What is Bitter Melon?
Bitter melon, commonly referred to as cerasee and known scientifically as Momordica charantia, is an edible fruit pod that belongs to the same Cucurbitaceae climbing vine family as melons, gourds, squash and cucumbers. Depending on where you are in the world, bitter melon may also be referred to as bitter squash, bitter gourd or balsam pear.
Being among the most bitter known fruits in the world, bitter melon certainly deserves its name. Ok, I will admit that it doesn’t sound especially appetizing but don’t let that put you off, bitter melon is very good for you and comes with a wide variety of very impressive health benefits.
Bitter melon likely originated somewhere in South-East Asia where it is still widely cultivated by farmers but also grown in the backyard. Similar to other plants in the Cucurbitaceae family, bitter melon is a fast growing, climbing vine that has thin tendrils and stems. Growing this plant requires a trellis to support their growth.
The pods which have a rough, pebbly surface are also characterized by their lengthwise ridges and can range in color from dark green to light. The white colored interior flesh of the fruit has small, rough seeds similar to those of the gourd. As the bitter melon fruits mature, they become harder and take on a yellowish or brown appearance.
It is the flesh of the fruit which contains most of the medicinal benefits. These benefits include skin health, diabetes and the ability to stimulate the immune system. Research has also demonstrated that bitter melon contains various medicinal abilities including antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibiotic and expectorant properties.
Despite its bitter flavor, the fruit is popular in parts of Asia where it is prepared and eaten like a vegetable in various dishes but it can also be prepared into a healthy tea.
Bitter Melon Nutritional Profile
Bitter melon is very dense in important, healthy nutrients and an impressive array of therapeutic compounds. It contains many bioactive chemocals, minerals, vitamins and natural antioxidants all of which contribute towards the plant’s versatility in the treatment of varied illnesses.
Bitter melon is rich in vitamin A, C and E and also contains several of the B family of vitamins. The fruit is also a great source of essential minerals like potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, phosphorus and zinc. Bitter melon is also an excellent source of healthy, dietary fibers.
Its antioxidant value stems from the presence of flavonoids, phenols, isoflavones, glucosinates and terpenes which are also responsible for the fruit’s extremely bitter taste.
The Health Benefits of Bitter Melon
1) Blood Sugar
One of the most popular traditional uses of bitter melon is to help manage blood sugar levels in people with Type-2 diabetes. Herbal remedies are often used in traditional Asian medicine to help treat diabetes and bitter melon is one of the most popular. Several studies have demonstrated that bitter melon holds a great deal of promise for sufferers of diabetes. (1)
One Indian study stated that it was one of best and potentially most important natural treatments to lower blood sugar levels for diabetic patients. (2) Numerous studies have elicited promising results. One animal study published in 2005 demonstrated that bitter melon could help reduce blood sugar by as much as 30% while the same study also showed that it improved the function of the kidneys.
The main compounds in bitter melon responsible for its antidiabetic effects are the phenolic compounds, triterponoids, steroids and alkaloids. Several triterponoids in particular have activities which are associated with a reduction in blood sugar. (3)
Despite the numerous studies proving that bitter melon is an effective diabetes treatment, there is also some evidence that it can enhance the effect of diabetes medications and may cause hypoglycemia. Make sure you talk to your doctor before you start using bitter melon to treat your condition.
2) Cancer Prevention
Over the past few decades, researchers have turned to nature in an effort to find a safe and effective treatment for cancer. While the search appears to be endless, studies have been very fruitful and numerous potential alternative treatments have already been discovered. According to researchers, bitter melon may just be one of those natural treatments that can help us overcome this deadly disease.
A laboratory study published in 2012 analyzed the protective effects of a bitter melon liquid extract against certain types of cancer. The researchers found that the bitter melon extract was effective against colon and kidney cancer cells. (4) A study published in 2010 found that bitter melon induced death in breast cancer cells. (5)
Another study, this time conducted on animals, found that a bitter melon liquid extract induced the death of cancerous liver cells. The researchers noted that bitter melon was a promising and safe treatment for patients with liver cancer.
3) Cancer Therapy
Bitter melon might actually help make radiotherapy more effective. A study published in 2012 found that the extract increased the susceptibility of cancer cells to radiation treatment and caused an increase in the amount of medication absorbed by the cancerous cells. (6)
4) Liver Health and Digestion
Bitter melon has traditionally been used to overcome stomach pain and inflammation.
While bitter melon may not have been as thoroughly researched in terms of its digestive health and liver benefits, there is some evidence that it can help treat both. Bitter melon possesses antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and may help relieve stomach troubles and also improve the function of the liver.
Indian researchers demonstrated that a bitter melon extract could help stimulate detoxification and improve liver health by increasing glutathione and superoxide disutase levels in the body. (7)
Bitter melon also possesses a mild laxative effect which can help relieve that age old problem of constipation.
In China and other parts of Asia, traditional practitioners have been using bitter melon juice to treat common respiratory problems for centuries. It may help relieve common complaints like coughing, flu symptoms, bronchitis and even asthma.
Moreover, because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, bitter melon can actually help boost immune health and actually prevent these commonplace conditions from occurring in the first place.
6) Skin Inflammation
Because of its natural antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, bitter melon may help to treat several inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis and acne. In fact, a study published in 2015 found that bitter melon inhibited the bacteria responsible for the growth of acne. (8)
The juice extracted from the fruit was also traditionally applied to the skin topically to deal with skin wounds and infections and may be of use in dealing with minor skin wounds today.
7) Weight Control
Some early studies suggest that bitter melon may help prevent weight gain by stimulating fat and lipid metabolism as well as mediating gene expressions which control the appetite and body weight.
A study published in 2015 demonstrated that bitter melon had the ability to boost metabolism and several studies have noted that it helped stimulate weight loss in animals. Not only does bitter melon contribute to weight loss but it can also help alleviate many of the other symptoms associated with metabolic syndrome. (9)
How to Consume Bitter Melon
You can but fresh bitter melon and cook it in a variety of ways. In Asia, it is usually fried with garlic and potatoes but you can also use bitter melon to make a therapeutic tea.
It is also available in tablet or juice extract form. You can safely take up to 100 ml of fresh juice each day. If you are taking capsules, the recommended dose of extract is between 1000 and 2000 milligrams each day.
Precautions and Potential Side Effects
- Always ask for your doctor’s advise if you are taking bitter melon for diabetes. Because of its ability to reduce blood sugar, it may reduce your levels even further of you are already taking medication for your condition.
- People who have recently had surgery or lost blood should avoid bitter melon because it interferes with your blood sugar levels and may cause fainting and dizziness.
- Pregnant women should not take bitter melon because it may stimulate menstruation and cause miscarriage.