Bitter gourd or Momordica charantia is a fruit-bearing vine native to Africa and Asia. It grows in subtropical regions of the world. It also grows in many parts of the Americas and even Caribbeans.
It is consumed as a vegetable in various parts of the world. It has a peculiar taste, and so it is not liked by everyone. In fact, it is viewed as an invasive species in some places like the Guam islands. However, it is not just a part of the regular diet in India but also has a medicinal value.
There is a considerable difference in its varieties. In India, less bitter varieties with larger fruit are cultivated. In Indian traditional medicine, it has been used to manage various medical conditions like general wounds, diabetes, etc.
Managing diabetes and metabolic disorders
Bitter gourd is used as a natural remedy for managing diabetes in India. Moreover, there has been an increasing interest in its medicinal properties in other parts of the world in recent years. Studies indicate that regular intake of bitter gourd may help reduce blood glucose. Therefore, one may consume it as a part of the diet, drink its juice, or even take supplements.
Although it is still being studied, it appears that it may have a role in insulin regulation as well as reduction of insulin resistance. Studies also suggest that it works due to bioactive compounds like vicine, charantin, and polypeptide-p.
Metabolic disorders can also be managed by including bitter gourd in the diet. It may help reduce body weight, hypertension and normalise blood lipid levels.
In one of the uncontrolled clinical trials, regular use of bitter gourd supplement could help reduce waist circumference in those who took its supplement regularly for three months. Researchers found that it has a prolonged benefit and its effects only started to diminish after a month of discontinuing its use.
It is pretty likely that many of its beneficial health effects are due to its antioxidant capacity. It can help in protecting various body tissues from damage caused by free radicals. As a result, it may also have a role in slowing down ageing. It may also help in preventing complications of chronic ailments. Studies show that it is rich in phenolic compounds like gallic acid, catechin, and caffeic acid. Another study found that polysaccharides (kind of sugars) in bitter gourd also have potent antioxidant effects.
Experts have started visualising chronic ailments like diabetes, heart diseases, dementia differently in recent years. They think that low-grade and hidden systemic inflammation plays a critical role in the development of these conditions. That is why many healthy adults also develop these conditions.
One way to suppress this low-grade silent inflammation is increased consumption of anti-inflammatory foods. Studies show that bitter gourd is good in lowering inflammation and should be a substantial part of any anti-inflammatory diet.
Many experimental studies show that regular consumption of bitter gourd may help reduce blood cholesterol. It is worth understanding that high cholesterol is not due to dietary reasons in many cases. Instead, it is often due to the increased production of cholesterol by the liver in genetically predisposed individuals. Studies on lab rats show that bitter gourds can modulate gene expression and thus suppress cholesterol production.
In India, bitter gourd has also been traditionally used to manage various infections. Some of the early studies also suggest the same. For example, in one of the experimental studies, researchers found that it could boost Interferon-Gamma (IFN-γ) and T Helper 1 (Th1) production. This can be one of the ways in which regular consumption of bitter gourd may help prevent infectious diseases and even manage infections.
Experimental studies show that drinking bitter gourd juice regularly when living with cancer can be beneficial. In one of the studies, it was found that bitter gourd extract could inhibit the growth of colon cancer.
Bitter gourd has been traditionally used in India to treat numerous disease conditions. It is a source of nutrition and has many medicinal properties. Fortunately, in recent years, the rest of the world has also started exploring its amazing health benefits.
However, at present most research is focused on its ability to lower blood sugar and help those living with diabetes. Its benefits in diabetes are supported by some small clinical trials, and extensive clinical trials are needed to understand its benefits. Also, little is known regarding the effect of cooking on its properties at present. It is not yet clear if it can help if it is cooked, or it is beneficial mostly when consumed raw, as a juice, extract, or supplement.
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