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What You May Not Know About Bitter Foods in Ayurveda

Updated: Apr 25

Bitter.


Most people avoid bitter foods like the plague.


In the US, the predominant tastes of the foods are sweet, sour, and salty, especially junk food.


But Ayurveda explains that all six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent) are required in every meal to have balanced nutrition (Kripalu, 7.18).


In Ayurveda, bitter foods provide one of the six tastes that will help to bring balance.


We'll cover how taste affects digestion, the Western view of the bitter taste, some info about the six tastes of Ayurveda, how the bitter taste affects the doshas, the benefits and pitfalls of the bitter taste, examples of bitter foods, and how to incorporate them into your life with some recipes.



Ayurveda bitter food: pile of bitter gourds, one sliced in half showing the seeds

How taste affects digestion


Robert Svoboda maintains that the taste in the mouth is more important than the taste in the food and that what we digest is more important than what we eat (Svoboda, Loc 487).


This is important because if we can't taste the food, then the tongue doesn't send the signal to the gut to prepare the proper enzymes to digest the food (Svoboda, Loc 487), which can lead to ama (toxins or undigested food particles that decay in the gut and pass out into the tissues as subpar nutrition). Read What is Ama in Ayurveda? And 6 Home Remedies to Clear Ama and Improve Your Life to learn more about ama.


The bitter flavor promotes the other tastes allowing the benefits of the other five tastes to be digested (Lad, 247), even if bitter isn't particularly delicious.


Western herbal view of the bitter taste


Sebastion Pole, in his book Ayurvedic Medicine: The Principles of Traditional Practice, calls bitter "the therapeutically priceless taste" because it drains and dries excess fluid creating space in the body (Pole, 65).


The Western herbal view is that bitter is toning, which is true, but many people in that community tend to overdo the bitter taste (Pole, 65).


Therefore, Pole warns that the bitter taste needs to be used wisely because overuse can cause depletion (Pole, 65).


If someone is depleted, using the bitter taste excessively will increase that depletion.


Depleted individuals should consume more sweet, sour, and salty tastes and less bitter, pungent, and astringent tastes.


Ayurveda views every substance as both a medicine and a poison, depending on the person, the time of life, the time of year, the time of day, etc.


Bitter for you one day may be a panacea, the exact medicine you need, but if you're feeling depleted, it can further deplete you causing a myriad of problems and becoming a poison to you.


Spring and summer are the best seasons to consume more of the bitter taste because kapha dosha and pitta dosha are more predominant in the environment during those seasons.


The bitter taste will help to balance kapha and pitta doshas.


Ayurveda bitter food: Brussels sprouts

6 tastes of Ayurveda


Ayurvedic nutrition is different from the Western view of nutrition.


Ayurveda explains that a balance of all 6 tastes is needed, and will provide perfect nutrition without breaking everything down into carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals.


Balance here does not mean eating the same amount of each taste.


Balance comes by having some of each of the 6 tastes in every meal in quantities that work for a particular constitution, time of life, time of year, and time of day.


Everyone needs a bit more of the sweet taste (remember that in Ayurveda the sweet taste is not just sugar, it includes grains, dairy, meat, eggs, oils, sweet veggies, and sweet fruits).


The sweet taste is building and will rejuvenate the tissues of the body, while the bitter taste is reducing and will deplete the tissues of the body.


More about the 6 tastes of Ayurveda


Ayurveda tells us that there are six tastes (AH, Sū 1/14)

  • sweet

  • sour

  • salty

  • pungent

  • bitter

  • astringent


Each of the six tastes is composed of a predominance of two elements (space, air, fire, water, earth) (CS, Sū 26/40)


  • sweet is composed of earth and water

  • sour is composed of fire and earth

  • salty is composed of water and fire

  • pungent is composed of fire and air

  • bitter is composed of ether (space) and air

  • astringent is composed of earth and air


Read 6 Tastes of Ayurveda: A Key to Finding Balance to learn more about the six tastes.


You may find a specific food that is predominant in just one of these tastes, but many foods are composed of a blend of tastes.


For example, amla (a gooseberry fruit that is used medicinally) is considered to have five of the six tastes: sour, bitter, astringent, sweet, and pungent.


Garlic is another example of a food with five of the six tastes: pungent, sour, bitter, astringent, and sweet (Yarema, 46).


Even though garlic and amla have the same five tastes, they taste very different.


This difference comes from the different proportions of each taste in these two substances.


Ayurveda bitter food: pile of zucchini in a basket

How Ayurveda tells us bitter foods affects the doshas


Bitter taste increases vata dosha (sends it out of balance), and pacifies pitta and kapha doshas (brings them back into balance).


Bitter is cooling, light, and dry making it perfect for pitta dosha.


The light and dry qualities, in addition to the pungent post-digestive effect which offsets the cooling quality, make it beneficial for kapha dosha as well.


Too much bitter taste can send vata dosha out of balance because of its cool, light, and dry qualities.



Ayurvedic benefits of bitter foods


Robert Svoboda, in his book Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Consitution, tells us the bitter taste is (Svoboda, Loc 487):

  • purifying

  • dries secretions

  • reduces fevers

  • decreases excess sexual desires

  • increases appetite

  • curbs skin diseases

  • tones the tissues

  • brings other tastes into balance.


