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Bitter Foods May Be Key To Better Immunity, Says This Functional Medicine Expert

Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D.
January 28, 2021
Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D.
Father of Functional Medicine
By Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D.
Father of Functional Medicine
Jeff Bland, Ph.D., is the founder of Big Bold Health, a company on a mission to transform the way people think about one of nature’s greatest innovations — the immune system. Jeff is a biochemist by training, and a lifelong educator in practice. He is widely regarded as the father of functional medicine, and served in founding roles at both the Institute for Functional Medicine and the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute. Jeff is the author of The Disease Delusion: Conquering the Causes of Chronic Illness for a Healthier, Longer, and Happier Life.
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January 28, 2021
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What does health taste like? There's certainly no single answer to that question, but we all know that "sweet" can sometimes be dangerous territory for nutrition and health.

Rather than demonize sweet, and the sugar that delivers it, I've started thinking more about the flip side of this equation. If sweet is a taste profile we're generally advised to limit, is there a different profile worth adding to the diet? In my experience, there is: Let me tell you why bitter is better.

Why is bitter better for health?

Bitter foods and beverages can trigger an entirely different physiological response than sweet ones, especially when it comes to your immunity. Sweet tends to activate cravings and immune vigilance, while bitter activates satiety, detoxification, and immune rejuvenation.

We've all gotten a lot smarter about immunity over the past year, so I won't belabor the point. Suffice it to say, vigilance and boosting can be the last thing we need when so many of our immune systems are stuck on high alert and compromised by chronic inflammation.

If taste receptors have this profound impact on immune response, then we need to start moving our palates away from those sweet receptors like ghrelin and toward bitter receptors like glucagon-like peptide-1. We can use taste to inform our diets and help our bodies achieve the balance it craves. We can train for immunity, with bitter-tasting foods a key part of that training.

Bitterness as resilience.

So how do you get more bitterness into your diet? You're likely already doing it. Think about coffee, or grapefruit, or the hops in beer. These are all bitter foods with an array of established health benefits.

I've been working closely with Himalayan Tartary buckwheat through my new company, Big Bold Health. This particular species of buckwheat is a powerhouse for nutrition—in particular, it contains key immuno-rejuvenating compounds rutin and quercetin—but it can register as bitter on the palate, so I set out to learn why. I discovered, during the processes of cooking and chewing, rutin breaks down into quercetin, a bitter phytonutrient that's getting a lot of attention these days for its ability to improve immune function.

But there's more to this story. This plant has survived the harsh growing conditions of its Himalayan mountain valleys. It did so by producing a portfolio of unique compounds that became the stress-fighting immune system of the plant itself.

Of course, it's all connected. A hardy plant produces the tools it needs to survive in harsh conditions, and those phytonutrients deliver powerful benefit to whoever eats them. Hardiness leads to resilience. Maybe health does taste like bitter.

Put it into practice.

There are lots of ways to get more bitter in your diet without suffering through meals that make your mouth pucker. With dietary supplements, you can enjoy the benefits of bitter compounds without tasting them at all. You can also choose powders and beverages that use healthier sweeteners like monk fruit to downplay the bitter for a better overall taste.

Or, like me, you can do the real work of adjusting your palate. Before you know it, you just might find yourself hungry for more bitter and less sweet.


Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D. author page.
Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D.
Father of Functional Medicine

Jeff Bland, Ph.D. is the founder of Big Bold Health, a company on a mission to transform the way people think about one of nature’s greatest innovations — the immune system. Through Big Bold Health, Jeff is advocating for the power of immuno-rejuvenation to enhance immunity at a global level, often through the rediscovery of ancient food crops and superfoods. To get there, Jeff is building a network of small farms and suppliers throughout the US that take a clear stance on regenerative agriculture, environmental stewardship, and planetary health.

Jeff’s career in health spans more than 40 years. A nutritional biochemist by training, he began in academia as a university professor, where he was profoundly influenced by a sabbatical spent working with two-time Nobel Laureate, Dr. Linus Pauling. Jeff then spent three decades in the nutritional products industry, where he served as the Chief Science Officer at Metagenics, and worked alongside other pioneers to establish standards for evidence-based formulations, quality ingredient sourcing, and ethical manufacturing practices that stand to this day.

A lifelong educator, Jeff has traveled the world many times over in his role as the “father of functional medicine.” In 1991, he and his wife, Susan, founded The Institute for Functional Medicine. This organization has grown to become the global leader in functional medicine education. Hundreds of thousands of healthcare professionals have now participated in IFM programs, and this collective knowledge has positively impacted the lives of patients all over the world. In 2012, Jeff founded another educational nonprofit called the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute. This organization has become well-known as the host of Jeff’s signature annual conference, the Thought Leaders Consortium.

Jeff is the author of The Disease Delusion: Conquering the Causes of Chronic Illness for a Healthier, Longer, and Happier Life, among countless additional books and research papers.