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Do You Have Trouble Digesting Fats?

improve fat digestion with ox bile and bitters

Maybe you’ve had your gallbladder removed. Or maybe your stomach just gets a little unsettled when you eat fatty foods. Perhaps you’re pregnant, and the very thought of higher fat foods starts a wave of nausea you have to fight to resist.

Whatever the reason, you’re a person who finds digesting fats hard.

So when you hear me raving about ways to get more fat in your diet, you think, “Well, that’s nice for you, but I just can’t do that.” Then maybe a small part of you feels angsty because you’re missing out. You’d love to eat more fat. It’s tasty! It’s full of important fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E & K-2. It keeps your skin blemish free, your moods serene, your hormones well-regulated.

But… you just can’t.

Good news! Maybe you really CAN, thanks to a little known traditional remedy for people like you.

Ox Bile and Bitters: Aiding Fat Digestion Since … Forever!

Traditional Medicine on every continent has acknowledged the import of these two supplements for many hundreds, if not thousands of years. What are they? How can they help you?

Ox Bile

This is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the bile from oxen.

Bile is what your body produces to help you digest the fats you eat. Your liver excretes the bile, then stores it in your gallbladder for later use. Ultimately, the bile helps breakdown the fats you eat and aids your body in the absorption of the ultra-important fat soluble vitamins.

If, for any reason, you’re running deficient in bile, you’ll have trouble digesting fats. You may get gallstones, have big swings in your blood cholesterol and lipid levels, or suffer from constipation.

Ox bile is chemically similar to our own bile, and our bodies have no trouble using it alongside our own bile for the exact same purpose.

How to Take Ox Bile

If you’ve got issues digesting fats, try taking a single 500mg pill shortly before you eat meals or take any fatty supplements (like cod liver oil) or other fat-soluble vitamins. If you’re still uncomfortable, take more. Your goal ought to be to completely eliminate your symptoms of digestive distress.

If you take too much, your digestive symptoms will likely swing the other way — towards diarrhea. If that happens, just reduce your dosage back down.

(Where to buy ox bile)

Bitters

Bitters are herbal infusions made from bitter herbs. They stimulate your liver to produce more bile and work more efficiently.

They have a long history in traditional medicine and an equally long history in traditional cuisine. Many cultures around the world begin meals with a quick burst of bitters.

The French will drink an apéritif. Many cultures will drink a tea made from bitter herbs like dandelion or milk thistle. Others will simply chow down on a small salad filled with bitter herbs like chicory, arugula, radicchio, or even peppermint (yes, peppermint is considered a bitter).

These bitters stimulate your body to release the hormone gastrin, which in turn increases your gastric acid levels, bile production, and many other important secretions along your digestive tract. This not only aids in the digestion of fats, but it also helps your body breakdown proteins, stimulates the the self-repair mechanisms in your intestinal wall, and eases the passing of stool.

How to Get More Bitters in Your Diet

Traditionally, people consume these small doses of bitters about 15 minutes or so before eating meals.

You can try out a homemade apéritif made with homemade bitters like those found in the book Natural Cocktails.

Or, you could try beginning your meals with a small salad with crisp, bitter herbs.

If neither of these is practical, you could simply take a dropper full of an herbal bitter tincture just before meals. (Hint: Be sure to mix this in a bit of water first, otherwise the bitter flavor may be too overpowering and unpleasant.)

(Where to buy herbal bitter tinctures)

Sources:
Bitter Herbs Sweeten Digestion
Bitters: The Revival of a Forgotten Flavor

(photo by lisbokt)

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.

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33 Responses to Do You Have Trouble Digesting Fats?
  1. Rebecca
    December 17, 2012 | 1:22 pm

    Are Swedish Bitters the same thing as “bitters” that you are talking about?

    • KristenM
      December 17, 2012 | 1:24 pm

      Yes! Really any bitter herb aids digestion, so you can find them ANYWHERE in the world.

  2. mary light
    December 17, 2012 | 1:32 pm

    Bitters – original herbal recipes – were and probably still are originally made from cholagogue herbs, which help the liver and gallbladder function and principally dischage bile, which helps break fats down to useful constituents. It is generally trans fats and fried industrial fats the liver/gallbladder complex has the most difficult time with.

