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Bitter Melon, Diabetes

David Spero

March 27, 2013

Bitter melon

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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