The 5 Best Bitter Herbs

Do you often feel bloated, gassy, or have intense heartburn? Are you wanting to encourage efficient and effective digestion? Bitter herbs have been traditionally used for thousands of years for …

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Written by: Siobhan Mendicino
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Medical Review by: Daniel Powers, MS
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Do you often feel bloated, gassy, or have intense heartburn? Are you wanting to encourage efficient and effective digestion? Bitter herbs have been traditionally used for thousands of years for their digestive health benefits.

These types of herbs are supportive for gastrointestinal (GI) issues ranging from gas and bloating to indigestion (heartburn or acid reflux).

This article gives a review of some of the most significant traditional and scientific uses behind the best bitter herbs. 

list of the five best bitter herbs for health

Bitter Herbs Overview:

In the US, 61% of the overall population reported having more than one GI issue weekly. A total of 30.9% reported having heartburn, 20.6% experienced bloating, and 30.9% mentioned they had abdominal pain and cramps.

Bitter herbs have long been known to support healthy and efficient gastrointestinal function. In traditional medicinal systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, and Traditional Iranian Medicine, bitter herbs have been used as a way to encourage digestion and treat a number of GI ailments. 

These traditional uses focus on the benefits of bitter herbs for the liver, gallbladder, and stomach. Through the increase of saliva and digestive secretions (bile), bitter herbs help the body to efficiently break down food. As a bonus, they can also stimulate the appetite.

While ancient mankind has known about the benefits of bitter herbs for digestion, modern science is still trying to discover the mechanism by which bitter herbs work.

A 2015 research paper suggests that bitter herbs support digestive health through a variety of different mechanisms, including increasing saliva and providing vagal stimulation to the digestive organs.

The intensity of an herb’s bitterness can range in severity from mild to extremely bitter (and somewhat unbearable). Extremely bitter herbs are often consumed in a medium that helps to mask the taste such as liqueur or syrup.

Herbs and natural digestive remedies may help to reduce GI discomfort and help support digestive function.

The Best Bitter Herbs:

Below are the best bitter herbs used by traditional and modern herbalists. These herbs have been known to help improve digestion and support GI health.

top 5 bitter herbs

1. Elecampane

Traditional use shows that elecampane is a promising bitter herb for indigestion. The root or rhizome is the part of the herb that’s used. 

A qualitative study based on traditional Iranian medicine texts discovered that elecampane is helpful for reducing indigestion. Research showed that elecampane was able to alleviate indigestion by reducing bloating and supporting digestion.  

Maude Grieve, a famed herbalist and author of The Modern Herbal (1931), mentions that when consuming elecampane rhizome, the taste “becomes subsequently aromatic, and slightly bitter and pungent…” She goes on to explain that the herb is helpful for those experiencing indigestion. 

Well-known herbalist and founding member of the American Herbalist Guild, David Hoffmann, explains that the bitter compounds in elecampane stimulate digestion and appetite.

In archived herbal texts, such as King’s American Dispensatory and Medical Botany (1790-1794), the authors discuss elecampane’s affinity for alleviating indigestion symptoms. Felter and Lloyd also mention that the herb supports “weakness of the digestive organs” suggesting that elecampane could be a useful digestive tonic. 

Summary:

Traditional herbal texts indicate that elecampane may be useful in aiding digestion, however, human clinical research is needed for confirming this finding.
best bitter herbs

2. Artemesia annua

Artemisia, also known as sweet wormwood, is thought to be one of the best bitter herbs for digestion.

Maude Grieve of herbal text A Modern Herbal (1931) explains that the Wormwood family is “remarkable for the extreme bitterness of all parts of the plant.” She goes on to mention that wormwood is “employed in making the liqueur Vermuth.” Vermouth is considered a “digestif” which is a liqueur taken after dinner to aid digestion. 

Nicholas Culpepper, a popular 19th-century herbalist, explains that wormwood, “…not only cures pain of the stomach, weakness, indigestion, want of appetite, vomiting and loathing, but hard swellings of the belly”.

Summary:

Artemisia annua may be a beneficial herb for digestion. Human studies are required to verify this finding.
health benefits of bitter herbs

3. Goldenseal

Research, and traditional usage, show that goldenseal may be a strong bitter tonic herb.

In a mechanism study of goldenseal’s constituents, researchers found that goldenseal is effective in managing gastrointestinal disturbances.

Recent research found that the major alkaloid found in goldenseal, berberine, can be used as a bitter tonic. Further information mentions that Native Americans used goldenseal to treat digestive disorders and ulcers. 

Hoffmann (2003) writes that goldenseal is a “useful bitter tonic herb” helpful for encouraging the healthy function of the digestive system, and for stimulating the flow of bile from the liver.  

M. Grieve (1931) mentions that goldenseal is employed in loss of appetite, liver troubles, indigestion, and vomiting. 

Summary:

research has found that goldenseal may work to manage gastrointestinal disorders. Additional human trials are needed for confirmation of this finding.
5 bitter herbs for health

4. Horehound

Horehound is a popular bitter herb known for its main bitter constituent, marrubium. 

