Bitter Gourd is a tropical and subtropical vine that belongs to the family of Cucurbitaceae. It produces a fruit that is commonly consumed as a vegetable and the fruit comes in various shapes ranging from cylindrical to elliptic. The green or white fruit changes its colour into an orange-red hue as it matures and its rind has thick spikes on the skin.
Bitter gourd brings multiple health benefits to consumers and here are some of the most frequently asked questions about the uses and benefits of bitter gourd.
Yes, Bitter Gourd is referred to by many names depending on the regional vernacular. Some of the most commonly used names are Bitter Melon, Bitter Squash, Balsam Pear, Karela, Bitter Apple, and Wild Cucumber. (1)
Bitter Gourd is mainly grown in East Africa, the Caribbean, the Amazon, some parts of South America, and in Asian countries like China, India, Japan, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. (1) In Sri Lanka, Bitter Gourd is cultivated in orchards for commercial purposes and also as a backyard plant for personal consumption.
Almost all the parts of the Bitter Gourd vine including the fruit, leaves, and roots are suitable for human consumption. While the unripe fruit is mainly consumed as a cooked vegetable, the leaves and roots are consumed as teas, beers, and seasonal soups in the Western World. (2) Purified Bitter Gourd oil is recommended to be utilised alongside diluents such as common food-grade oils. (1)
One of the main complaints Bitter Gourd receives is that it is bitter. However, if you knew why Bitter Gourd is bitter, you wouldn’t complain at all! Bitter Gourd is bitter due to the micronutrients and other helpful properties it contains. The main reason behind its bitterness is the presence of high levels of “antioxidants, phenols, flavonoids, terpenes, glucosinolates and anthraquinones” that are vital for the human body (3).
As a highly nutritious vegetable, Bitter Gourd contains lots of micronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, etc. It is a rich source of Vitamin A, vitamins B1, B2, B3, B, and C. It also contains vital inorganic minerals such as phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium, iron, and zinc. The amino acids it comes with include glutamine, asparagine, leucine, valine, arginine, tryptophan, histidine, threonine, isoleucine, etc. In addition, it also contains a high amount of dietary fibre (4).
Apart from being used as a vegetable, Bitter Gourd plays a central role in alternative forms of medicine as a herb used for remedies. For instance, in Ayurveda medicine, Bitter Gourd is used for treating eye-related diseases, biliousness, blood diseases, anaemia, urinary discharges, asthma, ulcers, and bronchitis. (5)
In Unani medicine, the Bitter Gourd fruit is considered to be a “carminative, tonic, stomachic, aphrodisiac, anthelmintic, astringent to bowels,” and is used to treat “syphilis, rheumatism, and spleen troubles.” (6)
In India, tribal people use Bitter Gourd for “abortions, birth control, increasing milk flow, vaginal discharge, menstrual disorders, constipation, food, hyperglycemia, diabetes, jaundice, stones, kidney, liver, fever (malaria), eczema, gout, fat loss, haemorrhoids, hydrophobia, intestinal parasites, skin, pneumonia, leprosy, psoriasis, rheumatism, scabies, piles, snakebite, and as an antihelminthic (6).”
In addition, its ethnomedical uses span multiple countries such as Trinidad, Haiti, China, Brazil, Mexico, etc and each country uses Bitter Gourd for various medicinal and culinary purposes (7).
Bitter Gourd brings a multitude of health benefits for consumers. It has anti-diabetic, anti-tumour, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant properties and hypo-lipidemic and hypo-glycaemic activities (8). Here are some of the most widely-known benefits you can reap from adding Bitter Gourd to your daily diet.
Bitter Gourd is perhaps the most celebrated for its anti-diabetic properties. It is a scientifically proven anti-diabetic and can reduce blood sugar levels significantly. According to research and scientific studies, Bitter Gourd contains three active compounds, including charantin, vicine, and an insulin-like compound polypeptide-p that work together and individually to reduce blood sugar levels. Simultaneously, the lectin in the Bitter Gourd which is a major factor of hypoglycemic effect also contributes to reducing blood glucose levels by affecting peripheral tissues and appetite. Also, Bitter Gourd contains further anti-diabetic compounds such as steroids, inorganic, triterpene, proteid, lipid, and phenolic compounds that increase its anti-diabetic activity (3).
Various in vivo and in vitro studies have shown that the Bitter Gourd extract is capable of inhibiting the growth of cancer cells and the development of liver cancer and leukaemia in humans. For example, MAP30 protein present in Bitter Gourd fights against liver cancer while 14-kDa Ribonuclease known as RNase MC2 have activities against MCF-7 breast cancer as found through a study carried out by Feng et al (4).
It has been conceived that Bitter Gourd is beneficial for those undergoing radiotherapy too. According to a study on cervical cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy, the e P-glycoprotein level was significantly reduced in NK cell membranes upon the administration of Bitter Gourd extract, which suggests that Bitter Gourd may be effective and helpful to patients undergoing radiotherapy (9).
Studies have found anti-tumour activity in the entire Bitter Gourd plant. For instance, one study demonstrated that “a hot water extract of the entire plant inhibited the development of mammary tumours in mice.” Another study found that a water extract hindered the growth of rat prostate carcinoma, suggesting that Bitter Gourd is effective against tumours (8).
Bitter Gourd possesses wounding healing ability. According to research, it has a therapeutic agent for tissue regeneration and has been found to stimulate the proliferation of dermal fibroblasts of humans (10) (4).
Research has found Bitter Gourd to be effective against HIV. THE Alpha- and beta-momorcharin protein present in Bitter Gourd fruit, seeds and leaves have shown anti- HIV activities and effectively fight against HIV. Similarly, the MRK29 protein in Bitter Gourd also works towards the inhibition of viral reverse transcriptase, thereby fighting against HIV (4).
The extract of Bitter Gourd leaves and fruit displays antibacterial activity against multiple organisms. For instance, the extract of the fruit is effective in terms of the inhibition of Helicobacter pylori-organism. Extract of the leaves is reported to be effective against Escherichia coli, Salmonella paratyphi, and Shigella dysenteriae Streptomyces griseus in vitro (4).
Bitter Gourd is a traditionally well-known remedy for constipation. It combats constipation and provides relief from indigestion conditions. It also improves peristaltic movements of the gastrointestinal tract (7).
According to age-old folk medicinal knowledge, having Bitter Gourd juice regularly in the morning on an empty stomach effectively treats pyorrhoea or the bleeding of gums (7).
Bitter Gourd can enhance the action of the adenosine-5-monophosphate kinase (AMPK) that is closely associated with fat release from fatty tissues and glucose uptake, thereby helping you to lose weight (6).
Due to the country’s diverse climatic regions, Sri Lanka produces a wide variety of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. The manufacturing and exporting of more than 9000 tonnes of produce annually solidify Sri Lanka as a major exporter of fruits, nuts, and vegetables.