The Benefits of Bitter Melon

bitter melon
Bitter melon. Eriko Koga/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Bitter melon, also known as bitter gourd or Momordica charantia, is a tropical fruit-like gourd said to offer a variety of benefits. Consumed as a food, juice (known as karela juice), or tea, bitter melon contains compounds thought to aid in the treatment of conditions like diabetes. Extracts of bitter melon are also widely available in dietary supplement form.

Why Do People Use Bitter Melon?

Preliminary research suggests that compounds found in bitter melon may have effects similar to those of insulin, which is the hormone responsible for allowing blood sugar to enter your cells.

Since this insulin-like activity may help protect against insulin resistance and keep your blood sugar from rising, it's thought that bitter melon may help fight diabetes.

In addition, bitter melon is said to help treat and/or prevent following health problems:

Bitter melon is also said to combat cancer and promote weight loss.

The Benefits of Bitter Melon: Can It Help?

Here's a look at some of the available research on bitter melon and its possible benefits:

1) Diabetes

Although preliminary research suggests that bitter melon has hypoglycemic effects, there's currently a lack of clinical trials supporting these findings.

For a report published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2012, researchers analyzed four previously published clinical trials (with a total of 479 participants) testing the potential benefits of bitter melon in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.

Noting that the reviewed studies were low quality, the report's authors found that bitter melon failed to have a significant effect on blood sugar control compared to diabetes drugs (glibenclamide and metformin) or a placebo.

Related: Natural Remedies for Diabetes

2) High Cholesterol

In a animal-based study published in Nutrition Research in 2013, scientists observed that animals placed on a diet enriched with bitter melon extract experienced a significant decrease in cholesterol levels.

3) Obesity

A preliminary animal study published in Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice in 2008 found that bitter melon helped reduce the buildup of visceral fat in mice fed a high-fat diet. Characterized by excess fat around the stomach and abdomen, visceral obesity has been associated with increased risk of conditions like heart disease and  diabetes.

Possible Side Effects

Bitter melon may trigger such side effects as headaches, upset stomach, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

A single case report suggests that bitter melon may induce paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. 

Since bitter melon may lower your blood sugar, using bitter melon in combination with medication that lowers blood sugar could cause your blood sugar to drop to dangerously low levels. If you take any type of medication that lowers blood sugar, consult your physician prior to taking bitter melon supplements.

In a 2014 study on mice, consumption of high doses (up to 4000 mg/kg body weight) of bitter melon fruit extract had toxic effects on the kidney. (A previous study suggests that bitter melon is safe in humans at a dose of 20 mg/kg body weight.)

Pregnant women shouldn't use bitter melon.

You can learn more about using dietary supplements safely here.

Alternatives to Bitter Melon

While no dietary supplement should be used as a substitute for standard care of diabetes, there's some evidence that certain natural remedies may help regulate your blood sugar and aid in diabetes management. These remedies include herbs like cinnamon, ginseng, and turmeric.

Additionally, some research indicates that strategies such as drinking tea on a regular basis and maintaining optimal levels of vitamin D may be beneficial for protecting against diabetes.

Where to Find It

Many Asian grocery stores sell bitter melon as a whole food. In addition, dietary supplements containing bitter melon extract can be found online and in natural-foods stores, drugstores, and stores specializing in herbal products.

Sources:

Mardani S, Nasri H, Hajian S, Ahmadi A, Kazemi R, Rafieian-Kopaei M. Impact of Momordica charantia extract on kidney function and structure in mice. Journal of Nephropathology. 2014;3(1):35-40.

Ooi CP, Yassin Z, Hamid TA. Momordica charantia for type 2 diabetes mellitus. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Aug 15;8:CD007845.

Ray RB, Raychoudhuri A, Steele R, Nerurkar P. Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) extract inhibits breast cancer cell proliferation by modulating cell cycle regulatory genes and promotes apoptosis. Cancer Res. 2010 Mar 1;70(5):1925-31.

Shih CC, Lin CH, Lin WL. Effects of Momordica charantia on insulin resistance and visceral obesity in mice on high-fat diet. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2008 Aug;81(2):134-43.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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