M. Grieve (1931) explains horehound’s traditional usage, writing that it, “derive[s] its name [Marrubium vulgare] from the Hebrew marrob (a bitter juice), and state[s] that it was one of the bitter herbs which the Jews were ordered to take for the Feast of Passover.” 

In the King’s American Dispensatory, Drs. Felter and Lloyd (1898) note that horehound is useful as an indigestion tonic when consumed as a cold infusion. They go on to mention that it has a “very bitter, aromatic, somewhat acrid and persistent taste.” 

An account by the American Botanical Council writes that horehound is included in a group of effective “bittering agents.”

Summary:

Traditional usage indicates that horehound may help treat indigestion. Human clinical trials are needed to confirm this finding.
list of the best bitter herbs

5. Yellow Dock Root

Yellow dock is an herb that’s been traditionally used as a digestive tonic and for stomach ailments due to its bitter and astringent properties. 

Some herbal texts note that yellow dock root has been traditionally used to support appetite and digestion. The bitter constituents found in yellow dock can increase bile production, and thus support improved digestion.

Herbalist Christopher Hobbs mentions that yellow dock is helpful as a mild laxative and can be used as a way to stop chronic diarrhea. These actions are due to yellow dock’s astringent properties, which dry up excess water in the GI tract and help to create normal bowel movements. 

Drs. Felter and Llyod write in the King’s American Dispensatory that yellow dock (Rumex crispus) in smaller doses can soothe nervous indigestion, gas, and bloating. They also suggest that it is supportive of “painless watery diarrhea.” 

In another traditional herbal text by Dr. William Cook (Physiomedical Dispensatory), he explains that yellow dock can have a tonic effect on the gastrointestinal tract and can work as a laxative.

Summary:

Various herbalists and herbal texts have noted that yellow dock may be useful as a digestive tonic and as a mild laxative. Human studies are needed to confirm these findings.

Use of Bitter Herbs:

Gastrointestinal issues are common, especially in cultures and societies that consume a typical “western diet” high in processed foods. Although gastrointestinal issues range in severity and may not be highly detrimental to your health, they can be painful and may affect your quality of life.  

Typical symptoms that bitter herbs may help with include: 

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Cramps
  • GI inflammation
  • Sluggish or imbalance digestion
  • Indigestion (heartburn or acid reflux) 

Tasting bitter herbs trigger a sensory response that starts in the mouth and makes its way down to the GI tract.

Due to this response, consistent use (in tincture or tea form) or ingestion (of bitter greens) may support the regulation of digestion, tone the digestive tract, and decrease or eliminate GI disturbances altogether.

Bitter herbs encourage the following actions in the body: 

  • Stimulate appetite
  • Stimulate the excretion of bile from the liver, gallbladder, and duodenum (which helps aid and regulate digestion)
  • Aid liver in the detoxification function
  • Help regulate the secretion of pancreatic hormones (regulates blood sugar, insulin, and glucagon)
  • Support the gut in repairing any damages to the GI wall

List of Bitter Herbs:  

The use of bitter herbs dates back thousands of years. 

Below is a list of bitter herbs (along with their botanical name and part used) used by traditional and modern herbalists.

This bitter herbs list provides details on the common name, botanical name, as well as the typical part of the plant that’s used for medicine.

Common Name: Scientific NamePart Used 
BarberryBerberis vulgarisAerial Parts
BogbeanMenyanthes trifoliataAerial Parts
BonesetEupatorium perfoliatum Aerial Parts
CentauryCentaurium erythraeaAerial Parts
ChamomileMatricaria recutita Aerial Parts
DandelionTaraxacum officinale Leaves
GentianGentiana luteaRoot
GoldensealHydrastis canadensisRhizome
HorehoundMarrubium vulgareAerial Parts
MugwortArtemesia vulgarisAerial Parts
Rue Ruta graveolens Aerial Parts
SouthernwoodArtemesia abrotanumAerial Parts (young)
Sweet WormwoodArtemisia annuaAerial Parts
TansyTanacetum vulgare Aerial Parts
WormwoodArtemesia absinthiumAerial Parts
YarrowAchillea millefolium Aerial Parts

Bitter Herbs in the Bible:

Along with some of the oldest medical systems, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, there is also mention of bitter herbs in the Bible

Some bitter herbs in the Bible include: 

  • Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
  • Endive (Cichorium endivia)
  • Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)
  • Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella)
  • Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)

While modern medical care can significantly impact the health of the GI tract, there is significant evidence that bitter herbs have a holistic and preventative effect on the body.  

Conclusion:

Consuming bitter herbs can have a profound influence on overall health and quality of life. 

As mentioned above, a variety of natural bitter herbs have traditionally and scientifically proven to reduce and prevent GI complications and support the entire digestive system. 

Whether it’s through regulation of digestion or management of symptoms, these herbs exhibit encouraging therapeutic results for managing and avoiding digestive issues. 

Please note that it’s important to consult a medical healthcare professional when contemplating the addition of bitter herbs into your diet or daily routine. 

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About Siobhan Mendicino

Siobhan is a herbal researcher and writer. She has a bachelor of science in communications as well as having completed a post-baccalaureate certificate in herbal studies.

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