Used widely in Asian cuisines and in folk medicine (in countries including China, Africa, India and Sri Lanka), the bitter melon is nothing short of an incredible crop plant. Shaped much like a cucumber on the outside — but covered in spikes, lumps, and indentations — the bitter melon can seem an intimidating vegetable. Forgive its physical appearance, because its nutritional, medicinal, and healing properties make up for its outward characteristics. Bitter melon has significant antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-obesity, anti-diabetes, antibacterial, and immune-boosting properties. This report explores the purported health benefits of bitter melon and how you can safely incorporate this beneficial plant into your diet.
What is bitter melon?
Bitter melon belongs to the gourd family — Cucurbitaceae — which includes the likes of pumpkin, squash, cucumber, zucchini, and other melons such as watermelon. Bitter melon grows on vines and is native to tropical and subtropical environments in Southeast Asia, the tropical lands of Africa, and the Caribbean. Known widely throughout the world, you can find bitter melon under a few of the following names:
- Momordica charantia (MC)
- Bitter gourd
- Bitter apple
- Bitter squash
- Balsam pear
An underlying commonality of the variety of alternate names for this gourd is its bitter characteristic. It is believed that this bitter quality contributes to a “cooling effect” — a food property believed by practitioners of Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine to lower the body’s internal temperature and clear the body of toxins. Cooling foods also tend to support metabolism and improve the digestive system, properties that have been associated with bitter melon benefits.
The makeup of this gourd consists of nearly 95% water, which is reflected in its low carbohydrate and low caloric profile. One serving of cooked bitter melon, roughly one cup or 124 grams (g), contains:
- 24 calories
- 1 g protein
- 5.4 g carbohydrates
- 0.2 g fat
- 2.5 g fiber
- 2.4 g sugar
Bitter melon (fruit and leaves included) also happens to be a rich source of important vitamins, minerals, and nutrients including potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, phosphorous, chromium, and zinc. Chromium and zinc are two important minerals that may aid in supporting blood sugar management and enhancing insulin activity.
Powerful bioactive compounds in bitter melon
Bitter melon contains powerful bioactive components that make it nutritious, beneficial,and healing. In bitter melon, you can find:
- Phenolic acids
The flavonoids and phenolic acids (epicatechins, chlorogenic acid, catechins, and gallic acid) found in bitter melon are strong antioxidants that can help rid the body of free radicals, preventing cell damage. Alpha-eleostearic acid, found in the oils of bitter melon, inhibits tumor cells and possesses strong anti-cancer properties. Bitter melon saponins, bitter-tasting plant chemicals found in the gourd (such as charantin, a steroidal saponin), may possess immune-boosting and hypoglycemic properties, making bitter melon good for diabetes. Alkaloids may provide cardioprotective and anti-inflammatory effects.
Potential health benefits of bitter melon
With its impressive list of bioactive compounds and its nutritional profile, what is bitter melon good for? Here are a few touted health benefits of bitter melon you may reap when consuming this gourd or crude extracts of it.
Stabilization of blood sugar
One of the most acclaimed benefits of bitter melon is its ability to lower or stabilize blood sugar levels. In a recent study observing the effectiveness of bitter melon as an “adjuvant treatment” in patients with type 2 diabetes (T2D), the study found that “the average fasting glucose level of the bitter melon group decreased [compared to the control],” suggesting that bitter melon may lower blood sugar levels in patients with T2D.
Bitter melon’s hypoglycemic properties may be due to a few bioactive compounds working synergistically to inhibit glucose absorption, increase insulin levels, and improve insulin sensitivity. Charantan (contributing to the bitter sensation of the gourd) and polypeptide-p, in particular, have taken the spotlight because both are compounds that possess “anti-hyperglycemic action” — which means they may contribute to lowering blood sugar levels and thus prove effective in managing or preventing diabetes. Overall, bitter melon improves blood sugar management, well-earning its anti-diabetic properties.
Lowering of cholesterol levels
A 2018 study on the effect of bitter melon extracts on lipid metabolism in 43 Japanese adults found that “the intervention group exhibited significantly lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) levels as compared with the control group.” Another study examining the impact of bitter melon extract treatment on triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) tumor cells found that bitter melon extract inhibited the growth of TNBC tumor cells and downregulated the low-density lipoprotein receptor during treatment. Thus, bitter melon may help to improve overall cholesterol status by lowering LDL-C, or the “bad” type of cholesterol, which in turn helps reduce overall inflammation throughout the body.
