Some people with diabetes look to natural treatments, such as bitter melon, to help manage their symptoms.
The bodies of people with diabetes do not produce enough insulin or are not able to use insulin effectively, which leads to there being too much glucose in the blood. Insulin is required so that cells can use it for energy.
A healthful diet and exercise are important for people with diabetes to help them manage their condition. Certain foods can cause blood sugar levels to spike, which is problematic.
In this article, we explore whether bitter melon is healthful for people looking to manage diabetes. As part of this, we analyze the impact bitter melon may have on blood sugar.
Contents of this article:
In type 1 diabetes, high blood sugar is the result of the body not producing enough insulin.
Type 2 diabetes, however, occurs when the body does not respond correctly to insulin. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes, and people of any age can develop it.
Many people with diabetes manage their condition well and do not experience further health problems. A range of medications and lifestyle changes can help people with diabetes live healthy lives.
However, drug therapies may have some side effects. As such, some people look to try natural treatments that are free of side effects. To make an informed decision about these, it helps to understand the science behind these options.
One such natural treatment method is better melon. Although further research is needed to draw reliable conclusions, some research suggests bitter melon may normalize blood glucose levels.
What is bitter melon?
Bitter melon has many different names, depending on where you are in the world. People all around the world have used it for both food and medicine for centuries.
Rich in vitamins and minerals, bitter melon grows on a vine of the Momordica charantia plant and is the most bitter of all fruits and vegetables.
Bitter melon grows in tropical and subtropical environments and thrives in:
- South America
- the Caribbean
- some parts of Africa
An alternative remedy for centuries, people are said to have used it to manage:
In parts of Asia and Africa, it has been used to manage symptoms of chicken pox and measles. And researchers from St. Louis University have even found evidence that bitter melon can hinder the growth of breast cancer cells.
How does bitter melon affect people with diabetes?
It is believed that bitter melon could have properties which lower blood sugar levels.
A number of clinical studies have examined the effect bitter melon has on diabetes to see whether it could be an effective treatment for normalizing blood glucose.
Effect on blood sugar levels
Researchers believe bitter melon contains substances that cause decreases in blood glucose and appetite suppression. In this way, it behaves similarly to insulin.
One study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that 2,000 mg daily of bitter melon lowers blood glucose levels considerably in people with type 2 diabetes. The effect was less than taking a 1,000 mg dose of metformin, which is a medicine often prescribed to control blood sugar levels.
Effect on glucose intolerance
Another study from 2008, suggests bitter melon improves glucose intolerance and suppresses blood glucose levels after meal consumption in animal studies.
However, other studies suggest any improvement is insignificant or inclusive.
Effect on hemoglobin A1c levels
Another study aimed to determine whether people with diabetes who took bitter melon supplements could decrease their hemoglobin A1c levels.
A1c levels are the average blood sugar levels over a 2-3 month period. The study looked to see if bitter melon could reduce A1c levels by at least 1 percent over this three-month period.
Two groups of people took part in the study:
- people recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes
- those with poor glucose control, who had A1c levels from 7 to 9 percent
The participants were advised to take two capsules of bitter melon three times daily.
The results of the study, reported in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, uncovered a less than 0.25 percent decrease in A1c levels in the study group.
The placebo group showed no change. The authors noted that the study size was too small but showed potential for larger studies.
Compared to no treatment
A 2014 report from Nutrition and Diabetes, looked at four studies that compared treatment using bitter melon supplements to no diabetic treatment at all.
The authors of the study found no evidence bitter melon had any significant effects on A1c levels or fasting plasma glucose levels.
They further concluded most of the research to date is inclusive regarding glycemic outcomes. They believed larger sample sizes could better determine bitter melon's effectiveness as a supplemental treatment for diabetes.
A 2016 report published in Current Pharmacology Reports similarly looked at several studies related to bitter melon including its effects on diabetes.
The authors did find merit in the theories that bitter melon may have hypoglycemia (low blood glucose) properties.
They also found it may help to reduce the adverse effects of diabetes but felt further study was warranted to come to any real conclusions.
Using bitter melon as a supplemental diabetes treatment
Bitter melon is also available as a juice.
Bitter melon is available in many forms, including as:
- a fruit
- a powder
- an herbal supplement
The fruit is available at most Asian grocery stores. Powders, supplements, and juices are available at health food stores and sold by online retailers.
How much to consume
Anyone considering taking bitter melon alongside their diabetes treatment should consume no more than:
- 50-100 milliliters daily (or about 2 to 3 ounces spread throughout the day)
- one small bitter melon per day
Supplements should be taken according to the instructions on the packaging. People should check with their doctors to see if it is safe to include supplements to their treatment plan. This is because supplements may counteract the effects of diabetes medications.
Risks of consuming bitter melon
Excessive consumption of bitter melon may cause stomach troubles, including diarrhea. Another potential adverse effect is extremely low blood sugar.
Children should not take bitter melon as it has been known to cause vomiting and diarrhea. Pregnant women should not consume bitter melon in any form because it has been associated with bleeding, contractions and miscarriage.
Bitter melon is generally safe for most adults. However, as reported by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, possible side effects caused by long-term use have not been studied.
Whilst there may be some benefits, no double-blind, placebo-controlled study (the gold standard of studies) has proven effectiveness or safety in all people with diabetes. People with diabetes should use bitter melon with caution, due to the associated hypoglycemia risks.
People with diabetes wanting to include bitter melon in their treatment plan should consult with their doctors. They should monitor their blood glucose levels closely because bitter melon may interact with diabetes medications that might reduce blood sugar to dangerous levels.
With more research, however, bitter melon may become a standard treatment for diabetes management.