In his book Textbook of Ayurveda: A History and Philosophy of Ayurveda, Dr Lad also includes these other benefits (Lad, 247):

  • clears toxins

  • relieves burning sensations

  • kills germs

  • destroys parasites

  • reduces itching and difficult skin disorders

  • eases inflammatory conditions

  • acts as a laxative

  • cleanses the liver

  • can relieve gas when consumed in small doses

  • reduces fat, bone marrow, urine, and stools

  • supports the pancreas


Pole explains the bitter taste has these additional benefits (Pole, 66):

  • reduces dampness

  • relieves excess heat

  • stimulates peristalsis (the movement of waste in the large intestines)

  • promotes urination

  • lessens green and sticky mucus in the lungs

  • reduces oozing, swelling, and itching of the skin

  • alleviates hepatitis and jaundice

  • clears the channels of the body



Ayurveda bitter food: aloe vera leaves sliced with a closeup view of the gel

Effects of excessive bitter foods according to Ayurveda


According to Dr. Lad, some of the effects of excessive bitter taste include (Lad, 248):

  • depletion of the tissues

  • dizziness

  • extreme dryness

  • emaciation

  • roughness (of skin, of colon, etc.)

  • weariness

  • depletion of bone marrow leading to osteoporosis

  • reduction of sexual energy


Pole continues this list with (Pole, 66):

  • upsets the nervous system

  • constipation

  • weakness

  • coldness

  • reduction in semen


Insomnia is another problem created by excess bitter taste in the diet (Yarema, 48).


Psychological effects of excess bitter


Dr. Lad tells us that some bitter taste is beneficial to the mind (Lad, 248).


It can draw your mind inward instead of outward, creating an aversion to desires, and promoting self-awareness and introspection (Lad, 248).


But excess bitter taste can create problems like (Lad, 248):

  • cynicism

  • feeling bored

  • separation

  • loneliness

  • isolation

  • aversion

  • rejection


Pole tells us that the bitter taste can create a feeling of disorientation or being "spaced out" when used in excess (Pole, 65).


When the bitter taste increases vata dosha, it can cause anxiety and worry (Pole, 65).




Ayurveda bitter food: dandelion leaves on a wooden tray

Examples of bitter foods in Ayurveda


Dr. Vasant Lad lists the following substances as containing the bitter taste (Lad, 247):

  • turmeric

  • dandelion root

  • aloe vera

  • yellow dock

  • fenugreek

  • neem

  • sandalwood

  • coffee (although coffee is aggravating to pitta dosha due to its acidity)

  • bitter melon (found in Indian grocery stores)

  • bitter gourd (found in Indian grocery stores)


Other substances with the bitter taste:

  • green tea

  • green, leafy vegetables (Kripalu, 7.20) kale, dandelion greens, Swiss chard

  • black tea (Kripalu, 7.20)

  • myrrh (Kripalu, 7.20)

  • rhubarb (Lad & Lad, 36)

  • zucchini (Yarema, 48)

  • eggplant (Yarema, 48)

  • green cabbage (Yarema, 48)

  • olives (Yarema, 48)

  • Brussels sprouts (Lad & Lad, 233)

  • castor oil (Lad & Lad, 237)

  • sesame seeds (sweet & bitter) (Lad & Lad, 237)

  • basil (astringent, bitter, & sweet) (Lad & Lad, 237)

  • bay leaf (pungent & bitter) (Lad & Lad, 237)

  • saffron (astringent & bitter (Lad & Lad, 238)

  • lemon zest



n tea in a white bowl and white tea pot on a wooden table

How to include the bitter taste in your life


Having some bitter taste in every meal is important because it helps to stimulate the release of the correct enzymes to be digested.


One way to include the bitter taste into your life is by eating the bitter foods listed above like kale, dandelion greens, green cabbage, zucchini, and eggplant.


Another way to include the bitter taste in your life is by using spices like turmeric, saffron, bay leaves, and basil.


Condiments and side dishes are another way to include the bitter taste in your meals.


Bitter gourd is a delicious side dish when sauteed with onions and spices.


Green olives can be served along with a meal as a condiment or added as an ingredient.




Recipes including the bitter taste


Here are some recipes that include the bitter taste.




Ayurveda bitter food: soup of greens recipe with kale leaves


Ayurveda bitter food: Sauteed Swiss Chard recipe with a leaf of Swiss chard


Ayurveda bitter food: Recipe for Red Lentil and Quinoa Kitchari with Greens


Ayurveda bitter foods


Ayurveda shows that adding bitter foods to every meal is so beneficial.


It's important to find the right quantity for each individual depending on the constitution, current state of balance, time of life, time of year, and time of day.


If you would like help figuring out the right quantity for you, you may want to seek out an Ayurvedic Practitioner to help you.








 


Lad, Vasant M.A.Sc. Textbook of Ayurveda: General Principles of Management and Treatment. 1st ed., vol. 3, The Ayurvedic Press, 2012.


Kripalu Center. "Foundations of Āyurveda." 2019. PDF


Vagbhata. Astanga Hrdayam. Translated by Prof. K. R. Srikantha Murthy, 7th ed., vol. 1, Chowkhamba Krishnadas Academy, 2010.


Pole, Sebastian. Ayurvedic Medicine: The Principles of Traditional Practice. 2nd ed., Singing Dragon, 2013.


Svoboda, Robert. "Chapter 3 - Food." Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution. Kindle. Sadhana Publications, 1998.


Lad, Usha, and Vasant Lad. Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing. 2nd ed., The Ayurvedic Press, 1997.


Yarema, Thomas R. Eat Taste Heal: An Ayurvedic Cookbook for Modern Living. 1st ed., 5 Elements Press, 2006.


Dubey S.D., Singh A.N., Singh A., Deole Y. S.. "Atreyabhadrakapyiya Adhyaya". Charak Samhita New Edition, edited by Sirdeshpande M.K., Deole Y.S., Basisht G., eds., 1st edition, CSRTSDC, 2020, pp. 28, Doi:10.47468/CSNE.2020.e01.s01.028

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