you can sign up for the e-mail notification on the upper right side of the page.

      Sorry to leave a cliffhanger here,but if I wrote it all out in one post, it would be WAY too long. And it takes me several hours to put together a shorter post like this one.

    • Its_Gwen says

      Hi Alicia! I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the tongue map is not accurate. :) I KNEW I could taste that sour cream all over my tongue!
      The taste receptors are a relatively ‘new’ discovery, and more is ‘unknown’ about them (from a western scientific mindset) than is known.
      I do love to see the science (the image of the toxin dump from bitters fascinates me!), but I also love to look backwards at the use and function of herbs to learn more about the possibilities for how these bitter taste receptors function and the healing potential there.

  2. Abby says

    I’ll be looking for your next post about what bitters are. Both of my sons had problems with eczema as infants and still have an occasional outbreak every now and then, so I’m really interested in this info. Also for digestive purposes.

  3. Moedertje says

    Looking forward to reading more on this subject as I suffer from digestive issues. Back home in South America we ate bitter vegetables and I remember my parents drinking a bitter tonic derived from certain wood chips. It was used as a “healing” tonic for many things!

  4. Jennifer Frost says

    VERY interested in the protocol you used with your kids! My daughter is 3.5y/o and has never had a “formed” #2 :( We have tried so many things that helped little or temporarily and am very intrigued about the daily bitters regimen :)

  5. says

    Wow!! Strange you write an interesting article on a simple topic Bitter
    which I don’t think anyone can imagine. Even I don’t have any idea that bitters
    meal would be digestive symptoms. Even I don’t know much about bitters but I enjoyed your article so much. Its first time am here but now I am keen to read more
    article of your.

  6. Boreal Mum says

    I just found Your site the other day looking for Swedish bitter recipes ! this is so great all the background info beforehand . I am so not a bitter herb person & I can’t stand fermented stuff .I eat flowers & love juices ! but really felt called to investigate bitters .feel whenever I get that calling to look into a plant there is always a reason behind it . I am so glad to have found your site .Thank You ♥

  7. Abby says

    Very informative article and an interesting subject I had never thought of before. What I don’t understand is if the bitter flavor is what causes the reaction to help digestion, why do you need to take a bitters tincture to achieve this? Why can’t you just eat something bitter, like a bitter salad, or bitter tea or coffee? I have always sweetened my tea and coffee as I don’t like bitter flavors at all. I do like the idea of only having to swallow a small amount of a tincture rather than eat a whole bitter salad or drink a cup of something bitter. But would they both accomplish the same thing? I am dealing with horrible eczema, mostly on my hands, and would try just about anything to get this to go away. And becoming immune to poisonous berries would be good too… j/k lol.

    • says

      Eating something bitter does help in the same way so long as you taste the bitter. The purpose of making a tincture is just like you are saying…it’s a convenience and ‘get it over with’ factor, so you’re not having to make a bitter component to each meal. Just think of additional bitter foods or drinks you choose to use as bonuses. :)

    • says

      I have a friend who had incredible results with eczema by treating to help her digestion (avoiding allergens initially). When she started bitters, she saw a big shift and was able to go back to a normal diet after several years of allergen free eating. They can be a powerful part of an eczema/gut recovery program!