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Bitter Melon

Bitter melon is a plant that grows in parts of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and South America. It grows a fruit that looks like a cucumber. People use bitter melon as both a food and a traditional medicine.

Why do people take bitter melon?

Bitter melon is best known as a traditional medicine to treat diabetes. Some studies suggest it may have a benefit, while others do not. In early studies, bitter melon fruit -- and supplements -- seemed to improve blood sugar levels over time. But other studies have not shown any improvement in blood sugar. More research is needed.

In lab tests, bitter melon seems to slow down some viruses like HIV and may kill cancer cells. But it isn’t known if bitter melon has these benefits in people.

There's no standard dose for bitter melon. Some people eat a small melon daily. Ask your doctor for advice.

Can you get bitter melon naturally from foods?

Bitter melon is sometimes an ingredient in foods, like curries. It has a very bitter, sour taste. It's also known as balsam pear.

What are the risks?

Tell your doctor about any supplements you’re taking, even if they’re natural. That way, your doctor can check on any potential side effects or interactions with medications.

  • Side effects. At least in the short-term, bitter melon seems to be safe. It can cause upset stomach, cramping, and diarrhea.
  • Risks. Bitter melon may affect blood sugar levels. Check with a doctor before using it if you have diabetes. It could cause very low blood sugar when mixed with some diabetes medicines. Bitter melon is not safe for children or for pregnant or breastfeeding women.
  • Interactions. If you take any medicines regularly, talk to your doctor before you start using bitter melon supplements. They could interact with drugs for diabetes and other conditions.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does regulate dietary supplements; however, it treats them like foods rather than medications. Unlike drug manufacturers, the makers of supplements don’t have to show their products are safe or effective before selling them on the market.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on January 23, 2015

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