In addition to its ability to stabilize blood sugar and lower the “bad” type of cholesterol, bitter melon has also been recognized for its role in helping to mitigate obesity. The main bioactive compounds in bitter melon that contribute to this anti-obesity effect are the “proteins, triterpenoids, saponins, phenolics, and conjugated linolenic acids.” These bioactive compounds help to inhibit fat synthesis and promote a more efficient use of glucose. Thus, introducing bitter melon into your diet may be a natural way to help manage weight and subsequently protect against heart disease and diabetic conditions.
Protection against cancer
The second most well-accepted benefit of bitter melon is its protective measure against certain cancers. Bitter melon contains powerful bioactive components — including phenolic acids, flavonoids, sterols, and proteins — that act as the body’s line of defense against the agenda of harmful cancer cells in the body. Research has found that by “enhancing reactive oxygen species generation, inhibiting cancer cell cycle, cell signaling, cancer stem cells, glucose and lipid metabolism, invasion, metastasis, hypoxia and angiogenesis,” bitter melon crude extract or isolated bioactive components of bitter melon may serve as an effective cancer preventative.
Ways to incorporate bitter melon in your diet
Bitter melon is best enjoyed in its unripe form, green and firm. At this stage, the bitter melon is less bitter than when the gourd turns yellow and begins ripening. At the peak of its ripeness, the bitter melon will turn orange, soften, and split open, revealing its internal red seeds. Still being debated is whether or not these red bitter melon seeds and the gourd itself, at this stage, are poisonous and harmful if eaten. You may want to err on the side of caution and stick to eating unripe and green bitter melon.
Bitter melon can be consumed raw or cooked. If the bitterness is too strong for you, preparing and cooking the bitter melon will help to reduce the bitter flavor and make it more tolerable. To prepare your bitter melon, wash the gourd and cut it in half, lengthwise. Use a spoon to scoop out the white pith and seeds. Then, cut the bitter melon into half moons and soak the slices in a salt-water mixture to help reduce the bitterness. Let it sit for at least thirty minutes and then drain the water.
At this point, you can make a bitter melon stir-fry or make a bitter melon soup. Chinese cuisine prefers the pairing of bitter melon with pork to complement the flavors. A delicious Vietnamese stir-fry pairs bitter melon with scrambled eggs and a touch of fish sauce. Traditional Caribbean caraili dishes pair sautéed bitter melon with salted fish. You can even make curry with bitter melon! The variety of ways to cook and prepare bitter melon is endless; experiment and find your favorite.
Alternatively, you can incorporate bitter melon into your daily diet by taking oral bitter melon supplements. However, you should consult with your doctor or a registered dietician nutritionist (RDN) before making radical changes to your diet or taking any new dietary supplements.
Bitter melon precautions
Bitter melon may cause unintended reactions in certain groups and individuals. Pregnant and lactating women may want to avoid eating bitter melon (or avoid eating too much of it) as it may cause stomach aches, indigestion, diarrhea, abdomen pain, cramping, or even preterm labor.
Other reported adverse effects of bitter melon include hypoglycemic coma and convulsions in children. Hypoglycemic comas are characterized by a sharp reduction in blood sugar levels — reaching under 3.0 mmoL/liter — causing temporary unconsciousness. Bitter melon’s tendency to lower blood sugar levels may be of concern to those who take blood sugar-lowering medications, as blood sugar levels may drop too low (hypoglycemia) and become life-threatening.
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In the vast world of healing plants, bitter melon, or Momordica charantia (MC), places high on the list of plants that have significant nutritional and medicinal value; there are numerous health benefits of bitter melon. It’s no wonder that this plant has long been used for traditional and folk medicine in countries throughout the world. The powerful bioactive compounds in bitter melon contribute to its anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, anti-obesity, and anti-cancer properties. However, before making any drastic changes to your diet or dietary supplement routine, consult with your doctor or a RDN — and ask if incorporating bitter melon into your menu planning could prove safe and effective for you.