Bitter Melon – History, Uses, and Benefits

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What comes to your mind when you hear the words bitter melon? This word pairing may sound like an oxymoron based on the general assumption of how melons should taste – subtlety sweet and refreshing. Bitter melon is not a fairy tale fruit and a number of studies on cells, animals, and humans indicate it has powerful medicinal properties.

Bitter melon (citrullus colocynthis), also known as bitter gourd, bitter apple, wild cucumber, and bitter cucumber, grows in the tropical and subtropical regions of Asia, South America, East Africa, and the Caribbean. [1] Traditional Indian medicine has used bitter melon for centuries to prevent and treat diabetes. [2] In the past few years the inclusion of bitter melon in nutrient partitioning supplements, greens powders, and multivitamins has significantly increased based on the emerging positive research.

Related: Kale and Machine Greens – The Ultimate Superfood Combination

Bitter melon is jam-packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and bioactive compounds. This fruit is rich in potassium, calcium, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, dietary fiber, as well as vitamins A, C, E, B1, B2, B3, and folate. [3] Bitter melon, aptly named, gets its bitterness from alkaloids, momordicosides, and momordicines. [1]

The fruit, steams, leaves, and roots of bitter melon may be prepared by lightly frying, boiling, steaming, blanching, or roasting before consuming. Purists may eat the fruit raw or dry it out and grind it in to a fine powder. You probably will not find bitter melon in your big-chain grocery store but many ethnic grocery stores carry this unique and distinct-tasting fruit.

Bitter Melon

Bitter Melon Uses

The most common use of bitter melon is oral ingestion of the fruit and seeds in raw, cooked, or capsule form. Folk medicine recommends bitter melon as an all-natural way to control blood sugar, treat digestive disorders, manage fats and cholesterol in the blood, fight infection, and regulate menstrual problems. [3] Bitter melon is also used as a nutrient partitioner because of its ability to prevent the conversion of stored nutrients in to glucose and the release of glucose in to the blood stream. [1]

A nutrient partitioner supplement may minimize the fat gain when eating at a caloric surplus and ensure nutrients help preserve lean mass when eating at a caloric deficit. Someone may also consume bitter melon to prevent cancer, reduce fever, manage HIV and AIDS, as well as increase fat loss. [1] Unfortunately, many of those uses have either no scientific evidence or only supporting evidence in studies on animals and cells.

Traditional medicine recommends a daily intake of 300 to 800mg to experience maximum benefit but most human studies up to this point use a daily 300mg daily dose split in to three 100mg doses throughout the day. [4] Exceeding a daily dose of 300mg may cause of number of undesired and harsh side effects.

Bitter Melon Benefits

Although bitter melon is prescribed in folk medicine for a number of applications, the fruit is most effective at lowering blood sugar, particularly in those with Type II diabetes. Bitter melon mimics insulin in many ways by increasing the entry of glucose in to cells as well as helping to ensure the liver, muscle, and fat properly process and storage the glucose. [1] Bitter melon may also decrease cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood of nondiabetic individuals.

A study of 50 patients with Type II diabetics receiving antidiabetic therapy consumed either 100mg of bitter melon fruit capsules or placebo three time per day for two months. The consumption of bitter melon significantly decreased Hemoglobin A1c and fasting blood glucose without affecting liver function, cholesterol, triglyceride, urea, and creatinine levels, or producing gastrointestinal issues. [5]

Hemoglobin A1c provide a snapshot of blood glucose levels over a two to three-month period. A decreased hemoglobin A1c value indicates consistently lowered blood glucose during this time period. A second study lasting four weeks measured the effects of consuming between 500mg and 2,000mg of bitter melon per day against a 1,000mg daily intake of metformin, a popular medication for treating Type II diabetes.

While a 500mg to 1,000mg bitter melon intake did not impact fructosamine levels, a 2,000mg daily intake significantly reduced fructosamine, but less effectively than metformin. [6] Fructosamine provides insight on the blood glucose levels over the last two to three weeks. [7] While bitter melon won’t cure diabetes may be a suitable all-natural first line of defense.

