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Bitter Melon: the Medicinal Fruit for Diabetes, Cancer and More
July 17, 2016
Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) is a type of edible, medicinal fruit that is native to Asia, Africa and parts of the Caribbean. It has a very long history of use in China, Ayurvedic medicine — a traditional system of healing that has been practiced for India for over 3,000 years — and also in some of the healthiest places of the world, such as Okinawa, Japan (one of the world’s “blue zones”). (1)
Records show that culinary and medicinal uses of bitter melon originated in India, then were introduced into Traditional Chinese Medicine practices around the 14th century. Knowing that bitter foods tend to be cleansing for the body and capable of boosting liver health, the Chinese were attracted to bitter melon’s extremely sour taste. They began cooking and using the fruit in recipes, as well as juicing it to create a tonic in order to help treat such conditions as indigestion, an upset stomach, skin wounds, chronic coughs and respiratory infections.
Bitter melon has been the focus of well over 100 clinical and observational studies. It’s best known for its hypoglycemic affects (the ability to lower blood sugar), and research shows that the melon’s juice, fruit and dried powder can all be used to mimic insulin’s effects and treat diabetes. (2)
Although researchers state that further studies are required to recommend its use for certain conditions, according to a 2004 review published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, findings show that bitter melon has some of the following benefits: (3)
- Managing blood sugar levels and diabetes
- Reducing respiratory infections such as pneumonia
- Lowering inflammation and raising immunity
- Treating abdominal pain, peptic ulcers, constipation, cramps and fluid retention
- Increasing cancer-protection
- Reducing fevers and coughs
- Lowering menstrual irregularity
- Treating skin conditions including eczema, scabies and psoriasis
- Antiviral, antibacterial and anthelmintic properties (including those that can be used to prevent or treat parasites, HIV/AIDS, malaria and even leprosy)
- Treating gout, jaundice and kidney stones
- Managing symptoms of autoimmune disorders including rheumatoid arthritis
What Is Bitter Melon?
Momordica charantia goes by several common names around the world, including bitter melon, bitter gourd, balsam, bitter apple and carilla fruit. It belongs to the cucurbitaceae plant family and today is primarily grown in two varieties for its medicinal benefits (M. charantia var. charantia and M. charantia var. muricata), mostly throughout parts of India.
Over a dozen different species of the plant can be found growing throughout the world, and the beneficial properties, taste, texture, size and appearance differ from plant species to species. The most widely grown type of bitter melon plant produces a small, round fruit that has a distinct, highly sour/tart taste.
The immature fruit is sometimes eaten as a vegetable and added to stir-fries or other recipes, especially throughout Asia. It can be consumed both raw and when cooked, as well as used to make a concentrated extract that contains high levels of anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral compounds.
- According to the National Bitter Melon Council, at least 32 active chemicals have been identified in bitter melon.
- What gives the bitter melon plant it’s signature sour flavor is a type of alkaloid momordicine compound, which is produced in the plant’s fruit and leaves.
- In immature vegetable form, bitter melon is also a good source of nutrients including vitamin A, vitamin C, iron and phosphorus.
- One of its most important attributes, Momordica charantia contains biologically active phytonutrients and antioxidants. These include chemical compounds such as phenolic acids, glycosides, saponins, alkaloids, fixed oils, triterpenes, insulin-like peptides, and certain types of anti-inflammatory proteins and steroids.
- Studies have identified specific phenolic and flavonoid compounds within bitter melon that are responsible for many of its anti-diabetic and anti-cancer effects. These include gallic acid, tannic acid, catechin, caffeic acid, p-coumaric, gentisic acid, chlorogenic acid and epicatechin. Research shows these help to reduce inflammation, balance hormones, regulate appetite, help prevent obesity, prevent tumor growth and much more.
1. Helps Normalize Blood Sugar Levels
Findings from both human and animal studies have demonstrated a hypoglycemic effect of concentrated bitter melon extract, meaning it helps to lower blood glucose (sugar) levels and regulate the body’s use of insulin. In many ways, bitter melon extract acts just like insulin that the body produces naturally.
The Journal of Ethnopharmacology reports that “Over 100 studies using modern techniques have authenticated its use in diabetes and its complications.” Diabetic symptoms and complications that bitter melon extract can help to manage include:
- Insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels
- Nephropathy (kidney damage)
- Eye disorders such as cataracts or glaucoma
- Hormonal irregularities and menstrual changes in women
- Heart complications and blood vessel damage
While multiple studies have found that Momordica charantia can be beneficial in normalizing blood sugar and managing diabetes, its effects seem to depend on how it is consumed. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Agricultural Food Studies showed that bitter melon consumed in both raw or juice form helps to lower blood glucose levels in healthy and diabetic animals, although other studies have found that responsiveness differs depending on the individual.
