Diabetes Self-Management Blog

I spent the last three weeks writing about low-carb eating. But at least one fruit, called bitter melon, seems to be a powerful treatment for diabetes, even if you do eat a lot of carbs.

In reply to my column on reversing Type 2 diabetes, Debbie commented,

My husband was diagnosed with Type 2 four months ago… he had a blood glucose reading of 370. [The] doctor put him on metformin — 1,000 mg a day, which brought his blood glucose down to the low 200’s. So the doctor upped his meds to 2,000 mg a day.

Then someone told her about bitter melon tea, and she bought some at a local Asian grocery. He started drinking one cup of tea in the morning and one in the evening. The very next day, his fasting glucose dropped to around 80. He stopped his metformin and his fasting glucose levels have been under 100 ever since.

His A1C dropped from 13.5 to 6.3. Since he has only been on the tea for a few weeks, his A1C will probably drop further at the next test. This is a man who is heavy, eats lots of pasta and rice, and whose exercise is “walking the dog twice a week.” Nothing else in his lifestyle has changed.

Debbie is sure it’s the bitter melon tea that’s controlling the blood glucose. But one person’s experience is not enough. It’s “anecdotal evidence.” Is there any scientific backup for his story? Not much, but some.

A study by researchers in Australia, China, and Germany found that four compounds in bitter melon that “activate an enzyme that is responsible for… transporting glucose from the blood into the cells.” The enzyme is called AMPK, the same one activated by exercise.

According to the article, published in March 2008 in the journal Chemistry & Biology, AMPK moves glucose transporter molecules to the surface of cells. There they help bring glucose from the blood into the cells. Science Daily reported, “This is a major reason that exercise is recommended as part of the normal treatment program for someone with Type 2 diabetes.”

Nearly all scientific work on bitter melon comes from China, Japan, India, and other Asian countries, and most studies have been in rats and mice. You can see a list here.

But when it comes to research on people, one review done in Malaysia found only two good studies, and the results were inconclusive. “More research is needed,” the authors conclude.

What is bitter melon?
According to Wikipedia, bitter melon is a fruit, but not one you are likely to eat raw. It looks like a pockmarked cucumber, and the taste is described as “chalky” and “unpleasant” on various Web sites like this Chinese cooking site.

Bitter melon’s scientific name is Momordica charantia. In English, it is called bitter melon, bitter gourd, or bitter squash. It has long been used in Chinese recipes, often in soups. But the effort in cooking and not-so-great taste has kept many people from eating it regularly.

In the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, studies of bitter melon in Asia found a chemical called charantin, which reduced blood glucose in rabbits. According to Livestrong.com, other “insulin-like compounds” in bitter melon include vicine and polypeptide-P.

So it may be that bitter melon reduces insulin resistance, or it may be that bitter melon acts as a substitute for insulin, at least when it comes to getting glucose into cells.

In a 2007 study, the Philippine Department of Health determined that 100 milligrams per kilogram of body weight of bitter melon each day reduces glucose as much as 2.5 mg/kg of glyburide, a sulfonylurea drug, taken twice per day. Tablets of bitter melon extract are now sold in the Philippines as a food supplement and exported to many countries.

Side effects and costs
According to Livestrong, there is a risk of hypoglycemia if you take too much bitter melon, especially if you are taking insulin or a sulfonylurea or thiazolidinedione drug. Drinking bitter melon juice is sometimes associated with stomach pain or diarrhea.

But according to users, bitter melon tea is a whole different story. Most say it tastes good, “better than green tea,” one commented. It’s also easy to prepare and easy to buy, either at an Asian grocery or online. A month’s supply costs about $5 at a store, maybe $12 online. Bitter melon capsules are more expensive.

Some people will probably not see the same astounding benefits as Debbie’s husband. In addition to normalizing glucose, his triglyceride levels have returned to normal or near-normal after years of being dangerously high.

It might be that Asian people will tend to improve more on bitter melon tea than non-Asian people. It might also take longer than the one day Debbie’s husband needed to see results. She wrote that a friend with diabetes didn’t see results for two weeks, but then his glucose levels came down to the normal range and stayed there.