A study of 100 nondiabetic patients with elevated cholesterol or fat levels in the blood consumed either 300mg of bitter melon via powdered seeds or placebo for six weeks. Those consuming bitter melon exhibited significantly lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels without negatively impacting liver function compared to placebo. [8]

Although the study above on diabetics does not indicate effects on cholesterol and triglycerides these findings suggest a potential impact on nondiabetic patients. Regardless, bitter melon may help lower cholesterol, glucose, and fats in the blood without taxing the liver.

Bitter melon may be an effective food for promoting fat loss if the current findings from rodent studies translate to human studies. Scientists fed rats a diet high in fat, 30% of their daily caloric intake, and paired it with bitter melon comprising 0.375%, 0.75%, or 1.5% of their daily caloric intake. Those consuming greater than 0.75% of their calories from bitter melon has less visceral fat mass. [9]

High levels of visceral fat which is concentrated in the belly around internal organs dramatically increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death. A follow-up experiment in which the rats consumed bitter melon alongside a high fat diet led to not only lower amounts of visceral fat, but also less weight gained overall, improved insulin resistance, and lowered insulin blood levels. [9]

It’s proposed that bitter melon assists with fat loss by reducing inflammation within the fat tissues of diet-induced obese mice. [10] While bitter melon itself won’t strip away the fat it could minimize fat gain during periods of eating in a caloric surplus or it may encourage additional fat loss during the consumption of a high fat and lower carbohydrate diet for fat loss.

In addition to the benefits mentioned above bitter melon also exhibits potent anticancer, antiviral, and antibacterial properties in both animal and cell studies. Bitter melon has the ability to stop cancer cell growth by forcing programmed cell death, stopping the cancer cell replication cycle, and inhibiting the spread of cancer stem cells. [11]

The studies on the effect on bitter melon on cancer cells thus far support its ability to fight human pancreatic carcinoma cells and breast cancer cells. [12][9] Bitter melon demonstrates exceptional antiviral properties through its ability to not only improve system function but also kick start the body’s natural killer white blood cells. [3]

Cell studies examining these antiviral properties found bitter melon can even protect against or complete kill the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). [14][15] While these effects have not yet been tested in humans, these findings further support the need for additional funding for bitter melon.

Finally, bitter melon antibacterial properties completely kill Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Staphylococcus, Pseudomonas, and Streptobaccilus.3While these words may look like a foreign language, a quick web search on the effects of E. coli will provide a glimpse in to destructiveness of these bacteria strains.

Bitter Melon Drawbacks

While bitter melon offers a number of health benefits it does carry a risk of side effects ranging from mild to severe depending on which part of and how much bitter melon you consume. Bitter melon has sugar powerful blood sugar-lowering properties that even a minor overconsumption can cause hypoglycemia. [1]

If you have history of hypoglycemia then consume bitter melon with caution. Red arils, which cover bitter melon seeds, are exceptionally toxic in children and may cause vomiting, diarrhea and in some cases death. [1]

Do not feed bitter melon seeds to children. Even excessive intake of bitter melon seeds by adults can cause red blood cell toxicity which manifests itself through headache, fever, abdominal pain, and in some cases coma. [1] Start with an extremely low and conservative dose of bitter melon to minimize the likelihood of experiencing these harsh side effects.

Just 300mg of bitter melon fruit or seeds, spread across three doses during the day, can cause diarrhea in otherwise healthy individuals. Daily doses of the fruit or seeds exceeding 1,500mg can trigger severe inflammation of the colon and bleeding from the rectum. [4] Although these harsh side effects subside within a week or two of discontinuing bitter melon consumption, there’s no research examining the potential long term damage caused by these side effects.

Those who are pregnant or looking to become pregnant, taking insulin, and/or taking hypoglycemic medication for diabetes should abstain from consuming bitter melon. Bitter melon may cause vaginal bleeding, premature contractions, and in some cases abortion, as well as compound the effects of insulin and hypoglycemic medications. [1]

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Even if you do not fall in to one of the above categories you should consult your healthcare professional before incorporating bitter melon in to your diet to ensure it causes no additional health complications.