This study analyzed the hypoglycemic effects of bitter melon extract and seeds on mice with either normal or elevated blood sugar levels. The data showed that bitter melon extract (1 g/kg) significantly lowered the blood glucose level of both normal and diabetic mice. (4)
It did so primarily by regulating the insulin signaling pathways in muscles and fat cells (adipose tissues), helping cells to take up more glucose from the blood as needed. Bitter melon was shown to target insulin receptor sites and stimulate downstream pathways, leading researchers to conclude it can serve as a beneficial “regulator of glucose metabolism.”
Other research has identified a mixture of active constituents within bitter melon that are responsible for its anti-diabetic abilities. These include: steroidal saponins (known as charantins), insulin-like peptides and alkaloids, which are most heavily concentrated in fruit of the Momordica charantia plant.
2. Fights Bacterial Infections and Viruses
Research has demonstrated that bitter melon contains several forms of antibacterial as well as antiviral agents. These agents are capable of lowering susceptibility to such infections as Helicobacter pylori (a very common bacteria tied to the formation of stomach ulcers when someone’s immune function is low), along with viruses including HIV.
A report printed in the International Journal of Microbiology states that powdered bitter melon has been used in Ayurveda for centuries “for dusting over leprous and other intractable ulcers and in healing wounds, especially when mixed with cinnamon, long pepper, rice, and chaulmugra oil.” In recent years, bitter melon extract has been successfully used against pylorus ligation, aspirin and stress-induced ulcers in rats, showing significant reductions in ulcer symptoms. (5)
Additionally, studies have identified anthelmintic agents within bitter melon, a group of anti-parasitic compounds that help expel parasitic worms and other internal parasites from the body. Anthemintics work by killing parasites internally, without causing significant damage to the host (the person or animal carrying the parasite).
3. Improves Digestive and Liver Health
There’s evidence that bitter melon extract can help reduce stomach and intestinal disorders, decrease kidney stones, help prevent liver disease and improve liver function, help treat parasitic worms that enter the GI tract, reduce symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (including colitis) and improve overall digestive health. (6) Research done at Annamali University in India showed that extract from bitter melon increased levels of glutathione peroxidase (GPx), superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase, helping to improve detoxification and prevent liver damage. (7)
Bitter melon also has natural laxative effects, and therefore helps to relieve constipation. A traditional use of bitter melon was for reducing stomach pains and ulcers. Recently, it has even been discovered that it can help act against Helicobacter pylori bacteria that contributes to ulcer formation.
4. Can Help Increase Cancer Protection
Although study results have been inconsistent, several studies have demonstrated bitter melon’s efficacy in preventing or managing various types of cancers: lymphoid leukemia, lymphoma, choriocarcinoma, melanoma, breast cancer, skin tumor, prostatic cancer, carcinoma of the tongue and larynx, bladder cancer and Hodgkin’s disease.
How does bitter melon act like a cancer-fighting food?
The Department of Biophysics, Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics at the University of Calcutta states that Momordica charantia has “anti-cancerous, anti-mutagenic, anti-tumourous” properties. (8)
While more research is still needed, to date a small group of studies have found that cancer patients using bitter melon in addition to other treatments have shown promising results. Extracts of bitter melon have been shown to increase metal chelating, promote detoxification, prevent lipid peroxidation, and inhibit free radical damage which contributes to cell mutations and tumor growth. (9)
The School of Biomedical Sciences at University of Hong Kong has identified over 20 active components within bitter melon that have anti-tumor properties. On conclusion of their research regarding bitter melon as an “anti-diabetic, anti-HIV and anti-tumor compound,” they stated that bitter melon is “a cornucopia of health and deserves in-depth investigations for clinical application in the future.” (10)
5. Reduces Respiratory Disorders and Symptoms
Through increasing detoxification, improving blood flow, lowering inflammation and decreasing free radical damage, bitter melon is capable of preventing common illnesses such as coughs, colds or the flu.
A strong immune system and well-functioning digestive system are essential for fending off potential infections and diseases, as well as reducing seasonal allergies and asthma. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, juice from bitter melon fruit has been used to treat dry coughs, bronchitis and sore throats for hundreds of years. (11)
Studies today show that bitter melon juice, fruit and seeds can be beneficial for preventing respiratory illnesses, coughs, mucus and food allergies.
6. Helps Treat Skin Inflammation and Wounds
Several studies have identified anti-inflammatory compounds within bitter melon that help treat skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. Due to its antibacterial properties, traditionally (and sometimes still today) bitter melon has also been used topically on the skin to treat deep skin infections (abscesses) and wounds without the use of antibiotics.
7. May Help Prevent Obesity an Heart Disease
The fruit extract of bitter melon has shown strong antioxidant activities in both human and animal studies. In addition to balancing hormones related to diabetes, there’s potential for bitter melon to act as a therapeutic agent for preventing obesity and other symptoms related to metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease (such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure).
Although more research is still needed, experimental animal and clinical studies show that bitter melon is beneficial in preventing weight gain by way of mediating and inducing lipid and fat metabolizing processes, gene expressions that control appetite and body weight, and reducing inflammation.
