What Are Bitters?

What Are Bitters?

Learn more about bitters from one of our makers, Valerie Alcorn of Woodspell Apothecary. 

The short answer: Bitters are a specially formulated herbal tincture that can be used regularly to rebalance the digestive system over time and/or used acutely upon digestive upset for instant relief from heartburn, indigestion, bloating, etc.

The long answer: Bitters are an ancestral medicine that go beyond the hands of humans. They trace their roots back to a time before human footprints laced the land, when all plants were wild and quite poisonous (and VERY bitter!). As humans evolved, our digestive systems found ways to adapt to these plants’ bitter poisons so that we could digest and reap their nutrients, rendering them harmless. Our ancestors regularly ate wild bitter plants and kept bitter tonics as an indispensable remedy in the home apothecary. We co-evolved with bitters.

When something bitter hits our tongues, our bitter taste receptors instantly send signals to the gut to get moving! This is an ancient reflex that makes our body think something poisonous has just been ingested (an ode to those ancestral plants humans first ate!) and its goal is to get this substance out as quickly as possible. The result is increased bile, hormone and antioxidant enzyme secretion within the liver. This in turn helps to eliminate waste in the blood stream, digestive system and beyond. The effects on the body from this stimulation are many and varied. However, the most immediate results are the elimination of many common digestive issues such as heartburn, indigestion, bloating, etc.

Unfortunately, due to modern plant breeding which bred out all of the bitter compounds from wild plants, Prohibition which outlawed many bitters tonics that never returned, and modern medicine, this ancient medicine was almost forgotten.

Today we indulge in anything sweet, salty, meaty and even sour. Bitter however, has been almost entirely eliminated even though we have over 30 specific taste receptors just for this unique taste (all other flavors only have 3 to 4 receptors)! And what happens when we destroy an even seemingly small part of the ecosystem? Balance is thrown off and damage occurs.

We can see this in the overwhelming amount of digestive issues the modern human faces. We also see this in the mental issues that we regularly struggle with in modern life. Our guts contain neurotransmitters that relay messages directly to the brain and vice versa! Research has recently confirmed the importance of this link between the emotional and cognitive centers of our brain and intestinal function. They call this the gut-brain axis. In short, it means if the gut is off balance then so is the brain and vice versa. You can confirm this yourself when you feel the knots in your stomach under stress, or when your mood plummets during a stomach ache.

By incorporating these long lost compounds that seem intrinsically woven into our generational DNA back into our everyday lives, we can eliminate many of these issues that extend far beyond just the gut. Bitters help to stimulate digestion, detoxify the liver, and even help our body break down heavy sugars faster. This can come in handy after a night of overindulgence of food or alcohol. They also play a key role as a regular tonic to keep your body “in flow”, as a replacement for alcoholic drinks, to curb sugar or caffeine cravings and connect you to your ancestral roots.

Woodspell’s approach: All that being said, this doesn’t mean that bitters need to taste terrible! While many herbal bitters are concerned solely with the medicinal benefits, here at Woodspell we want to incorporate a little bit of magic as well. Each bitter plant contains other flavor compounds such as citrus, floral, fruity and so on. We hone the powers of alchemy to blend the bitter compounds that are so vital to our health, with tastier flavors that compliment them. This rounds out the blend and creates an enchanting overall experience that doesn’t feel like taking medicine. This doesn’t mean bitters aren’t a challenge for our modern tastes, but once you try them, you’ll notice your body begin to crave them. It knows what it has been missing, you just need to trust it.

We also are fascinated by the workings of the gut-brain axis as mentioned above. With digestive and mental issues being experienced regularly by the modern human, we’ve made it a priority to support both mental and digestive function with each bitters formula. The result is a balanced dose of support to both sides of this powerful axis.

More than anything though, Woodspell seeks to honor the ancestral plants that make up these blends. Many formulations come from stories, dreams and whispers of the plants in our ear. We are simply here to enhance and craft their wishes for the world.

- By Valerie Alcorn


Click HERE to shop the Apothecary for digestive bitters! 

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