Join Now!      Login

Whole Person Wellness Program Wellness Model
Skip Navigation Links
Health Centers
Key Services
Which of the following is an antioxidant?
Vitamin E
Vitamin B

 Herbal Actions: Bitters 
Bitter herbs are fundamental to Phytotherapy's contribution to holistic medicine. They are quite simply herbs that have a bitter taste, ranging from mildly bitter Yarrow to fiercely bitter Rue. Absinthin, a constituent found in Wormwood, is so bitter it can be tasted at dilution's of 1 part in 30, 000 parts of water. The bitterness is often described as being due to a 'bitter principle', but this may be a volatile oil, an alkaloid, iridoid or a sesquiterpene.

A range of physiological responses occur following stimulation of the bitter receptors of the tongue. The taste of bitterness, and no doubt many subtleties of which we are consciously unaware, is transmitted by specific taste buds at the back of the tongue to the central nervous system, triggering a number of reflexes. These reflexes have important ramifications, all of value to the digestive process and general bodily health:
  • There is a stimulation of the flow of digestive juices from the exocrine glands of mouth, stomach, pancreas, duodenum and liver, aiding in good digestion of food as well as a range of conditions that have their basis in efficient or allergy distorted digestion.
  • Because of this flow of digestive juices there will be an accompanying stimulation of appetite. This is helpful in convalescence as well as problems where there is a reduction of appetite. Unfortunately appetite stimulation is not always desirable!
  • The bitters are thought to stimulate a range of liver activities, especially increasing the production of bile, and the release of bile from the gallbladder.
  • There is a very mild stimulation of endocrine activities, especially insulin and glucagon secretion by the Islets of Langerhans in the pancreas. Thus diabetics need to take care with bitters as they may change their blood sugar balance. In the hands of a skilled practitioner, however, such remedies may have a role to play in the treatment of non-insulin dependent diabetes.
  • Herbalists have long known of the subtle psychological effects of bitter remedies and in some cases bitters may act in an anti-depressant way, for example in post-viral infection depression.
  • Through the central reflex there is a stimulation of peristalsis in the tubular muscles of the body.
  • The bitters help the gut wall repair damage through stimulating the self-repair mechanisms.

The therapeutic implications of bitters are impressive as the tonic effects go beyond the specifics of digestive hormone activity. As digestion and assimilation of food is fundamental to health, bitter stimulation may improve a condition that has nothing pathologically to do with the digestive process.

There is much overlap in practice between the bitters and tonic remedies, the mechanism of action is not always clear, but it is evident that these herbs act to promote health - yet another wonderful gift of nature.

Bitter stimulation effects are shared by any herb that can trigger the receptor sites on the tongue, but selection of appropriate bitter can be made by considering their inherent strength, other actions and specific indications.

Commonly used Herbal Bitters

Golden Seal

Relative intensity of Herbal Bitters
The strength of an action effect is not particularly relevant in the case of bitters, instead a subjective measure of taste intensity approximates more to the degree of physiological response a bitter herb might generate. Thus we can identify 'mild' and 'strong' bitters, but to the bitter neophyte they may all seem too much!


Golden Seal

Bitters that are also Anti-Catarrhal : Boneset, Centaury, Golden Seal, Horehound, Yarrow

Bitters that are also Anti-Inflammatory : Chamomile, Golden Seal, Wormwood, Yarrow

Bitters that are also Anti-Microbial : Chamomile, Golden Seal, Mugwort, Southernwood, Wormwood, Yarrow

Bitters that are also Anti-Spasmodic : Chamomile, Rue, White Horehound

Bitters that are also Astringent : Golden Seal, Yarrow

Bitters that are also Carminative: Centaury, Chamomile, Southernwood, Tansy, Wormwood

Bitters that are also Cholagogue : Barberry, Centaury, Gentian, Golden Seal, Mugwort, Southernwood, Tansy, Wormwood

Bitters that are also Demulcent :

Bitters that are also Diaphoretic : Boneset, Yarrow

Bitters that are also Diuretic : Yarrow

Bitters that are also Emmenagogue : Centaury, Gentian, Golden Seal, Mugwort, Rue, Southernwood, Tansy, Wormwood, Yarrow

Bitters that are also Expectorant : Rue, Horehound

Bitters that are also Hepatic : Barberry, Centaury, Gentian, Golden Seal, Mugwort, Rue, Southernwood, Tansy, Wormwood, Yarrow

Bitters that are also Laxative : Barberry, Boneset, Centaury, Gentian, Golden Seal

Bitters that are also Nervine : Centaury, Chamomile, Mugwort

Bitters that are also Tonic : Centaury, Golden Seal, Mugwort, Rue, Horehound, Wormwood, Yarrow

Bitters that are also Vulnerary : Chamomile, Golden Seal, Horehound, Yarrow

 Comments Add your comment 

 About The Author
David Hoffmann BSc (Hons), MNIMHWhilst working in conservation and lecturing in ecology and the eco-crisis for the University of Wales, David Hoffman became convinced that to heal the world, to embrace planetary wholeness and responsibility for it......more
 From Our Friends
Popular & Related Products
Popular & Featured Events
Wellness Inventory Certification Training
     April 3-July 3, 2018
     Los Angeles, CA USA
2018 National Wellness Conference
     June 18-20, 2018
     St. Paul, MN USA
Additional Calendar Links
Dimensions of Wellness
Wellness, Self Responsibility, Love, dimension!

Home       Wellness       Health A-Z       Alternative Therapies       Wellness Inventory       Wellness Center
Healthy Kitchen       Healthy Woman       Healthy Man       Healthy Child       Healthy Aging       Nutrition Center       Fitness Center
Discount Lab Tests      First Aid      Global Health Calendar      Privacy Policy     Contact Us
Disclaimer: The information provided on HealthWorld Online is for educational purposes only and IS NOT intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek professional medical advice from your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Are you ready to embark on a personal wellness journey with our whole person approach?
Learn More/Subscribe
Are you looking to create or enhance a culture of wellness in your organization?
Learn More
Do you want to become a wellness coach?
Learn More
Free Webinar