my little bottle of bitters decorated with a Santa sticker

I made this bottle of bitters so that folks in my family would have a “just in case” digestive boost to carve through the season of excess otherwise known as Christmas.  The small bottle of bitters in the middle of the above photo illustrates the type of approach I like to take for labeling things for myself.  On this little sticker, Santa seems to have a little digestive upset.  His position seems to indicate that he recently may have had a good deal of rich food.  Santa needs some bitters.

I got to thinking about bitters and better labeling after seeing a cute little kit of on the market. I love this little kit because it is downright adorable! It is so cute it might work as a gateway to herbalism. Who knows? However, these bitters are primarily intended for enjoyment.  It kind of irks me that all of the ingredients do not appear on the label. Knowledge of the ingredients and their constituents is essential for the wise deployment of any herbal concoction. Perhaps this is normal in the beverage world. One of the world’s the most popular drinks (sometimes promoted by Santa) does not label all of the specific ingredients on the bottles either.*

Taken before a meal, bitters increase digestive secretions. Thus they promote an appetite and gear-up the system for optimal digestion. Bitters taken after a meal will help with digestive disturbances and decrease flatulence. Although generally distasteful, bitters can counter balance other flavours such as sweet. Think of bitter leaves in a salad, coffee, beer and Angostura bitters.

Bitters range from mild – like dandelion root and leaves, chamomile and yarrow – to strong – such as horehound, gentian, goldenseal. A more extensive knowledge of herbalism includes how certain bitters have affinities with particular systems of the human body.

Bitters stimulate actions in the body as they enter the mouth and are received by bitter taste receptors at the back of the tongue. They have a broad range of actions in digestive system including: stimulating an appetite; regulating blood sugar, insulin and glucagon hormone production; stimulating self repair of the gut wall; aiding the liver in it’s work of detoxification and increasing the flow of bile; encouraging the release of digestive juice. All of these actions depend upon the ingredients and their constituents.

Further study of herbalism shows how subjecting the digestive system to bitters can illicit actions upon other systems in the body: relaxing bitters can ease digestion therefore take pressure off the cardiovascular system, including the heart; certain bitters help with expectoration of mucous from the respiratory system; some bitters bring on late menstruation; bitters help with the assimilation of food, leading to less metabolic waste in the musculoskeletal system; herbalists often use bitters in depression and nervous system debility; and bitters can help to clear up skin conditions.**

Care needs to be taken with certain herbs, since the effects of plant constituents are often powerful! For example, strong bitters are contraindicated in pregnancy, kidney stones, gallbladder disease, menstrual cramps, gastroesophageal reflux disease, hiatus hernia, gastritis and peptic ulcers.  In these cases, bitters stimulate actions that are either unnecessary for the body or beyond its systems’ capacities to cope with.

How I make my DIY bitters

Here are some suggestions for bitters. I consider the actions I want and go for the plants that have these actions.  I macerate these plants by completely covering them in a strong alcohol like vodka or brandy for 2 weeks, shaking the bottle daily.  Then I strain this, putting the menstruum in an amber bottle and the herbs in the compost.  I label the bottle of tincture.  If it is for others, I am sure to label all of the ingredients, the date it was made, who made it and suggested use.  When working on herbal formulas, it is recommended that one researches each herb using three different academic books on herbalism.  If I do not have access to this, then I stick to the herbs I know.

If a plant is noted as a strong bitter, please consider consulting an herbalist about this bitter. Always use organic herbs in formulas. Other than that, make a small amount, keep great notes on what you do and see how it turns out.

Possibilities that come to mind:

Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinalis) is mildly bitter and mildly stimulating for the digestive system.  Around 20% of the formula can be comprised of dandelion root.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) tastes great and will be a welcome carminative *** to the formula  Use around 15%.

Anise (Pimpinella anisum) is also a great tasting carminative.  Use around 15%.

Ginger (Zingiber officinalis) is an anti-inflammatory carminative that acts as a bit of a catalyst for other herbs in the formula.  15% of the formula can be fresh, use a much smaller amount if you are using dried, like 1 – 5%.

Gentian (Gentiana lutea) is extremely bitter.  Generally, not more than 5 – 10% of the formula is gentian.

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum spp) is a tasty gastrointestinal tonic, a stimulant and carminative.  Do not use more than 5% in a formula because it tends to thicken the tincture.

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) is also a tasty carminative, use up to 5% of crushed seeds.

organic Orange Peel is a lovely aromatic carminative.

Celery Seed (Apium graveolens)  is an important carminative digestive tonic that assists in the removal of uric acid.

If there is a need to relax:

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is a nice carminative that is also relaxing for restless individuals

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is calming and antispasmodic in the digestive system

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a really fine carminative with nervine and sedative properties that is suitable for all ages when taken as a tea.  Can also be added to the formula.

Generally, I take a small amount, like a 1/4 teaspoon of this bitter blend in a small amount of water, either before or after a meal.  If I forget to make bitters, I take an after dinner tea instead.  Bon appétit!

Tammy Schmidt, Montreal

* Coca-Cola

** Hoffmann, David Medical Herbalism; The science and practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2003.

*** A carminative action generally involves volatile oil plant components which encourage the expelling of gas from the stomach and intestines.  Carminatives are often anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic.

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