When you have diabetes, you no doubt focus on diet and exercise. But you may also look for more ways to manage it. One that you may have heard of is bitter melon.
It’s a vegetable used in Asia, South America, India, and parts of Africa. It looks and tastes a little like a cucumber, but is very bitter. It’s rich in vitamins A, C, and beta-carotene and minerals like iron and potassium.
Traditional medicine uses the fruit and seeds to treat many illnesses, such as diabetes, skin issues, asthma, and stomach problems.
You might hear it called by many other names, such as:
- Bitter gourd
- Bitter apple
- Wild cucumber
- Bitter cucumber
- Balsam apple
- Balsam pear
How It Affects Diabetes
Bitter melon has several chemicals that seem to act like insulin and help to lower blood sugar levels.
Some studies suggest that they do this by causing more glucose to enter the cells, and then helping your body process it and store it in the liver, muscles, and fat. They also may prevent your body from changing the nutrients that it stores into glucose and then releasing it into the blood.
Some studies show bitter melon can lower blood sugar and A1c levels in people with type 2 diabetes. But other studies have been far less promising, so research goes on.
How to Use Bitter Melon
You can buy bitter melon as a supplement. You can also find it at many Asian grocery stores. It might be fresh, dried, canned, or pickled. There are bitter melon seeds, flowers, leaves, and juice. You could even find bitter melon tea bags.
To prepare the fresh fruit, first remove the seeds. Then blanch or soak it in salt water before you cook it to help with the bitter taste. It’s often stuffed, stir-fried, or cooked with other vegetables. You can use the fruit, flowers, or seeds to brew tea.
Bitter melon comes as a supplement, but there isn’t enough research to know how much is safe to take. It depends on several things, such as your age, health, and other conditions. Read the label and talk to your doctor.
Bitter melon is likely safe for most people to take by mouth for 3 months or less. Doctors don't know if it’s safe to take it for longer periods. And they don't know if it's safe to put on your skin.
Bitter melon can cause side effects that include upset stomach, diarrhea, and headache.
Bitter melon might affect your blood sugar during and after surgery. Stop using it at least 2 weeks before your procedure.
It may be unsafe to take it when you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
Don't take bitter melon if you have G6PD deficiency. You could get a condition called "favism" after you eat bitter melon seeds. This can cause severe symptoms like headache, fever, stomach pain, and coma.
Other Safety Issues
Be careful when using supplements if you take any medications. Bitter melon can make your blood sugar levels drop too low if you take it with diabetes drugs. Always watch your blood glucose and stay in touch with your doctor. You may need to change your dosage or stop taking it.