Bitters vs. Digestive Enzymes by rachael keener, november 20, 2015

It is not uncommon for our digestive systems to need a little extra support.  Sometimes it’s an aching belly that signals to us that our digestive systems could use a little help.  Sometimes gas, bloating, loose stools or constipation alert us.  And sometimes, allergies and hypersensitivities are what tell us that our digestion may be lagging.  Many people turn to digestive enzyme supplements to support their digestive function, while others reach for a bottle of bitters.  So what is the difference between these two options?  Quite a lot, in fact!

Digestive enzymes are naturally produced and excreted by our body throughout our digestive tracts.  They help us break down our food so that we may absorb all of its nutrients.  Efficient food breakdown also prevents uncomfortable gas formation and large food particles from entering our blood stream and wreaking havoc.  Enzymes do many other things, in addition, like protect us from pathogens in our food.


Given the important role they play, it seems reasonable to consider supporting healthy enzyme levels.  Bitters support your body’s ability to do its own job by prompting it to release digestive enzymes. Digestive enzyme supplementation, however, side-steps that function entirely.  It skips our body’s healthy, natural process and instead arrives at the end of the chain with a temporary fix from the outside world.

These supplements usually contain just one or a few enzymes (isolated from plant, fungal or animal sources), which means it’s quite possible that they are not even the right fix for the job.  Studies also show that often times we digest the enzyme supplements before they reach a place in our digestion where they could help us.

Bitters, on the other hand, are made from whole plant extracts.  From the moment they hit the tongue, they stimulate not only enzyme release throughout the entire digestive tract, but also other integral digestive secretions such as stomach acid (HCl) and bile. Digestion is complex and dynamic with lots of interdependent aspects.  This being the case, a comprehensive approach is generally helpful when supporting digestive health.  Bitters are often the balanced and gentle, yet effective, solution.

When choosing between digestive enzymes and bitters, I use this analogy: If you needed to make salad on a daily basis, would you rather someone give you a single carrot (digestive enzyme supplement) each day or a garden with seeds for 10 different vegetables (bitters)?  Bitters give your digestive system much more to work with and support self-reliance.

The answer seems obvious:  Pass the bitters, please! Or, gift them this season–check out our bitters gift profile!



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18 thoughts on “Bitters vs. Digestive Enzymes by rachael keener, november 20, 2015

  1. This is a great post! I am brand new to bitters and recently purchased from you. I have taken enzymes for years. According to this blog, u should be able to give up my enzymes completely and do the bitter prior to my meals ONLY? What happens if we do both? Or that negates the whole purpose of the bitters? Thanks!

  2. Hi Maria: It’s just fine to take bitters before a meal alongside digestive enzymes. But since bitters ‘wake up’ your pancreas and support its ability to make digestive enzymes on its own, you’ll find that you need the external enzyme supplementation less and less. Once you start taking bitters, we suggest slowly reducing the amount of enzyme supplements you take over the course of two to three weeks. Thanks for reading!

  3. I have been taking Planetary Herbals Digestive Grape Bitters for years and love it. Is Swedish Bitters the same type of product? Would I need both?

  4. Bitters stimulate the production of all endogenous enzymes, including lipases. That said, we often see more warming bitters (featuring ingredients like Angelica, Ginger, and/or Orange peel) used in the context of high-fat meals, as the warming pungents seem to be able to modulate the movement of rich foods through the upper digestive tract, helping to relieve the feeling that food is “stuck” or moving too sluggishly.

  5. Swedish bitters contains ingredients that have traditionally been used for their bowel-moving action. These are not present in the Planetary Herbals product. The flavor profile for the Planetary Herbals product would also make it more palatable (if you like grape) compared to the Swedish Bitters. In sum, talk to your herbalist or healthcare provider – but know that Swedish Bitters might be more indicated if you suffer from occasional irregularity, and all bitters provide great digestive support!

  6. We cannot recommend specific herbs or products for someone without a gallbladder, and encourage you to speak with your local herbalist or healthcare provider. That said, while digestive bitters support the normal release of bile from the gallbladder, they also encourage healthy production of bile at the level of the liver even if the gallbladder has been removed.

  7. Hi
    Are any of your bitters without alcohol? I ordered some last fall …the maple syrup type and the alcohol is really strong. I really need some type of bitters to help digest fats/protein. Not being able to digest them has caused a b12 deficiency and my body freaks out over b12 supplementation. I need something to be able to break them down, so my body can once again utilize the b12. I had an injury to my vagus nerve which has caused a fight or flight syndrome. It is slowly healing, but right now I need a bit of help. Thanks so much for any help you can give me.


  8. Hi Kim–Thanks for your questions! We now have an apple cider vinegar bitters that is made without alcohol that you might want to try. Like all our bitters, it supports the healthy production of our own digestive enzymes which are important for the digestion of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. We unfortunately can’t give any specific recommendations in your case, and encourage you to consult your local herbalist or other botanically-minded healthcare provider. Best of luck!

  9. What if someone has a tube feed? We are blending veggies and real whole foods besides a bit of the formula, and are having no problems, but wondered whether something should be supplied to take the place of the digestion that begins in the mouth with saliva. Maybe hat’s not necessary since it is all blended very fine.

  10. We really can’t comment on the specific details of your case, please speak with a qualified herbalist about how to use bitters effectively in your situation.

  11. i have a bottle of bitters which says the expiry date is June 2016 – should I throw them away?

  12. Hi Georgina: Check with your local herbalist. Depending on storage conditions, most tinctures are good for 3-5 years after manufacturing. At that point, they don’t “spoil” in the sense that they would be dangerous to ingest – it’s more that the potency of the extractives decreases. A competent herbalist, upon tasting the bitters, would be able to tell you quickly if they would still be useful for you.

  13. I’ve had diabetes for 47 years & my pancreas doesn’t work at all. Since I read that bitters work to ‘wake up’ your pancreas and support its ability to make digestive enzymes on its own will they help me with digestive issues & possibly even diabetes? Thanks for informing me in this matter.

  14. How much bitters do you take? I usually drink a tablespoonful when I have an upset stomach. Should I be taking more or less?

  15. Hi Dale, Digestive bitters will help support the normal production of digestive enzymes from the pancreas, and also help keep normal blood sugar ranges stable. The applicability of bitters in your particular case is something we unfortunately can’t comment on, and recommend a conversation with your local herbalist or healthcare provider. Thanks.

  16. Hi Janet, A tablespoon is more than we usually recommend, though in some traditional applications doses of up to 2 tablespoons are taken (about 1 fluid ounce). Despite bitters’ safety, we suggest taking the lowest effective dose, and have found this to be about 1/4 teaspoon once, or up to six times a day. Taken six times a day, that translates to about 1/2 tablespoon. Thanks

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