Making a Herbal Bitters: an exploration and recipe
Herbal bitters are an incredible support to the digestive system. When we take them saliva is secreted, gastric juices are released, bile production increases, the vagus nerve (which is a part of the parasympathetic nervous system) comes online, enabling us to relax and digest. Perfect for everyone, but they can also be a massive support for anyone who is dealing with stomach problems: from IBS, anxiety, gas, heartburn + bloating to chronic health problems like Crohn's disease. You can take them a little while before eating, so by the time food reaches your stomach, your body is prepared, relaxed and ready to digest. A Bitters recipe can include a variety of other herbs (that are not necessarily bitter) that support, stimulate and soothe all of the aspects of digestion in the body,
*** BITTER HERB ***
Artemisia absinthium: Wormwood
There are a few herbs well known for their bitter compounds: wormwood, roman chamomile, artichoke and yellow gentian are some.
I decided to choose Wormwood because I recently found wormwood growing by the sea and was able to harvest some, making it an easy and accessible choice for making bitters with, I was also excited to get to know and try this plant as I haven't worked with wormwood before. I have a lot of experience working with mugwort, (Artemisia vulgaris) and i love mugwort, so i am keen to get to know a close family member too.
Wormwood is a brilliant digestive tonic and is very bitter, this bitterness sets off a chain reaction in the digestive system, first stimulating the taste receptors in the tongue which then stimulate the digestive juices in the stomach, readying the system to digest food. **THE DIGESTIVE CASCADE** (think of a waterfall). Wormwood has been found to cause a dramatic increase in gastric secretions (due to absinthin - a sesquiterpene lactone) and to activate the vagus nerve which affects the digestive system and stomach. (3) In one scientific study that gave wormwood to people suffering from Crohn's disease, which is a chronically inflamed digestive system, 65% experienced a drastic decrease of most of their symptoms, compared to the control group who experienced no difference. (4)
Wormwood contains thujone which can be toxic in large doses so It’s good to take wormwood in small doses for no more than a month at a time and to avoid it altogether during pregnancy. (1)
When making herbal bitters, the bitter herb (wormwood, roman chamomile, artichoke etc) wants to make up about 10% of the recipe.
*** AROMATIC HERBS ***
Mentha spicata: Spearmint
Elettaria cardamomum: Cardamom
Lavandula officinalis: Lavender
Spearmint: I have spearmint growing in my garden so it felt like a natural choice bringing a soothing action to the stomach, working as a carminative and increasing digestive juices, it has similar properties to peppermint but is slightly milder(1). The flavour of spearmint is also very uplifting and soothing. mmmmmmmmmm.
Cardamom: Cardamom has a delicious taste, which will compliment spearmint. It is a spice originally found in the wild in southern India and Sri Lanka and was commonly used by the Greeks and Romans as a digestive tonic, and has also been used throughout history for a variety of digestive complaints such as indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome. (1)(6)
Lavender: choosing a third herb was the most complex decision for me... initially i thought about camomile, due to its mucilage properties but I decided against choosing camomile as it will add more bitter flavours to the mix. Next I considered mallow which would add a soothing, demulcent (soothing and protecting mucous membrane) and anti-inflammatory effect on the digestive system, without adding any more strong flavours. My initial choice to use mallow leaves didn’t make sense once i had considered which menstruum to use (vodka), as the demulcent, soothing properties of mallow are more suited to a cool extraction.
In the end i decided to go for lavender, which as well as being carminative is also a relaxant and an anxiolytic (anxiety-relieving), reducing spasms and supporting gut function. Lavender also contains bitters, working as an antispasmodic to the gall bladder, as well as having an anti-inflammatory effect in the duodenum where acids are secreted.(5) All of this digestive stimulation with the added benefits of being a nervine and a calm nervous system = better digestion. Lavender is another strong flavour but my sense is that it will blend well with spearmint and cardamom.
*** MENSTRUUM ***
vodka: I considered whether to use an alcohol or vinegar for the bitters. Raw vinegars, such as apple cider vinegar, are particularly good for indigestion caused by low stomach acid (2) and also have all sorts of health benefits and probiotics that would support the digestive system. Alcohol on the other hand is good for extracting bitters and aromatic herbs to support the digestive system, and it has heating and warming properties (2) which would also be supportive to digestion. You need 45% strength alcohol for extracting wormwood (2), so vodka would make more sense than a strong wine. So I decided to go with vodka in the end to make the most of the extraction of wormwood and the aromatic plants i have chosen.
Making Herbal Bitters
a vague* recipe for wormwood, spearmint, lavender + cardamom bitters
( *my recipes are always a bit vague as I'm a fan of adapting to what you have, fresh can be substituted for dried for example.)
2 teaspoons of dried Wormwood
5 sprigs of fresh spearmint
10 sprigs of fresh lavender
2 teaspoons of dried cardamom pods
A Glass jar
A note on ingredients: I had to make these bitters in a bit of a rush so i used fresh herbs from my garden and wormwood that i had dried previously, I could have used fresh or dried plants for any of the ingredients, but it's important to adjust amounts: use less if they are dried and more if they are fresh. Dried herbs have less water content so they take up less space, it looks like you are using less but your actually just adding less water. Ideally i would also have used a stronger alcohol to extract the bitters from the wormwood but i don't have access to it as i'm not a qualified herbalist.
Sterilise the glass jar: Pour boiling water into the jar and lid, leave it for 30 seconds then pour the water out and dry with a clean tea towel.
Chop up the herbs and add them to the sterilised jar
Fully cover the herbs with approx 300ml of vodka
Store the jar in a dark cool place for around 3-4 weeks.
Strain the mixture with muslin cloth separating the liquid from the herbs.
Put the liquid in a dropper bottle and label
Take 20 drops about 15 minutes before eating to start the digestive flow and for ongoing support of the digestive system ✨✨✨ (don’t take for longer than a month at a time)
(1) Chevallier. A (2016) Encyclopaedia of herbal medicine. New York: DK Publishing.
(2) Christopher Hedley + Non Shaw (2020) The herbal book of making and taking. London: Aeon books.
(3) Richard Whelan (2011) Herbs from A-Z: Wormwood. https://www.rjwhelan.co.nz/herbs%20A-Z/wormwood.html
(4) Pubmed. (2007) Steroid-sparing effect of wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) in Crohn's disease: a double-blind placebo-controlled study. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17240130/
(5) Heartwood Foundation. (2020). FC Unit 6: Materia Medica 2: Section 7: Lavender. https://heartwood-uk.net/lms/course/view.php?id=602
(6) Czarra. F (2009) Spices A Global History. London: Reaktion Books.