Is it a Bitter Solution to a Sweet Problem, or a Sweet Solution to a Bitter Problem?

by Pranav Murthy

Type II diabetes is an adult onset medical disorder involving blood sugar control issues and insulin resistance that have numerous consequences if left untreated. Normally, when an individual consumes food, the carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is then absorbed into the cells. Insulin, a hormone released by the pancreas, controls this absorption. In Type II diabetes, either the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or the body’s cells become unresponsive to the insulin produced due to lowered sensitivity. Genetics, obesity and lack of physical activity are all risk factors for the development of this progressive condition.

Often overlooked in the early stages, Type II diabetes can lead to heart disease, stroke, blindness and kidney failure in the long run. The first step towards treatment is lifestyle modification with a healthy diet and regular exercise along with medication compliance. Unfortunately, these medications can cause undesirable side effects as well, such as weight gain, kidney damage, inconvenience and pain.

As a result, individuals may prefer dietary supplements or herbal remedies. Recent research has found that Momordica charantia, also known as bitter melon, has the necessary molecular components to increase insulin uptake. As the name implies, bitter melon is among the most bitter of all natural substances and is most commonly grown and consumed in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Studies have shown that bitter melon contains several compounds that stimulate adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK), an enzyme that regulates fuel metabolism and enables glucose uptake.           

While such alternative forms of diabetes treatment have been proven inadequate in the management of uncontrolled diabetes, researchers are continuing to look into bitter melon’s applicability for other stages of diabetes. For example, in 2011, the results of a four-week clinical trial published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology showed that a daily dose of bitter melon significantly reduces blood glucose levels among patients newly diagnosed with Type II diabetes. This promising finding has led researchers to shift their focus towards individuals with pre-diabetes, a larger population that could potentially benefit much more effectively from bitter melon consumption.

Pre-diabetes, a condition that affects an estimated 79 million adult Americans, is identified in people whose blood sugar is higher than normal, but not high enough to be classified as Type II diabetes. These individuals do not require medications, but are advised to modify their diet and physical activity in order to decrease their chances of progressing to diabetes. While disease progression is preventable, as many as 30 percent of individuals with pre-diabetes still develop diabetes within five years. Therefore, it seems more logical to study bitter melon’s anti-diabetic effects on pre-diabetes, when there is an opportunity to prevent the development of diabetes right from the get-go.

The economic factors surrounding bitter melon further promote its favorability for individuals with pre-diabetes who are looking for a non-prescription fix for their blood sugar control. Often times, a healthy diet is not always affordable or easily available for everyone. In 2011, U.S. counties with poverty rates greater than 35 percent had obesity rates 145 percent greater than those of wealthier counties. The situation is similar around the globe, with the incidence of diabetes projected to double the current amount by 2030 in developing countries. However, since 1990, bitter melon market prices have stayed at less than $2.00 per pound and remain readily available

Though the anti-diabetic effects of bitter melon remain to be further tested, current findings point towards a natural, widely accessible and inexpensive solution to prevent the onset of diabetes without harmful side effects. So, it seems like bitter melon may be the sweetest solution to a bitter problem.