Certain herbal extracts offer a lot of potential health benefits. And one of the best extracts is bitter melon. Yes, I realize that “bitter” doesn’t sound exactly appetizing, but stay with me. This melon does have a bitter taste. However, there are myriad health benefits, particularly in extract form.
First of all, bitter melon, despite the name, is actually a plant — not a fruit. Specifically, it grows on a vine. The pods that grow on the vine are the bitter melon. They look like wrinkly, warty cucumbers, which might be why they’re also known as the bitter cucumber. Sometimes they’re also called bitter apple.These are not the kind of melons you want to pick and eat straight from the vine, but this is exactly the kind of plant you want to incorporate into your diet.
This extract is one of several ingredients in health supplements, with good reason.
Where Does Bitter Melon Come From?
Bitter melon, or Momordica charantia, is also known as bitter gourd and balsam pear. It belongs to the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes:
Bitter melon is a tender pod vegetable that’s grown as a field crop and a backyard crop in many Asian countries. A tropical, fast-growing vine, it is said to have originated from parts of Southeast Asia. This gourd is native to Southern China, but it is widely cultivated in certain subtropical regions around the world, such as in Africa and South America. The East treats bitter melon primarily as a food, incorporating it into various dishes. In the States, most people simply count as a beautiful, ornamental vine.1
Bitter Melon Helps and Heals
Now, bitter melon extract has an incredibly long history of medicinal use in China. You see, bitter melon is a major component in Ayurvedic medicine. If you’re thinking to yourself, “I’ve heard of ayurveda before,” you’re right. It’s the traditional practice of healing that has been followed for thousands of years in India. But, this practice has also made its way throughout different parts of the world.
Ayurvedic practices migrated over time, and they mingled with specific traditional practices of Chinese medicine around sometime in the 1300s. Turns out, the Chinese knew that bitter foods had special cleansing characteristics for their bodies. So, the Chinese figured there could potentially be something to the bitter melon’s sour flavor.
The Chinese started to cook with bitter melon, including parts of the pod in their favorite dishes. They also juiced it as a way of making medicinal tonics to help as a remedy for specific health concerns, like fixing an upset stomach, helping to heal flesh wounds, helping to reduce chronic coughing, assisting in the control of respiratory infections, and helping diminish discomfort from indigestion.
The Bitter Truth
Bitter melon lives up to its name. In fact, it is possibly one of the most bitter-tasting vegetables in the culinary world. Some people believe that the melon’s bitterness comes from its high concentration of quinine, though this hasn’t been proven.2
Why would anyone want to cook with something so bitter? Believe it or not, bitter melon can be incorporated into delicious dishes. The key word is “cooking.” Eventually, your taste buds may get used to the bitterness. You’ll find bitter melon stuffed with various meats, and cooked with ingredients that have strong flavors. This helps to neutralize the bitterness of the gourd. If you want to cook with bitter melon, it might be best to start with the young ones, which are milder when it comes to the sharp taste. The older the vegetable, the more bitter it is because its bitter level intensifies as the pods mature.3
Benefits Of Bitter Melon?
Bitter melon is packed with at least 32 active chemicals. It is also loaded with vitamins. Bitter melon is a nutritionally-packed, powerhouse vegetable that is rich in iron. It has twice the amount of beta-carotene in broccoli, twice the amount of potassium in bananas, and twice the amount of calcium in spinach. In addition, bitter melon is rich in fiber, phosphorous, minerals, and antioxidants.4
Is it any wonder that our bodies may benefit in numerous ways from bitter melon extract?
Here are some of the most notable known benefits of this plant and its extract.
May Regulate Glucose Levels
Bitter melon extract contains charantin, a hypoglycemic agent that may help lower blood glucose levels in your body. Bitter melon also includes vicine and polypeptide-p (insulin-like peptide), two other chemicals which help regulate your glucose levels.5
Bitter melon is valued for its ability to stimulate peristalsis. It is rich in dietary fiber, and is believed to be a good natural laxative. In addition, bitter melon may be helpful in relieving indigestion. So if you have sluggish digestion, bitter melon, or its extract, might prove helpful.6
Bitter melon also contains high concentrations of vitamin C, a nutrient that improves immunity. Vitamin C plays an important role in fighting off chronic illnesses, viral and bacterial infections in your body.7
We’ve already established that bitter melon is rich in vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant. However, it may also work to protect the skin from cell damage, preventing oxidation of DNA.
