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Home Nature's Remedies Bitter Herbs
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Bitter Herbs

From Paracelsus to the present day

This Scandinavian remedy which combines a variety of the bitter herbs is used principally for digestive problems. Three important bitter herbs are, camphor, flake manna and carline thistle.

The old saying that if something tastes strong, it must be doing you good, is nowhere more true than in the context of bitter-tasting herbs, and the herbal preparations which are made from them.  The modern-day palate, used to bland flavours and taste sensations, is comfortable savouring sweet, sour, and even salty foods.  The reaction to a bitter-tasting substance to block it out as quickly as possible – the 'spoonful of sugar' syndrome.

But as medical herbalists, Anne McIntyre, points out in her book, Herbal Medicine, 'Bitters are often referred to as 'bitter tonics' and, despite many people's dislike of them, for good effect they must be tasted.'  There is growing evidence that the absence of bitter substances from our diet may be affecting our health – and not for the better.

Hidden Risks in Everyday Living

Increasing awareness of the dangers of the so-called Western diet has been fostered by official and unofficial bodies.

The publishing of reports, articles in the press and endorsements of Government ministers have all helped to create an understanding of the possible health hazards of a poor diet.  it can be said that in general people know now that too much fat, sugar and refined carbohydrate in the diet can cause ill-health and that several conditions such as obesity and lack of vitality and certain disorders such as cardiovascular disease can be linked to dietary causes.

Danger in the Air

Diet is something that most people can take responsibility for themselves and, where necessary, alter.  More recently, concern is being voiced about the health hazards of something over which we have very little control – everyday environmental pollution.  Walking or cycling to work may not be as healthy as we think, particularly if the route runs alongside heavy traffic conditions.

Fresh fruit and vegetables may be contaminated with traces of chemical pesticides either from crop-spraying or from the use of chemical fertilizers on the soil in which they are grown.  Some fruit and vegetables are treated to give them a longer shelf life in supermarkets.  The body can absorb all these chemical elements which, in turn, can lead to feelings of malaise, depression and, in severe cases, certain kinds of illness.  Pollution can slowly start to build up in the body.


Bitter tasting herbal elixirs have been used I herbalism for centuries.  Paracelsus, the famous health philosopher and physician, recorded the formula for his Elixir of Life in the 16th century.  It included the herbs aloe, myrrh and saffron.  Aloe, well-known to generations of nail-biters, is a native of Africa and the sharp-tasting juice from the leaves is the part used (see Aloe Vera).  Saffron was imported into the UK from the East many centuries ago and was once grown extensively in Essex around Saffron Walden.  It is a member of crocus family and the flower stamen are used by herbalists in the preparation of a number of different remedies.  Myrrh is a shrub native to Arabia and Somaliland.  The gum resin has an astringent and disinfecting action.  Mrs. Grieve in her book, A Modern Herbal, describes it as a tonic for dyspepsia and for exciting appetite and the flow of gastric juice.

The formulation put together by Paracelsus was recreated in the mid-19th century by a Swedish doctor, Klaus Samst, who extended the formula to include extracts from 11 herbs.  Dr. Samst is reputed to have lived to 104 and died after falling from his horse.  Not even the bitters could prevent this!

Turf out those Toxins

The liver is the main detoxifying organ of the body and so it will be involved in any programme of detoxification and anything which can 'nudge' it into action must help.  The expression 'feeling leeverish' is generally understood, but what to do about it is something different – the feeling will last for a while and then, we hope, go away of its own accord.

It is in the context of detoxification that bitter-tasting herbs come into play; for it has been found that taking a regular and precise dose of bitters can help to stimulate the metabolism, encourage the secretion of digestive juices in the stomach and increase the flow of bile from the liver.  Experience in using these herbs has shown that they should never be used alone but always in combination with other substances.  Herbs which have a mild laxative effect are the most complementary.

The action of bitters also means that anyone who has digestive problems will find them beneficial to take on a regular or occasional basis.  For example, travelling abroad and coping with rich, unfamiliar foods can play havoc with the digestion – as can long business lunches or dinners.  Hangovers are another problem which respond well – a dose of bitters first thing in the morning is more effective (and healthy than a 'hair of the dog').

Taking the Bitters

If the taste is unacceptable (and it must be admitted that women find this more of a problem than men, for some reason), the bitters can be mixed with a fruit juice or herb tea or taken neat with a little honey.  This in no way mitigates the action of the herbs.

For detoxification purposes, it is recommended that a course of bitters is taken twice a year – spring and autumn seem the most popular times – and that this combined with a cleansing diet.  to find out what this means and what foods are the most beneficial, Leslie Kenton's book, The 10 Day Clean-Up Plan, is a good reference guide.

For general digestive disorders, two teaspoonfuls of a bitters mixture can be taken twice a day.  There is one word of warning.  As would be expected, pregnant women or nursing mothers are not advised to take bitters.  The same goes for anyone suffering from diarrhoea, intestinal obstruction or serious disorders of the liver.


Dr. Samst's formula came to light again this century when the Austrian herbalist, Maria Treban, was handed an old manuscript giving details of its preparation.  Maria Treban uses the bitters mixture both internally and applied as a compress.  Her book, Health from God's Garden sets out a surprising number of conditions which she believes respond to a course of bitters.

Perhaps this age-old remedy of bitter tasting herbs holds the answer to some of the problems caused by modern living conditions.


Strangely, the full benefits of bitter herbs do not occur if the remedy is given in a capsule to remove the taste – so put up with the nasty taste in the name of good health!