    Here is a Dandelion Chai we love for bitters infusion:
    2 cup dandelion leaves, dried (most health food stores have these in their bulk section
    1/4 cup cinnamon chips or coarsely ground cinnamon
    1/4 cup loose black or orange pekoe tea
    1 tablespoon cardomom pods
    1 teaspoons whole clove
    1/2 t. ground nutmeg
    1 teasp. dried licorice root herb, chopped

    Mix well and steep 1/4 cup to quart of boiling water, add the water to the herbs, do not boil the herbs. Let steep 20 min-hour- or longer- strain, serve with your choice of milk/cream.

  3. Angela S
    December 17, 2012 | 1:33 pm

    My Alternative MD started me on a product by Transformation Professional Protocal called Lypo. It has made all the difference in the world for my gallbladder-less body. I had gotten to where i could not eat fats without painful cramping and gas. Now I’m able to eat more fat and feel better.

  4. Nancy Hamilton
    December 17, 2012 | 1:34 pm

    If ox bile, and bitters which increases bile production, what does this do to a person who has a problem with acid reflux?

    • KristenM
      December 17, 2012 | 1:42 pm

      Hi Nancy,

      That’s an excellent question! In one of the source articles I linked to, the author (a nutritionist) responds to this point by saying:

      “The smooth muscle of the stomach is also stimulated by the bitter reflex, which increases the rate of gastric emptying, and contracts the esophageal sphincter to prevent the movement of acidic stomach contents upwards into the esophagus…. While many people with GERD are hesitant to partake of bitters due to the potential increase in stomach acidity, the combined effect of these actions actually can help this condition by ensuring that the stomach contents are moved downward rather than allowed to reflux back up and out of the stomach. Bitters also act to heal any damage done to the gastric mucosa.”

      For a more in-depth explanation of why they can help, read this:
      http://chriskresser.com/get-rid-of-heartburn-and-gerd-forever-in-three-simple-steps

  5. chuck
    December 17, 2012 | 1:58 pm

    coconut oil and which is a medium chain triglyceride, does not need bile to digest. that info could be helpful to many.
    http://www.ofspirit.com/brucefife1.htm

  6. Linda
    December 17, 2012 | 10:19 pm

    Very interesting post and replies. Thank you!

  7. Stephen Greenfield
    December 18, 2012 | 10:21 am

    I use chicory in my coffee and have no problems with digestion of fatty foods. Perhaps a small cup of brewed chicory before meals would help. I recommend a tablespoon chicory in 4 ounces of boiling water. Allow to steep for five minutes, filter, then drink. A little honey could be added.

    Chicory was used extensively as a coffee substitute in the South during the American Civil War, and is still readily available in coffees served in New Orleans.

    Frontier makes a granulated chicory that is the best I’ve tried. I use a scoop of chicory in my coffee (1 to 4 ratio of chicory to coffee) and have for several years. No problems with digestion of any kind. The chicory smooths out the coffee taste too.

    Stephen Greenfield

  8. Sandy
    December 18, 2012 | 10:38 am

    How is ox bile obtained? Sounds like something inhumane. I didn’t see a link in your resource center for ox bile, specifically – where is it typically sourced?

    • KristenM
      December 18, 2012 | 12:26 pm

      To my knowledge, no one raises cattle specifically to obtain glands or tissue extracts.

      So, ox bile would be a product of the meat industry — basically a way to use up every part of the animal.

      As with anything like that, you’d want to source it well, if possible!

  9. Jim
    December 18, 2012 | 12:05 pm

    This is very helpful info for me as I,unfortunately, had my gall bladder removed a long time ago. I am a bit confused though by the recommended dual remedy. If bitters stimulates the pancreas to produce more bile and one does not have a gall bladder, what happens to the bile? Hence, I can readily see the helpfulness of the ox bile, but I am uncertain about the bitters. On another note, I couldn’t find a source for ox bile via your link.

    • KristenM
      December 18, 2012 | 12:16 pm

      When the gall bladder is removed, your body still produces bile, but it is no longer stored and concentrated in the gall bladder. Instead, produced bile goes directly into your small intestine to aide digestion.

      Bitters help by stimulating bile production immediately before and during meals. This bile then goes directly to your small intestine to help digest your food.

