Since when did the holidays become synonymous with food? No matter how hard I try, I always fail to keep my diet in check and my elastic-waist pants tucked safely away in my closet during those last few weeks of the year. And I’m okay with that—or at least I have come to accept it. But my stomach is a different story.
All those rich, carb-heavy foods can be hard on the body. And our stomachs, when bogged down with sugar, salt and other refined ingredients, may have trouble processing them. But that’s where digestive bitters come in handy. By incorporating digestive bitters into your diet, you can stimulate healthy digestion, curb sugar cravings and lessen the food-hangover that comes with all those hearty holiday meals. Here’s how to make your own.
How to Make Digestive Bitters
As humans, we evolved eating a variety of wild fruits, greens, roots and barks—most of which were rich in bitter flavors. Over time our taste buds adapted so that bitter flavors actually stimulate the body’s innate digestive response and prime the body for food.
Bitter foods help activate the liver and encourage the production of digestive enzymes and juices so the stomach can better digest food. But with the birth of modern food processing, most of our food’s bitterness was stripped away in favor of salty or sweet flavors. And because bitterness is lacking, our digestive systems don’t always operate as well as they should.
Taking digestive bitters before a large meal can help stoke the inner digestive fire and replace the bitter flavor that’s missing from our food. Consuming bitters at least 15 minutes before eating has been shown to aid digestion, stimulate bile juices, and calm the nerves. Not only that, but when you taste bitters, your heart rate slows down, and your glandular and intestinal activity increases, priming your stomach to digest efficiently.
While digestive bitters used to be predominantly made from bitter greens, nowadays they’re typically alcohol based and more of a tincture. You can use a variety of different herbs to make yours (especially if you’d like to play with the flavor), but herbs that naturally support the stomach go a long way toward settling it and encouraging healthy digestion. Here are some of my favorite ingredients for bitters:
Dandelion greens have long been used for their bitter properties. They have been shown to trigger the release of digestive enzymes and aid the body’s detox system by helping the body break down and expel fat. Plus they’re loaded with vitamins A and K, calcium, iron and potassium making them a nutritional powerhouse.
Highly acidic citrus fruits like orange and lemon can help increase the acidity within the stomach and promote better digestion. By soaking the peels in alcohol, you can easily extract the oils that make citrus fruits bitter without watering down your tincture.
Sage is a well-known stomach soothing herb that helps treat digestive problems like loss of appetite, stomach pain, bloating, and heartburn. Plus it adds a green, earthy flavor to the bitters which compliments the citrus, making it more palatable.
Like sage, cardamom is often used to treat a myriad of different digestive issues. It also helps stimulate the liver and gallbladder and encourages a healthy appetite.
To prime digestion it’s best to take bitters about at least 15 minutes before you eat. You need to taste them to get the full effect, so place a few drops directly on your tongue or mix with a tablespoon of seltzer water to dilute them. If you really don’t like the flavor, mix 1 to 2 tablespoons of bitters with 8 ounces of water and store in a glass in the refrigerator. Take a sip before each meal, letting your tongue experience the bitter flavor as best you can.
Bitters can also be used for acute issues like upset stomach, indigestion or occasional heartburn, so feel free to take them after you eat or whenever you’re experiencing intestinal upset.
Yield 6 1-ounce bottles
- 1 (12-ounce) mason jar
- 6 (1-ounce) amber dropper bottles
- Peel of one orange (white pith removed)
- 2 tablespoons dandelion leaf tea (or you can use the fresh greens)
- 3 fresh sage leaves
- 8 cardamom pods
- 1 cup gin, white rum or vodka
- Tear the orange peels into small pieces and place them in the jar. Add the dandelion, sage and cardamom pods. Pour in the alcohol and fill to the top of the jar. Put the lid on and give it a good shake.
- Place in a cool, dark cupboard. Shake daily for 2 to 3 weeks. After 3 weeks strain the contents using cheesecloth, reserving the liquid. Pour into 1 ounce amber dropper bottles.
- To use, place ½ dropper full directly on the tongue at least 15 minutes before a meal.