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

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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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.


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