Shu-Jing Wu and the Lean-Teik Ng from Chia-Nan University of Pharmacy and Technology and the Tajen University in Taiwan, respectively, conducted a study on the antioxidant and radical scavenging properties of the extract. They found positive results, enough to support the idea that this extract may indeed benefit skin.8
Research suggests that bitter melon may aid skin repair by helping to reduce scarring, though more studies are needed. It may also help treat deep skin infections and accelerate the process of wound healing.9
At present, obesity is one of the world’s most serious health problems, and bitter melon may help in this worldwide dilemma.10 It can help with weight loss by acting on peripheral tissues and curbing appetite – analogous to the effects of insulin in the brain.11
Is it possible that by consuming bitter melon regularly, your body may metabolize carbohydrates rapidly, helping to facilitate weight loss?
Research suggests that yes, this may be a possible additional benefit.12
May Combat Malaria
In many parts of the world, bitter melon is being used to help with numerous ailments. In many countries, such as Panama and Colombia, they use Momordica charantia to help prevent and treat malaria because it is rich in quinine and other alkaline substances.13
More Bitter Melon Stories From Around The World
Now, we mentioned above that bitter melon has been used for thousands of years as a staple of Chinese medicine, but did you know that the Turkish people have relied on bitter melon as well?
For those who practice folk medicine in Turkey, bitter melon is well-known to be a soothing aid for upset stomach. There, Turks overlook the strong, pungent taste of the bitter melon and use the plant to help with irregularity, for the soothing of ulcers, to prevent water retention, and to help with bloating.
And, in Indian culture, the bitter melon is very important when it comes to ethnobotanical medicine. I mentioned Ayurvedic medicine before, well, in India, the fruit of the bitter melon has been thought to help control and regulate hormones, reduce digestive tract issues, soothe and help heal skin disorders, help alleviate discomfort from wounds, and also as a treatment for constipation.
So you can see, bitter melon has had a positive influence, the world over, for being a natural health aid.
How Can You Put Bitter Melon Extract To Use?
1. The easiest way to use bitter melon extract is to simply eat the fruit by itself. But, you can also cook with it, or, if you just can’t stomach the flavor – the extract is available as a liquid or in the form of a capsule.
2. You want to find the most pure bitter melon you can. So, make sure you find a healthy, ripe, green, bitter melon fruit. Double-check to make sure the fruit is not bruised and that it hasn’t cracked anywhere. Furthermore, you want to keep the bitter melon stored in a cool, dry place – refrigeration is best. You can keep your bitter melon for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator, but once spots appear, make sure you discard your bitter melon.
3. When you purchase the entire bitter melon pod, the tastiest way to prepare it is to create a stir-fry using a wok or skillet. You can add flavorful vegetables, like sweet potatoes, fresh garlic, and onion, along with wild-caught shrimp or salmon. Not only will this reduce the strength of the smell, it will be a great source of protein and other much-needed nutrients.
4. When you’re looking to purchase pure bitter melon extract in capsule form, do your best to find certified organic extract. You’ll also want to make sure it is non-GMO, synthetic additive free, and gluten-free. You can also find bitter melon extract in liquid form and you can use a dropper to add the extract to your drinks or recipes – you can even take the liquid directly if you can handle the taste.
5. You can also make a simple dish of bitter melon and egg. It’s a take on a traditional Chinese recipe It’s a really easy, tasty way to prepare the bitter melon. Now, several bitter melon recipes do tend to hide its flavor, but this dish perfect for people who have gotten accustomed to the taste and even come to enjoy it.
