What is Bitter Melon ?
Other Names: Ampalaya, Balsam Pear, Bitter Cucumber, Bitter Gourd, Cerasee, Fu Gua, Goya, Karela, Momordica charantia, Momordica murcata, Wild Cucumber
Who is this for?
Bitter melon is best known for antidiabetic effects. It contains a chemical known as insulin-like peptide (also called glucokinin, plant-insulin, polypeptide-P, or vegetable insulin) that is similar in shape and function to animal-produced insulin. Other chemicals, including vicine, in bitter melon may also have blood-sugar lowering effects. Animal studies have found that bitter melon lowered blood sugar levels in at least two possible ways.
Chemicals in bitter melon may decrease the amount of sugar produced by the liver and they may also increase the body's ability to use sugar after it has been absorbed into the blood. Additionally, in one animal study, oral doses of bitter melon fruit juice may have prompted new growth or repair of pancreatic insulin-producing beta cells in animals that had been damaged chemically. Bitter melon also helped to prevent complications, such as cataracts and kidney damage, from high blood sugar in some animal studies.
A few very small human studies have used bitter melon to test its effectiveness on diabetes. Generally, bitter melon lowered blood sugar, but each of the studies included only a few participants. They took different types and doses of bitter melon, so results are not comparable. Additionally, in some small studies of humans, bitter melon was not significantly better than placebo (inactive dummy pills) for lowering blood sugar.
Bitter melon also contains chemicals that show antiviral effects. One of the chemicals, Momordica anti-human immunodeficiency virus protein (MAP30), is found in bitter melon fruits and seeds. In laboratory studies, MAP30 activated natural killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cells that specifically attack viruses and cancer cells. Additionally, MAP30 interfered with the actions of at least two enzymes needed by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, to divide and spread.
It may also help to prevent HIV and other viruses from entering host cells, but it does not appear to damage normal cells. Another chemical in bitter melon increases the production of interferon gamma, a natural body substance that helps to fight all types of viruses. In laboratory studies, it has been effective against Epstein-Barr virus, hepatitis B virus, and herpes simplex virus. Bitter melon may also be active against other types of viruses, but human studies have not been conducted to prove its antiviral effects.
In laboratory animals, an injected extract of bitter melon extract prevented or delayed the earliest stage of colon cancer. Various types and doses of bitter melon have also been effective against the start of blood, cervical, stomach, and several other types of cancer in studies done with human cancer cells. An extract from the leaves of bitter melon seems to increase the anticancer effects of certain drugs. Laboratory studies of MAP30 show it may have anticancer effects, as well; but human studies have not yet been done to prove or disprove any anticancer effects for bitter melon or any of the chemicals in it.
In some animal studies, bitter melon lowered cholesterol levels in the body, although blood cholesterol apparently was not affected as much as cholesterol in the liver was. For some test animals it may have raised levels of "good" cholesterol, high density lipoproteins (HDL). Chemicals in bitter melon are thought to interfere with the activity of an enzyme that breaks up fats from the diet so they can be absorbed by the body. As a result, less cholesterol may be absorbed and more may be eliminated from the body. Again, however, human studies have not yet been done to prove anticholesterol effects of bitter melon.
When applied to the skin, bitter melon has shown anti-infective effects. In animal studies, an ointment containing 10% of dried, powdered bitter melon fruit improved the ability of wounds to heal. In general, wounds treated with bitter melon ointment healed faster, closed more fully, and were less likely to break open than untreated wounds or wounds treated with nonprescription ointments. Results were comparable to povidone iodine ointment, a standard treatment for mild to moderate skin wounds in some parts of the world.
What interactions should I watch for?
Individuals who use insulin or take oral medications to control diabetes should avoid using large amounts of bitter melon because it can lower blood sugar levels unpredictably, potentially resulting in hypoglycemia (blood sugar that is too low). Bitter melon may interfere with insulin and oral drugs for diabetes, such as:
Because bitter melon may decrease blood sugar levels, taking it with other blood sugar-lowering herbal products may result in hypoglycemia--blood sugar that is too low. Herbals that may reduce blood sugar include:
Ginger (in high amounts)
Some interactions between herbal products and medications can be more severe than others. The best way for you to avoid harmful interactions is to tell your doctor and/or pharmacist what medications you are currently taking, including any over-the-counter products, vitamins, and herbals. For specific information on how bitter melon interacts with drugs, other herbals, and foods and the severity of those interactions
Should I take it?
