Is Bitter Melon a Sweet Solution for Diabetes?
I’m answering your top nutrition question today on the issue of whether bitter melon is a solution for diabetes. Read on to learn more about this intriguing topic.
Question: Is bitter melon a good treatment if I have type 2 diabetes? –Cynthia
It just might be helpful. Beneath the green, bumpy skin of the bitter melon awaits substances that might hold potential glucose control benefits. Bitter melon (Momordica charantia), a cousin of the cantaloupe, is true to its name—it lends a unique, bitter bite to many traditional Asian dishes. In addition to its whole plant form, bitter melon is available in juice, tea or capsules. Given its long history of use in folk medicine, scientists are beginning to investigate its bioactive compounds and therapeutic properties. On the Internet, bitter melon supplements are widely promoted as an herbal treatment for diabetes. But does the scientific proof bear out these claims?
Researchers extracted four promising compounds from bitter melon that activate an enzyme called AMPK, a protein known for regulating fuel metabolism and promoting glucose uptake in a manner similar to that of exercise (Chemistry & Biology, March 2008). This effect might be helpful for people with type 2 diabetes, as they have an impaired ability to convert glucose in their blood into energy in their muscles. Exercise activates AMPK in muscle, which helps move glucose into body tissues—another reason exercise is such an important strategy in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.
Though this laboratory discovery is intriguing, scientists still have a lot to learn about bitter melon’s potential for treating diabetes. According to ConsumerLab.com, an organization that performs independent reviews and analyses of dietary supplements, most of the evidence to date that supports bitter melon’s efficacy in treating type 2 diabetes is limited to animal studies, uncontrolled human trials (in which no control group was used to compare the treatment results,) and other unreliable forms of evidence. In fact, the little evidence available from the few controlled human trials conducted has been conflicting. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial held in the Philippines and published in the June 2007 issue of the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 40 patients with newly diagnosed or poorly controlled diabetes were followed. In the trial, bitter melon capsules given three times a day after meals for three months achieved no significant improvements in HbA1c (a marker of glucose control) compared with placebo.
But a newly published four-week, multicenter, randomized, double-blind, active-control trial performed by researchers from Thailand found that 2,000 milligrams per day of bitter melon supplements had a modest hypoglycemic effect and significantly reduced fructosamine (a marker of glucose control) levels among patients with type 2 diabetes (Journal of Ethnopharmacology, March 2011). However, the hypoglycemic effect of bitter melon was less than that of metformin, a drug that lowers glucose in type 2 diabetes.
The bottom line? Scientists are still exploring the effects of bitter melon on glucose control. Until we learn more, the American Diabetes Association reports that eating it in whole plant form appears to be safe. Look for bitter melon in Asian grocery stores and slice it into your next stir-fry.
Check out my blog on How to Cook with Bitter Melon.
Eat and Live Well,
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About Ask Sharon
As part of my program “Ask Sharon”, I am answering the top question of the month submitted through my blog, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to answer here. You can even win a prize! Don’t forget to submit your burning nutrition question this month via my blog, or other social media.
Image: Bitter melon, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN
Written by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN in 2014, updated on May 1, 2019.