Simply cut the bitter melon in half (the long way) and then scoop out the seeds. Then you can continue to slice the bitter melon thinly. Heat some coconut oil in a wok, and stir fry fresh garlic until it grows fragrant.
Next, add the slices of bitter melon, and stir fry on a high heat for 2 or 3 minutes. The bitter melon will be slightly translucent. Finally, beat 2 eggs and pour them over the stir-fried slices. Continue to cook until the egg is cooked. Season with salt and pepper.
The Not-So-Bitter End
The healing properties of bitter melon extract, known for centuries throughout Asia, are now becoming widely accepted in the Western world. This “beauty gourd” is undeniably beneficial for sustaining a healthy body.
As more studies are conducted, the demand for bitter melon extract has risen. It’s on the radar now, and researchers today are only beginning to discover the many ways BME could help the body, both internally and externally.
Article updated on August 24th, 2017.
1Health Benefits | National Bitter Melon Council. Bittermelonorg. 2016. Available at: http://bittermelon.org/heal/healthbenefits. Accessed October 18, 2016.
2Health Benefits | National Bitter Melon Council. Bittermelonorg. 2016. Available at: http://bittermelon.org/heal/healthbenefits. Accessed October 18, 2016.
3Rudrappa U. Bitter gourd (Bitter melon) nutrition facts and health benefits. Nutrition And Youcom. 2016. Available at: http://www.nutrition-and-you.com/bitter-gourd.html. Accessed October 18, 2016.
4Health Benefits | National Bitter Melon Council. Bittermelonorg. 2016. Available at: http://bittermelon.org/heal/healthbenefits. Accessed October 18, 2016.
5Chen Q, Chan L, Li E. Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia) Reduces Adiposity, Lowers Serum Insulin and Normalizes Glucose Tolerance in Rats Fed a High Fat Diet. The Journal of Nutrition. 2003;133(4):1088-1093. Available at: http://jn.nutrition.org/content/133/4/1088. Accessed October 18, 2016.
6Dandawate P, Subramaniam D, Padhye S, Anant S. Bitter melon: a panacea for inflammation and cancer. Chinese Journal of Natural Medicines. 2016;14(2):81-100. doi:10.1016/s1875-5364(16)60002-x.
7Wu SNg L. Antioxidant and free radical scavenging activities of wild bitter melon (Momordica charantia Linn. var. abbreviata Ser.) in Taiwan. LWT – Food Science and Technology. 2008;41(2):323-330. doi:10.1016/j.lwt.2007.03.003.
8Pişkin A, Altunkaynak B, Tümentemur G, Kaplan S, Yazıcı Ö, Hökelek M. The beneficial effects of Momordica charantia (bitter gourd) on wound healing of rabbit skin. Journal of Dermatological Treatment. 2012;25(4):350-357. doi:10.3109/09546634.2012.713459.
9 Maheshwari R. DIETETIC COROLLARY OF MOMORDICA CHARANTIA FOR VIVACIOUSNESS AND SANGUINITY. I J PRBS. 2014;3(2):141-154.
10 Alam M, Uddin R, Subhan N, Rahman M, Jain P, Reza H. Beneficial Role of Bitter Melon Supplementation in Obesity and Related Complications in Metabolic Syndrome. Journal of Lipids. 2015;2015:1-18. doi:10.1155/2015/496169.
11 Alam M, Uddin R, Subhan N, Rahman M, Jain P, Reza H. Beneficial Role of Bitter Melon Supplementation in Obesity and Related Complications in Metabolic Syndrome. Journal of Lipids. 2015;2015:1-18. doi:10.1155/2015/496169.
12 Alam M, Uddin R, Subhan N, Rahman M, Jain P, Reza H. Beneficial Role of Bitter Melon Supplementation in Obesity and Related Complications in Metabolic Syndrome. Journal of Lipids. 2015;2015:1-18. doi:10.1155/2015/496169.
13Health Benefits | National Bitter Melon Council. Bittermelonorg. 2016. Available at: http://bittermelon.org/heal/healthbenefits. Accessed October 18, 2016.