The first bitter melon plants probably grew in tropical regions of Asia and the South Pacific. Many different species of bitter melon now grow throughout the tropics--including hot, humid areas of Africa, the Caribbean islands, Central America, India, and South America. Bitter melons grow on climbing vines that produce yellow flowers followed by large fruits. Usually between 4 inches and 6 inches long when ready to use, the fruits resemble fat cucumbers with distinctive bumpy skins. Ripe fruits turn yellow or orange and burst open along lengthwise seams to reveal light-colored seeds covered in a reddish substance called aril.
Ripe bitter melon fruits are too mushy to cut and their taste has been described as the most bitter food on Earth. For food, fruits are picked while they are still green to be boiled as a vegetable, added to soups or curry, squeezed for juice, or eaten raw. Leaves and flowers of the vines may be cooked and eaten, as well. Bitter melon is very low in calories, but it supplies high amounts of vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. It also contains Vitamin A and folate, as well as smaller amounts of several vitamins and minerals.
In areas where it grows, green bitter melon fruit is eaten raw or cooked, or its fresh juice is consumed several times a day as medicine. Because the fruits taste so bad, though, many Westerners prefer to use capsules, extract, powder or tablets made from unripe fruits. A form of bitter melon extract that is injected under the skin like insulin has been used in clinical studies, but it is not available in North America.
An ointment may be made from powdered bitter melon fruit. Oil that is pressed from bitter melon seeds is also used to treat skin conditions. Bitter melon oil is also used in cooking because it has a high percentage of the polyunsaturated fatty acid, conjugated linolenic acid. Fatty acids such as linolenic acid are known as essential fatty acids because the body needs them to regulate activities that include heart function, insulin utilization, and mood balance. The body cannot produce essential fatty acids, so they must be taken in the diet or as supplements. Some evidence suggests that conjugated linolenic acid may contribute to bitter melon's possible anticancer and anticholesterol effects.
Dosage and Administration:
In countries where bitter melon grows, many individuals simply eat unripe bitter melon fruits or drink its juice several times a week. It is also available in a variety of commercial oral dosage forms, such as capsules, extract, tablets, and dried fruit powder. Injected bitter melon extract is used in some Asian countries, but it is not sold in North America. In most Western countries, individuals who take bitter melon supplements prefer capsules because they do not taste as bad as other oral dosage forms.
No set doses are recommended for bitter melon. Oral doses used in human studies varied widely from 200 mg per day to 1,000 mg (one gram) six times a day. Most of the studies lasted for 3 months or less.
Bitter melon tea may be prepared by pouring boiling water over mashed or dried green bitter melon fruits. Another method for making a liquid bitter melon preparation is to put one pound of chopped green bitter melon fruits and leaves into one-half gallon of water, boil them for 5 minutes, strain out the solid residue, and store the resulting liquid in the refrigerator. Due to its bad taste, the liquid is often diluted with water or other fluids, sweetened, or flavored before drinking. Unsweetened, unflavored bitter melon tea may also be used as an enema or skin wash after it is cooled.
Oral bitter melon is best known for its potential ability to lower blood sugar, but it may also have antiviral, anticancer, and cholesterol-lowering properties. Topically, it helps protect skin wounds from infection and helps them heal.
Because bitter melon may cause contractions of the uterus, it should be avoided by pregnant women. Because it may reduce fertility in both males and females, it should also be avoided by couples trying to conceive a child. Although it is eaten by small children in its native areas, bitter melon is not recommended for infants or children because its long-term effects are not known.
Rarely, cases of severe hypoglycemia have resulted in coma or even death for small children who took large doses of bitter melon. Individuals with G-6-PD deficiency may experience an allergic-type reaction known as favism if they eat or take bitter melon. Other individuals have reported gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, and central nervous system reactions, such as headache, from eating or using bitter melon.
Bitter melon may increase the antidiabetic effects of insulin, oral medications, or herbal products used to control blood sugar.
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