But we won’t know until we try. A good dose would probably be one cup of bitter melon tea with breakfast and one with dinner. If you eat carbs at lunch, perhaps drink another cup then. I wouldn’t take it without eating, to avoid lows. It should probably be avoided if you are pregnant, and should not be given to children because of lows.

You can certainly also try cooked bitter melon or bitter melon capsules, but if the tea works for you, that seems easiest and tastiest, and cheaper than the capsules.

I hope some readers will try bitter melon and let us know your results. Or maybe you have already tried it. We’d like to know. Although it probably won’t work for everyone, bitter melon might be a good or better than vinegar or prescription medicines for many people. Of course, healthy eating and some physical activity are still important.

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Comments
  1. A week ago there was a scientific paper from USA claiming that pancreatic cancer cells were killed by bitter melon extracts. There is surely something happening from the use of this plant. But as the name says, it is darned too bitter for me.

    Posted by Cs Prakash |
  2. It seems that this Melon Tea is a magic. Someone, some big herbal company or manufacturer should research on this melon tea. It can be a huge benefit to the society.

    Posted by emedoutlet |
  3. Do you drink a cup of tea before or after meals with carbs?

    Posted by Dorothy Shanstrom |
  4. Hi Dorothy,

    The timing of the tea isn’t well explored. Most people I’ve talked to drink it after meals. I think different times might work better for different people.

    Posted by David Spero RN |
  5. I am fascinated by the news of this tea! As a type 2 diabetic whose blood sugars are higher than I’d like them to be, I’d like to try the tea. I had a kidney transplant 3 years ago, does anyone know of possible side affects to kidneys with this tea?

    Posted by Jackie |
  6. The only reported side effect is low blood sugars. Of course, it hasn’t been widely studied.

    Posted by David Spero RN |
  7. This is interesting. I’m always willing to investigate alternative medicines. I’ve tried working with herbals and supplements like cinnamon, chromium and magnesium with limited success. No matter what I do, exercise seems to have the greatest affect. Since this seems simple and cheap, I’d like to give it a try. If it helps, I’ll be sure to let you all know.

    Posted by Joe |
  8. I prepared bitter melon once. It required quite an effort.

    Posted by Mike |
  9. WOW! WOW! WOW! I read your blog yesterday, did some more reading about it and though, what the heck? I went and brought the tea and had a cup last night around 7, while eating dinner. I had some gin afterwards and ate a sandwich before bed. I checked my sugar this morning and it was 98! I ate breakfast, drank another cup of the tea and I didn’t take my normal medication. AND just to check to see if it was a fluke, I drank a soda, not diet, and checked my sugar 10 mins later and it was 193. I checked 3 hours later and its 94! This tea works!!! I am going to monitor it for the next 7 days before I tell my friend who’s also has diabetes. David, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Posted by Tommy |
  10. Has anyone with Type 1 or LADA tried this? If so, what were the results?

    Posted by Onoosh |
  11. Onoosh, I haven’t found any references on the Web to people with Type 1 or LADA using bitter melon. It is thought, though, that the melon contains insulin-like compounds, which perhaps take the place of insulin. So it certainly seems worth a try. Let us know how it goes.

    Posted by David Spero RN |
  12. I tried the bitter melon capsules and it did work for about 2 weeks with tremendous results. Brought down my sugars in the 200’s to 110 and sometimes lower. Then, seems like it stopped working as well as in the beginning, should I drink the tea instead of the capsules? Has anyone had this kind of results?

    Posted by Kobe's Mom |
  13. My severely insulin dependent mother has been asking me to look for bitter melon in the supermarket. I keep asking why. Now I know. I am on the hunt for this now - either in tea or fruit form.
    Where are people finding this?

    Thanks!!

    Posted by David S. |
  14. Kobe’s Mom,

    I hadn’t heard of bitter melon’s benefits wearing off as they seem to for you. Has anything else changed in your health, diet, medicines, stress or anything that could account for it? Tea is worth a try. I also wonder if you got a bad batch of capsules.

