Just as we spend spring days clearing rubble from our overwintered gardens, we can also spend the warmer, longer days clearing winter’s accumulated waste and toxins from our bodies. Up to this point, we’ve been in hibernation mode – sleeping more, eating comfort foods that are high in fats and oils – and in early spring it’s time to jump-start our perhaps still resting metabolisms, get the blood moving, and help the liver process the waste efficiently.
Bitter tonics are particularly useful in spring because the simple act of tasting bitters on your tongue triggers the liver and gall bladder to create bile, which stimulates the digestion of fats and oils. With the digestive system working efficiently, toxins are eliminated from the body and, over time, bitters act as “alteratives” or blood purifiers. Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar taught that alterative bitters are “agents that gradually and favorably alter the condition of the blood” (Gladstar, 2011).
You can introduce bitter flavors into your diet by eating more bitter greens, like arugula and dandelion. Coffee is the most commonly consumed bitter, and steamed burdock is a seasonal bitter treat that’s also fun to forage. An easy DIY option is to make herbal bitters, which are essentially a tincture made with bitter herbs. Although drinking bitters isn’t as much a part of our mealtime traditions as they once were, you may still recognize the term “aperitif” for digestive-stimulating drinks consumed before a meal, and “digestif” for those consumed after a meal.
Digestive bitters can also double as fantastic ingredients in homemade cocktails. For example, the Manhattan cocktail (my personal favorite) calls for angostura bitters, which feature bitter gentian root (Gentiana lutea). Keep the following Digestive Bitters in your medicine cabinet, but don’t hesitate to break them out when a special-occasion cocktail is in demand.
DIY Digestive Bitters Recipe
This recipe uses ingredients that are easy to forage, grow, or purchase in the United States. Yield: 1 pint.
2 parts dandelion root
1 part fennel seed
1 part orange peels
Add combined herbs to a wide-mouth canning jar and then cover with high-proof vodka or brandy. Shake to make sure all herbs are completely submerged, and then let sit in a dark spot for 4 to 6 weeks, shaking every 2 or 3 days to keep plant material covered. Strain through a cheesecloth and store infused tincture in a labeled, amber-colored bottle. Take 1 teaspoon or one tincture bottle dropperful before or after meals. Consume your homemade bitters within 1 year.
I’d also recommend reading Guido Masé’s book The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic PLants – Guido is the founder of Urban Moonshine, a company that crafts high-quality bitters that are sold nationwide.
Hannah was inspired to write this blog post during her time enrolled in The Herbal Academy’s online school where she worked her way through the Entrepreneur Herbalist Package. She is managing editor for Heirloom Gardener magazine and senior editor for Mother Earth News. Read all of Hannah's posts here.