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Bitter Melon — Momordica charantia

Nutrition

Feb 26
Bitter Melon

I really must introduce you to something that’s been used in Ayurvedic medicine for some three thousand years, and was then introduced to Traditional Chinese Medicine in the 14th century. When I was first told by my physician that I was “pre-diabetic,” something that really pissed me off because I haven’t put white sugar or high fructose corn syrup in my body for ages, I went looking for solutions and this is the first thing I found: Bitter Melon. I took it and my next checkup was perfect.

Bitter melon just needed its own page. Everywhere I went, all the newsletters I perused, all the studies (1,670 listed at PubMed Central), I learned more and more about bitter melon. It’s probably had more studies conducted on its medicinal properties than any herb I’ve found, including Aloe Vera, but sadly with the caveat that most have been conducted on mice, and human studies are needed. Again, I should point out to you that as a journalist who has focused on epistemology (how we know what we know) who is a critic of Western Science for a good number of reasons, the most salient being how it is overly influenced by the almighty dollar, we Westerners tend to overlook thousands of years of use in the Orient and Western Asia.

It’s ironic and disgustingly elitist, not to mention xenophobic, that we demand double-blind studies on things that have been used successfully by human beings for centuries, when only 20% of our medicine in the US is based upon double-blind studies.  It’s also racist. We’ve looked down on these people for hundreds of years when, in fact, their civilizations contain knowledge we’ve not yet discovered because of our chauvinism (blind patriotism).

Sorry, just had to toss in my two cents. Or three cents, with inflation. Back to the subject at hand.

What Bitter Melon Does and Its Properties

Manages blood sugar levels and diabetes: A number of studies, both in vitro (in the laboratory outside of a living creature) and in vivo (within a living creature) have delineated four possible pathways: “(a) prevention of glucose absorption in the alimentary canal, (b) enhancing the glucose uptake by tissues, (c) increasing glucose metabolism, and (d) enhancing insulin like action and pancreatic beta cell stimulation.” [Ref] You should all know how badly high fructose corn syrup affects our bodies, but one study on rats that were fed that stuff until they became hyperglycemic showed immediate relief when fed bitter melon. [Ref] The hypoglycemic action in the bitter melon is so good that long term use and using too much might produce a state of hypoglycemia.

The truly interesting action of the bitter melon has to do with its immunomodulating properties, in connection with type 1 diabetes which is considered an autoimmune disorder. We’re constantly focusing on metabolic disorder and type 2 diabetes, but for centuries, type 1 diabetes has benefited from the juice of plant. [Ref]

But get this: Bitter melon doesn’t do a thing to your blood sugar if your body is regulating it well, or as the study states, “under normal conditions.”  This was discovered by testing the blood sugar of the “normal” control rats consuming the bitter melon. Thus, the worries about becoming hypoglycemic might just be balderdash.

We cannot overstate the following: Primarily, that the bitter melon is best known for its ability to lower blood sugar and treat/prevent type 2 diabetes.

Reduces respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia: Traditional use due to its anti-inflammatory properties.

Modulates immunity: Studies abound on the immunomodulation properties of the bitter melon, which are closely related to its anti-inflammatory properties. Bitter melon upregulates those immune factors that are low and downregulates those that are too high, to truly oversimplify the processes. However, there is a Interleukin 10, also known as, IL-10, which is an anti-inflammatory cytokine that is produced by a host of immune cells “including macrophages, dendritic and mast cells, natural killer cells, eosinophils, neutrophils, B cells, CD8+ T cells, CD4+ T cells, and regulatory T cells.” Studies have repeatedly shown that the bitter melon brings IL-10 up, while bringing down IL-2 and forms of interferon. Thus, the traditional use of bitter melon for both auto-immune diseases, allergies, and inflammatory diseases makes sense via its modulating properties. [Ref]

Anti-inflammatory: Studies abound on this one too, since the immune system and controlling inflammation are inseparable except in the laboratory. One study showed that bitter melon “prevents inflammation and oxidative stress, modulates mitochondrial activity, and inhibits lipid accumulation during the development of fatty liver.” [Ref] And then there’s that C-reactive protein. Yes, it brings it down. In our article on Chronic Inflammation, we definitely highlighted bitter melon.

Treats abdominal pain, peptic ulcers, constipation, cramps and acts as a mild laxative: From traditional uses, though studies have shown that its anti-bacterial properties do help to treat ulcers, it can act as a mild laxative if you’re constipated. [Ref]

Supports healthy digestion and even relieves symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome: Another traditional use with minimal studies backing these uses.