A 2015 report published in the Journal of Lipids showed that bitter melon has metabolism-boosting effects:
Proinflammatory cytokines and oxidative stress have been shown to be responsible for developing metabolic disturbances, such as insulin resistance and activation of immune response in liver, adipose tissue, and muscles. Several investigational reports suggest that bitter melon can reduce body weight in high fat diet induced obesity in laboratory animals. Bitter melon supplementation prevented the body weight gain and visceral fat mass significantly in rats fed high … weight reduction may be a result of increased fatty acid oxidation which ultimately facilitates weight reduction. (12)
Asian and African folklore and herbal medicine practitioners were some of the first to adopt bitter melon. The fruit has been used in healing systems native to places such as India, Indonesia, Turkey, Japan and Turkey for at least 700 years!
In Turkish folk medicine, bitter melon is known as a stomach soother, despite its strong, sometimes off-putting taste. Turkish healers used bitter melon hundreds of years ago to soothe ulcers, constipation, water retention, bloating and more.
In India, bitter melon is considered one of the most important plants for Ayurvedic “ethnobotanical practices.” In Ayurveda, the fruit has been used to help balance hormones, manage symptoms of diabetes, reduce digestive upset, treat skin disorders or wounds, and also as a natural laxative for treating constipation. Bitter melon has also earned a reputation for acting a natural cough suppressant and protector of respiratory diseases.
Today, bitter melon is still widely used as a vegetable in daily cooking in places like Bangladesh and several other countries in Asia. As it has been for hundreds of years, it’s still used as a medicinal plant for the treatment of various diseases in developing countries (like Brazil, China, Colombia, Cuba, Ghana, Haiti, India Mexico, Malaya, Nicaragua, Panama and Peru) due to its availability, low cost and multi-purpose uses. It’s also a popular addition to stir-fries in China, India and Japan and promoted for its digestive-boosting benefits.
How to Use
- Bitter melon fruit can be eaten on its own, cooked with, or consumed in extract/tablet form.
- Look for immature melon fruit that is green, firm and free from bruising or splitting. Store it at cool temperatures, ideally in the refrigerator, for 1–2 weeks or until its green color starts to shot spots.
- If you’re able to find the whole fruit, you can try cooking it in a way that it’s traditionally prepared in Asia: stir-frying it with potatoes, garlic, chili and onion until some of its strong smell is reduced.
- Up to 100 milliliters of fresh bitter melon juice can be taken once a day. If you’d like to reduce the bitterness of the fresh fruit or fresh fruit juice, use a small amount diluted with fresh squeezed fruit or veggie juice, or add a small amount of raw honey. (13)
- Dosage of bitter melon extract depends on the condition being treated. Most research shows that taking around 1000–2000 milligrams daily has the strongest effects. Many brands recommend splitting doses into 2–3 servings and taking capsules after meals to help with absorption.
- Bitter melon is usually taken in doses of 1–2 capsules, three times a day after meals, for up to 3 months. This amount has been shown to help with improvement in blood sugar management/diabetic conditions, but not enough is known about its effects when used for more than 3 months straight.
- Look for pure bitter melon extract in tablet or capsule form that is ideally certified organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, gluten-free, magnesium stearate free, and contains no synthetic additives.
Risks and Side Effects
Based on research that’s available at this time, bitter melon is meant to be used in conjunction with other preventive measures (like eating a healthy diet and exercising to control inflammation), along with conventional treatments when necessary. Here are some possible side effects and precautions to consider before using bitter melon products: (14)
- While this melon has proven hypoglycemic effects, available scientific data is not sufficient to recommend its use for treating diabetes without careful supervision and monitoring. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center concludes that bitter melon “cannot be recommended as a replacement therapy for insulin or hypoglycemic drugs” at this time, so if you’re pre-diabetic or diabetic, it’s best to talk to your doctor about using bitter melon extract in addition to your current treatment plan. Because bitter melon lowers blood sugar, it can interact with medications for diabetes. If you take diabetes medications keep in mind it might lower your blood sugar too much, and therefore monitoring is recommended.
- Pregnant women, those who are trying to become pregnant, and women who are breastfeeding should not consume bitter melon, since research shows that it has some abortifacient properties (those that can cause miscarriages), can cause menstrual bleeding, and has certain anti-fertility capabilities.
- If you’ve recently undergone surgery, have been fasting, or lost substantial blood for another reason, bitter melon should be avoided, since it can interfere with blood sugar control and cause side effects like dizziness or fainting.
- Bitter melon (also commonly called bitter gourd) is a sour, green fruit is commonly eaten in Asia and used around the world for its many medicinal properties.
- Benefits include increasing immunity, lowering diabetes symptoms, fighting free radical damage and inflammation, treating skin problems, improving digestion and helping to prevent cancer.
- It can be consumed raw, cooked or extract and tablet form. Between 1,000–2,000 milligrams of this melon extract daily (split into 2–3 dosages) is usually recommended for treating most conditions, although bitter melon should be avoided by pregnant women, those taking diabetic medications, and people recovering from surgery.