    David S, best places to buy are at Asian markets or online. Not hard to find. The fruit is available at farmers’ markets and Asian stores, but you really need to know how to cook it. Capsules and teas are easier.

    Posted by David Spero RN |
  15. In India, bitter melon is known as ‘KARELA’, and is a very popular vegetable regularly prepared in most kitchens, particularly during the warmer summer months when the price is more affordable.

    People with Diabetes have a few tablespoonsful of the fresh juice with their breakfast. This is easily made: Thoroughly wash one or two bitter melons. (the size varies from four to eight inches long), and grate it either by hand or in a mixie. Squeeze out the juice, and have it fresh! Results are best this way. Do not throw away the squeeezed fruit. Soak it in some clean drinking water and let it rest for a few hours. Squeeze it out and drink it during the rest of the day as well.

    Try this out and post the results on this site. They are guaranteed to be good.

    Bubbles Walsan

    Posted by Bubbles Walsan |
  16. I ll be trying this bitter melon idea out tonight, I let u know.

    Posted by Kemi |
  17. I tried the fresh bitter melon as promised in the evening and the following morning being a type II diabetic, my fasting result was still high but the rest of the day was fine but knowing the quantity required was a task in the fresh. I got the tea and I ve started on it last night i ll keep my fingers crossed i hope it work for me too.

    Posted by Kemi |
  18. how do you make the tea? Or is it store bought?

    thanks owen

    Posted by owen |
  19. Owen, you can buy bitter melon tea bags on line or in an Asian food market or perhaps Whole Foods.

    Posted by David Spero RN |
  20. I was diagnosed with diebates . I had to control with my diet and I did not want to go on medication so one day I tried the bitter melon fresh washed and put it in a pot half filled with water and let it boil for 1/2 hour and with it became cold I filled it in a bottled and put it in the fridge. I drink it every morning before breakfast. And thank Allah my sugar is normal. I do this everyday.

    Posted by Ayesha |
  21. How interesting. Do you drink the juice of one bitter melon a day? Do you need to boil it and if so why? I have a juicer and wondered whether one bitter melon juiced per day would be ok without boiling?

    Posted by Dee |
  22. Dee,

    You can try juicing the melon, as Ayesha did in the comment before yours, but most people find the taste very hard to swallow. Most people try the tea or the capsules.

    Posted by David Spero RN |
  23. My husband made a good tasting tea by boiling a bunch of leaves of bitter melon & then blended the boiled leaves, extracted the juice Iin a strainer & mixed it with the tea! Cooled in a fridge & I take 2 shots every nite before bed. It helps lower my glucose reading in the morning as I’m a Type 2 . I refused to take any medication so doing alternative medicine.

    Posted by Goldie P |
  24. there is a Phillipine recipe (unsure of the name) but consists of finely sliced (washed) bitter melon soaked for an hour in a strong brine, then drained and fried with scrambled egg. It has a better taste than most recipes. The tea is good though (almost no taste) I prefer that to normal black tea.

    Posted by Boyd |
  25. Does Bitter Gourd help to reduce weight? I blend half melon with water and take it first thing in the morning. Will it help???

    Posted by Ave |
  26. Ave, there doesn’t seem much evidence on bitter melon for weight loss. It’s more for reducing blood sugars.

    David

    Posted by David Spero RN |
  27. I am going to try this. I just found out that I’m now either going to have to take insulin shots or take two different types medication. One called Glipizide and the other Metformin. I hate the idea of taking medication if I don’t have to.

    I’m going to try Bitter Mellon Tea. If that does the trick I’m going to be every so grateful. If not, I’ll go on the meds.

    I’ll repost to let you know what my results are. As it stands right now, my A1C test was 11.2 a week ago. I was hospitalized last week for other issues and that’s when they found my blood sugars completely out of control.

    So… hopefully I’ll be able to get some type help with this tea. I’m crossing my fingers. I don’t like the side effects of most medications.

    Posted by Robin |

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