      In other words, any bile you make isn’t stored and concentrated, but it is either used or pooped out. If you’re making too much bile, then your poop will start getting too watery, so you’ll know to cut back on the ox bile and bitters.

      As for the link, you likely have an ad blocker enabled or javascript disabled. I use an ad software to load my Resources page, so you’ll need to disable the ad blocker for that page or re-enable javascript for that page in order for it to load properly!

      Hope that helps!

      • Jim
        December 18, 2012 | 2:35 pm

        Yeah, thanks Kristen, that is really helpful.

        • Ruby
          December 19, 2012 | 1:06 am

          I had my gallbladder removed, since than I have trouble controlling outbreaks on my skin. This has been going on for 10 years. I am 44 now. hopefully this works I will try this thank you.

  10. GiGi Eats Celebrities
    December 19, 2012 | 12:43 am

    OX BILE could be my answer! Sounds disgusting but I will do anything to digest my food better!

    • KristenM
      December 19, 2012 | 5:37 pm

      It’s really not all that disgusting. It’s pills! Practically tasteless and super-quick to swallow.

  11. Elizabeth
    April 26, 2013 | 12:38 pm

    Hopefully you’ll see this, since the post was written a while back. Do you think ox bile would help if you still have a gall bladder, but it doesn’t function at 100%?

  12. Kristen
    May 6, 2013 | 3:42 pm

    Is ox bile and bitters both safe to take during pregnancy? I had my gallbladder removed a couple of years ago and take ox bile which really helps. I am wanting to get pregnant but want to make sure it is safe to take.

    • Anna
      June 6, 2013 | 10:48 pm

      Ox bile is safe, so far as I know, but not bitters! Most bitters recipes include angelica, which is contraindicated during both pregnancy and lactation, as well as several other herbs that should be avoided (licorice, senna, myrrh, cinnamon bark, valerian). I’ve read in other places that bitters are safe during pregnancy – this is NOT true!

    • Kristen
      July 29, 2013 | 4:41 pm

      It is my understanding that bitters are safe during pregnancy so long as that pregnancy is HEALTHY.

      Bitters, like raspberry leaf, oregano, cinnamon, and many other commonly used herbs are uterine toning.

      In a healthy pregnancy, this means they promote “mini-contractions” in the uterus (often imperceptible to the mother) that help strengthen it and prepare it for labor & birth.

      In an unhealthy pregnancy, where mothers have legitimate reason to fear pre-term birth, then these uterine toning herbs could stimulate labor.

      Traditional Chinese Medicine has traditionally used bitters (like Angelica, mentioned in the comment by Anna) before, during, and after pregnancy in healthy women.

      I used bitters through three pregnancies and noticed no ill effects. Does that mean you should? Your milage may vary. It really depends on the individual woman.

  13. Angel
    July 31, 2013 | 9:29 am

    I had my gallbladder out three years ago in an unavoidable removal.. Since ten I’ve been fine aside from certain days when I bile-dump. *constantly*. Would either suggestion work to help level out bile output?
    I’m so tired of the multiple pains involved in bile-dumping..

  14. Rita
    September 3, 2013 | 9:46 am

    I want to thank you for writing this article. I had my gallbladder removed more than 20 years ago because of gallstones. Now I’m experiencing great difficulty with indigestion every time I eat nuts, dairy or any fats. I have been eating low fat all these years and have not seen many articles that address this issue. My doctor just says is to eat less fat. Thank you again, your explanation is invaluable to me.

    • Marci
      October 25, 2013 | 9:02 am

      I would recommend you take ox bile with meals to digest fats.

  15. Marci
    October 23, 2013 | 1:06 pm

    I am taking ox bile to help my gallbladder (which has some stones) and use digestive bitters as well as HCL to increase stomach acid. Since bile emulsifies fat and alkalizes acid, would it be at odds with the bitters/HCL by taking them both with meals? Shouldn’t the bile be taken after the food is broken down and ready to enter the small intestines, when the acid needs to be neutralized, perhaps an hour or so after eating? Would love some clarification on this.

