Bitter melon is a member of the melon family. Not surprisingly, this melon has the bitterest taste of all the melons. Bitter melon is made up of several chemicals including protein and steroids. These specific combinations of chemicals have been proven to lower blood sugar levels as well as promote heart health. It also has been proven to boost the immune system. Serums containing bitter melon have also been used for wrinkle fighting.
It is a slender, climbing annual vine with long-stalked leaves and yellow, solitary male and female flowers borne on the leaf axils. The fruit, usually oblong, resembles a a warty gourd or a small cucumber. The young fruit is emerald green, turning to orange-yellow when ripe. At maturity, the fruit splits into three irregular valves that curl backwards and release numerous reddish-brown or white seeds encased in scarlet arils.
Bitter melon grows in tropical areas, including parts of the Amazon, East Africa, India, Asia, and the Caribbean.
bitter gourd, bitter apple, bitter cucumber, balsam pear, carella fruit (USA), karela (India), fu kwa (China), ampalaya (Phillipines).
Actions & Pharmacology
Bitter melon contains an array of biologically active plant chemicals including triterpenes, proteins, and steroids.
In numerous studies, at least three different groups of constituents found in all parts of bitter melon have clinically demonstrated hypoglycemic (blood sugar lowering) properties or other actions of potential benefit against diabetes mellitus. The chemicals that lower blood sugar include a mixture of steroidal saponins known as charantins, insulin-like peptides, and alkaloids. The hypoglycemic effect is more pronounced in the fruit of bitter melon where these chemicals are found in greater abundance.
The effect of Momordica charantia extracts on fasting and postprandial serum glucose levels were investigated in 100 cases of moderate non-insulin dependent diabetic subjects. Drinking of the aqueous homogenized suspension of the vegetable pulp led to significant reduction (p<0.001) of both fasting and postprandial serum glucose levels. This hypoglycemic action was observed in 86 cases. Five cases showed reduced fasting serum glucose only (Ahmad et al, 1999).
A controlled randomized trial was conducted to evaluate the efficacy of Momordica charantia as a hypoglycemic agent. Fifty patients with moderate type 2 diabetes mellitus were enrolled and randomly assigned to receive either bitter gourd tablets (n=26) or placebo (n=24) over a period of 4 weeks. No significant changes in blood sugar or fructosamine levels could be found in both treatment groups (John et al, 2003).
Supplemental cancer treatment
Cancer patients have compromised defective immune systems. There is a decrease of total white blood cell count including lymphocytes and natural killer (NK) cells. NK cells, one type of lymphocyte, play a role in eliminating cancer cells by an antibody-dependent, cell-mediated cytotoxicity (ADCC) mechanism. Previous studies have shown that P-glycoprotein (170 kDa, transmembrane protein) may be a transporter for cytokine-releasing in ADCC mechanism. One study explored the role of bitter melon intake in cervical cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy. Control and treatment groups were cervical cancer patients (stage II or III) treated with radiotherapy (without or with bitter melon ingestion). Blood samples of patient control and patient treatment groups were analyzed for NK cells percentage and P-glycoprotein level. Bitter melon ingestion did not affect NK cell level but it did affect the decrease of P-gp level on NK cell membrane (Pongnikorn et al, 2003).
Indications & Usage
viruses, colds and flu, cancer and tumors, high cholesterol, and psoriasis.
Bitter melon traditionally has been used as an abortive and has been documented with weak uterine stimulant activity; therefore, it is contraindicated during pregnancy. This plant has been documented to reduce fertility in both males and females and should therefore not be used by those undergoing fertility treatment or seeking pregnancy.
All parts of bitter melon (especially the fruit and seed) have demonstrated in numerous in vivo studies that they lower blood sugar levels. As such, it is contraindicated in persons with hypoglycemia.
The active chemicals in bitter melon can be transferred through breast milk; therefore, it is contraindicated in women who are breast feeding.
Precautions & Adverse Reactions
Diabetics should check with their physicians before using this plant and use with caution while monitoring their blood sugar levels regularly as the dosage of insulin medications may need adjusting.
Many in vivo clinical studies have demonstrated the relatively low toxicity of all parts of the bitter melon plant when ingested orally. Other studies have shown extracts of the fruit and leaf (ingested orally) to be safe during pregnancy.
Concurrent use may result in an increased risk of hypoglycemia. Clinical Management: If bitter melon and an antidiabetic agent are used together, blood glucose levels should be monitored regularly.
Bitter melon may potentiate cholesterol-lowering drugs. Clinical Management: Caution is advised.
Fruit juice or concentrate. Concentrated fruit and seed extracts can be found in capsules and tablets, as well as whole herb/vine powders and extracts in capsules and tinctures.