Cancer protective: Bitter melon has shown to induce apoptosis [cell death] and stop proliferation in liver, lung, colon, prostate, pancreatic, brain, skin, cervical, stomach, breast cancers and leukemia in animals, with a few studies in humans; though, admittedly, more research in humans is needed to establish dosage. [Ref]

“Studies have also shown that bitter melon has anti-carcinogenic properties and can be used as a cytotoxic agent against many types of cancer. Ray et al. showed that the extract of bitter melon modulates signal transduction pathways for inhibition of breast cancer cell growth and can be used as a dietary supplement for prevention of breast cancer.” [Ref]

Reduces fevers: Another traditional use with studies showing that the “administration of ethanolic extracts (500 mg/kg) significantly reduced acetic acid-induced writhing and yeast-induced fever.” [Ref] We found one study completely dedicated to this property: Analgesic and antipyretic activities of Momordica charantia Linn. fruits.

Reduces coughs and congestion: Traditional use.

Lowers cholesterol and triglycerides and the antioxidants protect against lipid peroxidation (which makes cholesterol dangerous): Several genotypes of wild bitter gourd (Momordica charantia) from Taiwan showed protective activity against Cu2+-induced low-density-lipoprotein peroxidation. [Ref]

“In experimental groups, rats were fed with [bitter melon] at a dose of 140 mg/kg for 30 days, the levels of cholesterol on day 10 were slightly reduced, and a slow reduction was noted in the level of triglycerides after 20 days; supplementation of [bitter melon] significantly decreased the rate of changes in the level of high-density lipoprotein-cholesterol (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol (LDL).” [Ref] [Ref]

Harmonizes menstrual irregularity:  “The fruit, stems, leaves and roots of bitter melon have all been used in traditional medicine to help treat ailments such as hyperlipidemia, digestive disorders, microbial infections and menstrual problems.” [Ref]

Treats conditions including eczema and psoriasis: Traditional use. “It is used for the treatment of dysmenorrhea, eczema, gout, jaundice, leprosy, piles, pneumonia, psoriasis, rheumatism and scabies.” [Ref]

Treats gout, jaundice, and prevents and treats kidney stones: Traditional uses. [Ref] The treatment of kidney stones (and prevention) was reported by the World Health Organization [WHO, author. WHO monographs on selected medicinal plants. Vol. 4. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2005.]

Antiviral, antibacterial and parasiticidal (love that word) properties (used to prevent and treat parasites, HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and leprosy): “. . . several water and methanol extracts of the 16 cultivars selected from Taiwanese indigenous wild bitter gourd (Momordica charantia) showed inhibitory activity against the growth of E. coli and Salmonella enterica.”

“Moreover, inhibitory effects on the growth of Mycobacterium tuberculosis H(37)Rv was observed in fruits of wild ampalaya (Momordica charantia). The fruits of wild ampalaya showed higher antitubercular activity (90%) than that of the cultivated variety (81%)”  [Ref]

Manages symptoms of autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis: “Bitter melon, the fruit of Momordica charantia L. (Cucurbitaceae), a traditional herbal medicine, is used worldwide. It is widely used as a bitter stomachic, a laxative, an antidiabetic agent, an anti-inflammatory agent, and an anticancer agent and in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.6 Herbal drugs have potential therapeutic application because of their effectiveness, lesser side effects, and relatively low cost.” [Ref]

Side Effects

In large doses, bitter melon has been used for birth control, and even larger doses will abort a pregnant woman, so you can guess that its use is contraindicated in pregnant women.

Since bitter melon will enhance insulin secretion and decrease insulin insensitivity, while lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels and increasing a bit of HDL (that so-called good cholesterol) while repairing damaged insulin-producing islet of Langerhans cells, and regulating glucose uptake and metabolism, this entire process produces an overall side effect of weight loss.

More to Tell

In the near future we will add, either to this page or to the site, a bit more on this handsome little veggie, such as where to find it, how to grow it, and recipes using it and its extracts. Though, anyone who’s followed us for any length of time can easily guess that it will be going into smoothies and our salad dressings. And hey! We get more letters from parents thanking us for your salad dressings because (miracle of miracles!) their kids are eating their greens.

And you can support our site by going to this link and purchasing your bitter melon from Swanson’s. Yes, we make 5% off of every sale. We won’t get rich, but we can afford do keep this site up.

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