Hippocrates said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.
Whilst eating a humble apple it may be difficult to think of it as medicine (although believe me it packs quite a punch in the doing-you-good stakes – see my post on Humble Superfoods). Swigging back a bitter melon juice, however, leaves no doubts in that quarter, or at least one hopes not!! As its name suggests, it is BITTER with a capital “B”!!
Recently whilst up in Manchester I had the joy one Sunday lunchtime of eating at a fab Indian veggie restaurant in Ashton (quick plug here for Lily’s) with friends who then talked me through the benefits of various offerings at the next door Indian supermarket. One such was the Bitter Melon / Gourd, otherwise known as the Karela. I was reliably informed that it had sorted out a friend’s diabetes, so I decided to do a spot of research to find out just what the bitter melon could offer.
My research started with a spot of practical. I bought just one fruit, and made a diluted juice. It resembles a knobbly cucumber and provides most benefit when unripe (green). I simply cut it lengthwise, scooped out the seeds, chopped it up and added it to the Vitamix with a modicum of water, then whizzed it around until it was broken down. The resulting juice looked innocent enough but, boy, the taste was anything but! Having said that, I’m not averse to the bitter flavour so could happily take it if it meant it would benefit my health.
Rooting around on the web, it seemed that plenty of research had been done.
The Bitter Melon is considered to be the most bitter of any fruit and vegetable (no kidding) and thrives in tropical / sub-tropical areas of Asia, the Caribbean, South America and parts of Africa, where it is used as both a food and medicine.
It contains a host of active nutritional constituents (such as beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene and zeaxanthin, iron, calcium, vitamins etc) which is impressive enough, but by far the most exciting are those that proffer blood-sugar-lowering effects.
In Diabetes 2, cells (especially those in muscle, fat and liver) develop ”insulin resistance” which means that they do not respond effectively to insulin when it tries to encourage them to take up glucose from the blood. (In addition, the pancreas produces insufficient insulin.) Persistently raised glucose levels damage blood vessel linings, which can lead to cardiovascular problems, nerve damage, blindness, kidney failure, leg ulcers and gangrene. Not a pretty line up of symptoms.
People with diabetes 2 are encouraged to exercise. This has the effect of activating AMPK (AMP-activated protein kinase) in muscle which, simply put, helps to move glucose transporters to the cell surface, which help in the uptake of glucose from the blood into the cells.
Now here’s the exciting bit. Compounds in bitter melon have been found to have the same effect.
Other compounds have been found to help prevent the absorption of sugar from the intestines, and yet others increase the number of beta cells (cells that secrete insulin) in the pancreas.
All promising stuff, and another example of how Nature has a plethora of answers, if only we would tap into her wisdom more often.
I love this meld of Nature and science. Herbalists have been using bitter melon for hundreds of years for various conditions, but science can now demonstrate just why it works. I only hope that research doesn’t lead to yet more patented drugs, but rather to encourage people to look to food for health-cure.
As a naturopathic nutritionist, I don’t hold with a magic bullet for a single condition and would always encourage someone to adopt a more holistic approach, incorporating a health-giving diet and lifestyle. Adding in something as potent as bitter melon then has a better chance of giving more benefit.
Please note that this post is for information purposes only and is not intended to be used to diagnose, prescribe or replace proper medical care.