Absinthe has gained a reputation as a dangerous, hallucinatory substance, but that is far from its original use as a bitter. Made with wormwood, green anise and fennel, absinthe was originally intended for use in small quantities as an aperitif, a liqueur consumed before meals to help stimulate digestion. While the absinthe available today may or may not contain the same ingredients, these botanical herbs are still used to aid digestive issues.

Aperitifs and digestifs have been consumed for centuries in Europe. In Germany they are known as Kräuterlikör or “herb liqueur” and in Italy as Amaro, which literally means “bitter.” In Italy, the popular liquor Aperol is an aperitif that contains bitter orange, cinchona and gentian, one of the strongest botanical bitters. 

These liqueurs are called bitters because the herbs have a bitter taste that stimulate your gallbladder to release bile, triggering the digestive process. The reason for this mechanism is that if someone ingests a bitter plant there is a high likelihood that it is poisonous, so the body responds by speeding up the digestive process to ensure the potentially toxic plant moves through the system as quickly as possible.

Today, bitter herbs are still used medicinally for digestive complaints, such as gas, bloating, constipation and indigestion. By increasing the activity of your bowels, bitters can be an effective way to combat constipation, low appetite, nausea, gas and bloating.

Do you sometimes experience gastric irritation? Here are three herbs commonly recommended:

  1. Anise (Artemisia absinthium) — A carminative, which decreases abdominal cramping, gas and bloating.  It has a sweet, aromatic taste that resembles black licorice. It is available in herbal form as a tea or in a tincture to be taken orally.
  2. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) — A bitter to stimulate digestion and decrease constipation. This flowering herb has a pungent smell and grows wild in fields almost anywhere in the world. Its leaves and flowers can be dried and used as a tea or made into a tincture.
  3. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) — A carminative, which decreases abdominal cramping, gas and bloating. It is a pleasant-smelling, flowering plant originally from the Mediterranean. Its seeds can be made into a tea or a tincture.