  16. Mari
    January 22, 2014 | 7:15 pm

    Just wanted to leave a note about a somewhat less… ferocious :) bitters product. Urban Moonshine’s Citrus Bitters **in the spray bottle** aren’t all that bad, and this from a “supertaster” who cannot eat a mouthful of kale without retching. Not kidding. I still shudder and make faces, but I get it down. (From the dropper or a spoon, it’s absolutely horrible. Has to be the spray, it spreads it out and reduces the burn. And this is NOT a product for anyone who avoids alcohol due to substance abuse history, because they are very strongly alcoholic in flavor and feel which I believe would definitely be triggering. A dose is only 1/8 to 1/4 tsp so my doctor deems it fine to take with other medications I use that are very, very dangerous to combine with alcohol.) I have two of the spray bottles, one for home and one for my purse, which I refill from the large 8oz bottle. I use 7 sprays every time I eat since I have no gallbladder, gastroparesis, chronic pancreatitis, and hypochlorhydria due to scarring from erosive gastritis which also caused pernicious anemia (but HCL supplements cause severe stomach pain so I gotta stimulate those acid pumps that ARE there to do their jobs!). I also use a digestive enzyme product – Omega-Zyme Ultra from Garden of Life – which has made a significant difference from baseline, but things have improved a great deal further since adding the bitters.

    Urban Moonshine’s original bitters were too strong for me to manage; luckily a local health-food store has tester bottles. I did not care for the maple bitters at all and I love-love-love-love maple anything (I even make maple soda by stirring a tsp into fizzywater)… I think the bitters spoil the maple flavor and that’s why I don’t like it. :)

    Does anyone know of an ox bile product that is *known* to be sourced from non-CAFO bovines *and not from China*? Ox bile is used in Chinese traditional medicine, however between their history of food adulteration/contamination and their stunning levels of environmental pollution, I do not trust ANY foodstuffs or medicaments from China.

  17. Emil Eidt via Facebook
    January 28, 2014 | 11:00 pm

    Nope, I’m having trouble digesting facts. :D

  18. Stephanie Anderson via Facebook
    January 28, 2014 | 11:29 pm

    Standard Process makes a bile salts supplement called Cholacol that has collinsonia root in it to support the vascular system because hemorrhoids and varicose veins can be aggravated if bile salts are taken alone. Great product!

  19. Brenda Poppe via Facebook
    January 28, 2014 | 11:36 pm

    I’ve had good luck with DoTerra’s DigesZen blend of essential oils when I eat a lot of fatty food. Sometimes I get a little indegestion/heartburn even when they are all good fats. I don’t love the anise smell, but it does the trick!

  20. Mary Light via Facebook
    January 29, 2014 | 9:13 am

    We can improve our liver function without adding ox bile! Or other processed and isolated DRUGS which are offered by the nutrasceutical companies. Local herbs for centuries have done the trick- dandelion tea will do it, anise/clove tea, in India cultures Chai is for this purpose….it’s not the higher fat foods necessarily it is the way they are eaten, the lack of chewing, and the condition of the liver.

  21. Raine Irving Saunders via Facebook
    January 30, 2014 | 3:23 pm

    My gallbladder was removed in 2001, and I had difficulty digesting fats for years because I didn’t understand the function of the gallbladder, and that we need it to store bile for when we eat fats. I have finally found some good digestive enzyme to help and I take them daily. I tried bitters and ox bile too, and I think sometimes those work for me, but the digestive enzymes are more consistent. But I know many who have had success with ox bile and bitters. Great post! :)

  22. Norma Roberts
    May 18, 2014 | 5:41 am

    If you have been diagnosed with gallstones, be careful with anything that stimulates bile production, as this can cause a stone to become lodged in the bile duct. This happened to me and the bile was trapped in my gallbladder causing it to become sceptic which resulted in an emergency hospital admission.

    Also 10% of people who have had their gallbladder removed can suffer from a mixture of acid and/or bile reflux, therefore anything which makes you produce more bile is a no no, as this means there will be more chance that bile will reflux into your stomach, where it really should not be!

    I was told these things by the consultant who removed my gallbladder, and later by my GP who is treating me for acid/bile reflux. I was drinking a chicory based coffee substitute after I stopped drinking coffee, but this has just added to my problems, because I am now producing too much bile which is refluxing into my throat and it is very painful!

  23. Stella
    May 19, 2014 | 7:08 pm

    should I take ox bile when I consume bone broth? I get acne from all fats. any thoughts?

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.