Bitter melon, also known as bitter gourd, wild cucumber, or balsam pear, is a member of the gourd family. It has been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years to treat a variety of ailments, including diabetes, digestive problems, and malaria. Although some small studies have shown that the chemical components of bitter melon can lower blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity in diabetics, most scientists agree that these studies need to be repeated with more stringent controls and a larger group of subjects. In the absence of such studies, most doctors do not feel comfortable recommending bitter melon for diabetes. In addition, there are a number of serious side effects associated with this tropical fruit.
Research into the benefits of using bitter melon for diabetes was conducted on 100 patients with type 2 diabetes in 1999 at a clinic in Bangladesh. The researchers checked the patients' 12- and 24-hour fasting blood sugar levels, and again after the patients drank 75 grams (2.65 ounces) of glucose. Following this, the patients were given bitter melon pulp to drink, and their blood sugars were checked again. Out of 100 patients, 86 showed a 14% reduction in their fasting and post-meal blood sugar levels. A Philippine study done in 2007 showed that a bitter melon dose of 100 milligrams per kilogram (0.004 ounces per 2.2 pounds) lowered blood sugar levels as effectively as a 2.5 milligram(8.81 ounce) dose of the anti-diabetes drug Glibenclamide twice a day.
Researchers at the Garvan Institute in Australia and the Shanghai Institute in China have conducted research that showed certain chemical components of bitter melon activate an enzyme called adenosine monophosphate kinase, or AMPk. The enzyme is responsible for regulating metabolism and glucose uptake in the muscles. Japanese research showed that bitter melon acts in a similar manner to animal insulin. Despite these promising studies, much more rigorous testing needs to be done to validate previous research.
Bitter melon has potential side effects that can be fatal for diabetics. Hypoglycemia, a condition in which blood sugar drops too low, is the primary risk involved in taking bitter melon for diabetes. If hypoglycemia is not treated quickly, the diabetic patient could fall into a coma that may result in death. Pregnant women should not take bitter melon to treat diabetes because it can cause bleeding and uterine contractions and may lead to a miscarriage. People who want to take bitter melon for diabetes should do so only under the close supervision of a health care professional.