Let Food be Thy Medicine: Building Immunity Through Bitterness

building immunity with bitter foods such as lemons and kale

When Building Immunity Matters

With the coronavirus pandemic underway, many people are looking for natural ways to support their immune system. It’s easy to get frightened and search the Internet of all the ways to protect ourselves from disease and infection. Ayurveda reminds us, however, that food is one of the most important things we can choose and change to keep our bodies in balance. While supplements and vitamins can be beneficial, it is important to remember that our bodies have been programmed to process whole foods.  Building immunity is something we can do through foods, using taste as our guide.

Taste in Ayurveda

In Ayurveda, taste, or rasa,  is recognized as being extremely important to the digestion and transformation of food into energy for our tissues, or dhatus.  Taste receptors on our tongue help prepare our digestive organs for what is about to enter our stomachs by initiating a signaling pathway that communicates information to the brain about the nutrient content or potential toxicity of ingested foods.

Think of an assembly line in a factory where 5 different cars are made with 5 different sets of parts and tools.  What would happen if the workers didn’t know what car was coming down to be made until it was already there?  Do you think it would make things harder and less efficient? Of course! In the same way, think of taste as an important messenger in our body, sending a heads up to the rest of the workers down in the factory of what they are going to be working on next so they can have all the parts and tools ready to go.

Why Ayurveda is great for Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

As a pregnant mother myself, I am especially wary of adding supplements and/or medicine unless absolutely necessary. The truth is that even things that are seemingly safe, we just don’t know a lot about how they affect a pregnant mother or a breastfeeding baby. I prefer to error on the side of caution. One of the reasons I love Ayurveda, is because food is so emphasized….all you have to do is look at your diet to make impactful changes to your health.

Six Tastes of Ayurveda

There are six tastes of Ayurveda, and many foods contain qualities of more than one taste.




-Pungent (spicy)



Why is Bitter important in Building Immunity?

Emerging evidence is pointing to the fact that bitter taste receptors on our tongue play an important role in building immunity. In fact, for every one taste receptor for the sweet, sour, salty and savory tastes, there are 25 taste receptors to detect bitter!! 

Some bitter plants are deadly, and most likely as an evolutionary adaptation, bitter tastes seem to activate the immune system protecting us from infection. When a bitter taste is ingested, the cilia in our respiratory tract or stimulated to move faster to move toxins to the throat so they can be swallowed, spit up, or coughed out.

After the cilia are activated, nasal cells release bacteria killing nitrous oxide…therefore activating an immune response in seconds.

 From the Journal of Clinical Investigation, “Bitter taste receptors (T2Rs) (7) are emerging as novel regulators of innate immunity in the respiratory tract (8). Originally identified in type II taste receptor cells of the tongue, T2Rs are thought to protect against the ingestion of toxic compounds, including bacterial products from spoiled foods. T2Rs are G protein–coupled receptors previously shown to be expressed in the cilia of human bronchial (9) and sinonasal epithelial cells (10), in which their activation increases ciliary beat frequency (CBF) and thus mucociliary clearance.”

Basically, tongue tastes something bitter, tongue sends message to rest of body to activate our immune system, and the rest of the body, particularly in our respiratory system, goes to work to protect us.

See how that can be super beneficial right now?

What Bitter Foods are good to eat?

Some of my favorite Bitter foods to eat are:



Collard Greens

Coffee and tea



Fenugreek (also recognized for helping milk production in breastfeeding mothers)


We know that leafy greens are great for us and full of vitamins and minerals, but this is another reason to consider them super important in times when we are trying to protect ourselves from sickness and disease.

What if I really don’t like the taste of bitter?

The good news is that by being sensitive to bitter, research shows that you are actually more likely to have a more effective immune response to the bitter taste.

You can always try adding some of these bitter foods to juices or smoothies or adding small amounts to other foods.

Try adding arugula to a sandwich or zesting a lemon over grilled chicken….work your way up to more bitter foods.

Ayurveda believes that we can strive to live in balance with nature, and that she provides everything we need….Food is thy Medicine!

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