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Food as Medicine: Bitter Melon

Photo by Katja Schulz

Bitter melon (Momordica charantia), also known as bitter gourd and bitter apple, is a tropical annual vine in the squash family native to Indian and now cultivated throughout the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. The fruit, which resembles a warty cucumber with ridges at maturity, is eaten as a vegetable and the leaves are prepared as greens. It is widely found in Asian and Indian cuisine, typically sautéed or stir-fried with other vegetables. The fruit is also pickled.

The plant has a long history of use in the traditional healing systems of India and Africa, most notably in the treatment of diabetes. Ancient Ayurvedic and Chinese texts describe its use as long as 200 BCE and 1370 CE, respectively. It has also been used to address rheumatism, respiratory issues and gastrointestinal disorders. In addition to anti-diabetic and anti-inflammatory properties, bitter melon is reputed to decrease abdominal fat, improve lipid profiles and lower blood pressure. As an added bonus, the plant’s antioxidant effects enhance liver function and protect against the accumulation of fat in liver cells while regulating bilirubin and liver enzymes. In mice, bitter melon has been observed to lower fibroblast growth factor (FGF) 21 levels, decreasing the risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

In studies on the effects of bitter melon on diabetes type-II, compounds in the herb appear to prevent serum glucose absorption by countering the activity of alpha-amylase and alpha-glucosidase, the enzymes that break down carbohydrate chains into smaller carbon chains that would otherwise be absorbed into the blood. At the same time, glucose transporter type 4 (GLUT4) expression is increased, enhancing glucose uptake. Studies have also shown that bitter melon agents reduce the production of harmful glycation end products (AGEs), which form when rogue sugar molecules bind to proteins or lipids.

You can find fresh bitter melon in specialty markets and has dried slices, which are used to flavor broth and soups and to produce a tisane known as gohyah tea. The powdered fruit may be encapsulated as a dietary supplement.


American Botanical Council: Food as Medicine: Bitter Melon

(Momordica charantia, Cucurbitaceae), HerbalEGram: Volume 13, Issue 9, September 2016

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