If eating bitter melon does not sound appealing to your palate or stomach but you want to see if this fruit positively affects you, then consider some of the following supplements:

  • MTS Machine Greens and Multvitamin – 12th of 14 ingredients in a 3.2g Green Balance Blend TM per six capsule serving
  • Himalaya Bitter Melon – 250mg organic bitter melon standardized extract (fruit) (momordica charantia Linn.) (2.5% bitters, 6.25 mg) and 410mg organic bitter melon powder (stem) (3% Bitters, 12.3 mg) per one capsule serving
  • ALRI Humapro – 1st of 2 ingredients in a 210mg Extended Anti-Catabolic and Insulinogenic Matrix per five capsule serving
  • BlackStone Labs GlycoLog – 500mg biter melon standardized to 10% bitters per 3 capsule serving
References

1) “Bitter Melon.” Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. N.p., 7 Aug. 2015. Web. Sept. 2016.
2) Nerukar, P., and R. B. Ray. “Bitter Melon: Antagonist to Cancer.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Pharm Res., June 2010. Web. Sept. 2016.
3) Joseph, Baby, and D Jini. “Antidiabetic Effects of Momordica Charantia (bitter Melon) and Its Medicinal Potency.” Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Disease 3.2 (2013): 93–102. PMC. Web. Sept. 2016.
4) Frank, Kurtis, et al. “Citrullus Colocynthis – Scientific Review on Usage, Dosage, Side Effects.” Examine.com. N.p., 2016. Web. Sept. 2016.
5) Huseini, H. F., et al. “The Clinical Investigation of Citrullus Colocynthis (L.) Schrad Fruit in Treatment of Type II Diabetic Patients: a Randomized, Double Blind, Placeb…” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Phytother Res, Aug. 2009. Web. Sept. 2016.
6) Fuangchan, A., et al. “Hypoglycemic Effect of Bitter Melon Compared with Metformin in Newly Diagnosed Type 2 Diabetes Patients.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. J Ethnopharmacol, 24 Mar. 2011. Web. Sept. 2016.
7) “Fructosamine.” Lab Tests Online. American Association for Clinical Chemistry, 2016. Web. Sept. 2016.
8) Rahbar, A. R., and I. Nabipour. “The Hypolipidemic Effect of Citrullus Colocynthis on Patients with Hyperlipidemia.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Pak J Biol Sci, Dec. 2010. Web. Sept. 2016.
9) Chen, Qixuan, Laureen L. Chan, and Edmund T. Li. “Bitter Melon (Momordica Charantia) Reduces Adiposity, Lowers Serum Insulin and Normalizes Glucose Tolerance in Rats Fed a High Fat Diet.” Journal of Nutrition. N.p., 1 Apr. 2003. Web. Sept. 2016.
10) Bao, Bin et al. “Momordica Charantia (Bitter Melon) Reduces Obesity-Associated Macrophage and Mast Cell Infiltration as Well as Inflammatory Cytokine Expression in Adipose Tissues.” Ed. Jörg Hermann Fritz. PLoS ONE 8.12 (2013): e84075. PMC. Web. Sept. 2016.
11) Center for Biotechnology Information. Chin J Nat Med, Feb. 2016. Web. Sept. 2016.
12) Kaur, Manjinder et al. “Bitter Melon Juice Activates Cellular Energy Sensor AMP-Activated Protein Kinase Causing Apoptotic Death of Human Pancreatic Carcinoma Cells.” Carcinogenesis 34.7 (2013): 1585–1592. PMC. Web. Sept. 2016.
13) Ray, Ratna B., et al. “Bitter Melon (Momordica Charantia) Extract Inhibits Breast Cancer Cell Proliferation by Modulating Cell Cycle Regulatory Genes and Promotes Apoptosis.” Cancer Research. N.p., 1 Mar. 2010. Web. Sept. 2016.
14) Nerurkar, Pratibha V et al. “Lipid Lowering Effects of Momordica Charantia (Bitter Melon) in HIV-1-Protease Inhibitor-Treated Human Hepatoma Cells, HepG2.” British Journal of Pharmacology 148.8 (2006): 1156–1164. PMC. Web. Sept. 2016.
15) Lee-Huang, S., et al. “Anti-HIV and Anti-tumor Activities of Recombinant MAP30 from Bitter Melon.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Gene, Aug. 1995. Web. Sept. 2016.

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Name: Nick Ludlow

Bio: When it comes to fitness I enjoy reading about historic weight lifters, non-conventional weightlifting approaches, nutritional protocols, and the science behind supplements.