Fact-checked by Dr. Anthony Gustin, DC, MS.
Written by Emily Ziedman
Bitter melon is a tropical vine known for its edible fruit.
This unusual plant (also called bitter gourd) comes from Asia and Africa, where it’s been used for centuries for everything from weight loss to abdominal pain.
Today, bitter melon is becoming a popular supplement in the keto community. New research shows that bitter melon is a powerful way to regulate your blood sugar.
It can help prevent blood sugar spikes, which keeps you in ketosis and gives you stable energy throughout the day. Bitter melon has a few other cool benefits too.
This article will cover bitter melon’s uses, side effects, and dosage, as well as how you can get the most out of a bitter melon supplement.
Bitter melon is a fruit-like gourd that grows in many parts of Asia. It’s been used for thousands of years to relieve for a variety of ailments, including eczema, gout, jaundice, kidney stones, psoriasis, and arthritis[*]. Bitter melon fruit is also popular in culinary dishes in Bangladesh and India.
Asian culture seems to have intuitively understood the benefits of bitter melon. Modern research has uncovered many health-promoting compounds in bitter melon, including a rich array of anti-inflammatory and insulin-stabilizing compounds.
By far the most researched health benefit of bitter melon is its positive effect on blood sugar.
There are more than 140 different studies in both animals and humans that investigate bitter melon’s effect on blood sugar control and its potential therapeutic use in type 2 diabetes[*].
While the majority of research on bitter melon to date has been done in animal studies, there’s some compelling evidence that this plant may be an amazing ally for metabolic processes, especially if you suffer from obesity or diabetes.
#1: Blood Sugar Regulation
Keeping your blood sugar stable is one of the basic principles of maintaining a healthy body. High blood sugar — often from eating a diet high in refined carbs — contributes to weight gain, type II diabetes, and metabolic syndrome[*].
The result of this damage is decreased blood flow to vital organs, and increased risk of heart attacks and other forms of heart disease[*].
Bitter melon lowers blood sugar and improves overall blood sugar control[*].
It’s rich in polypeptide-p, a protein that mimics insulin (the hormone that removes sugar from blood cells and keeps your blood sugar stable)[*]. Polypeptide-p reduces blood sugar levels in both human and animal studies[*][*].
Bitter melon also contains vicine and charantin, two more compounds that regulate blood sugar. Charantin may even have a stronger positive effect on blood sugar than the anti-diabetic medication Tolbutamide[*].
#2: Immune Enhancement
Your immune system contains a class of cells called natural killer cells that attack foreign viruses before they can invade your body.
Bitter melon activates these natural killer cells, stimulating your immune system and protecting you from viruses. Researchers have even studied bitter melon extract as an anti-HIV drug, with promising preliminary results[*].
#3: Type 2 Diabetes Management
When you eat food that contains carbs, cells in your pancreas called beta cells produce and secrete insulin, which then manages your blood sugar.
Your body needs functioning beta cells; when they stop working, you start struggling to manage your blood sugar and your insulin response becomes desensitized. Eventually, failing beta cells can lead to type II diabetes.
Bitter melon also has a protective effect on beta cells[*]. In a study on diabetic mice, a bitter melon supplement restored pancreatic activity and brought beta cells back online, encouraging them to release insulin[*].
Bitter melon shows promise for treating type II diabetes, although it could use more clinical trials.
You can get a bitter melon supplement in capsules, as an extract, or as bitter melon juice.
Although there is no standard currently set for dosage, below are some common dosages[*]:
- 3-15 grams per day for the powdered dried fruit
- 50-100 milliliters per day for the fresh juice
- 100-300 milligrams three times a day for the standardized bitter melon extract.
If you prefer whole foods, you can also cook and eat fresh bitter melon.
You can usually find it at a local Asian or Indian grocery store, next to the other gourds and melons.
When looking for bitter melon, be sure to choose one that’s slightly orange or yellow in color. Green means it’s not ripe yet.
Also, try to grab one that’s small to medium in size. The bigger the melon, the more bitter it will be. You don’t need to peel the skin, as the whole plant is edible. Just chop and cook.
Bitter melon is a popular part of Indian, African, Caribbean, and Asian cuisine. It’s great in a stir-fry or soup. Simply cut it lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and then either chop it into small rounds or julienne it.
Bitter melon is very low in carbs. One cup of bitter melon has 3.5 grams of carbohydrates, with 1 gram of dietary fiber — that’s a net 2.5 grams of carbs[*].
Add bitter melon to a protein-rich stir fry with lots of healthy fats to get some extra vitamins and balance out a keto meal. It’s high in vitamin C and other antioxidants that fight free radicals.
There are certain situations where you may want to avoid bitter melon.
- If you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Traditional Asian cultures used bitter melon to induce abortions. Pregnant women are better off avoiding bitter melon[*].
- If you have diabetes, talk to your doctor. Because bitter melon can lower blood glucose levels so well, it might stack with anti-diabetes drugs like metformin and lower your blood sugar levels too much[*]. If you’re on diabetes medication, talk to your doctor before trying bitter melon.
- If you have a rare glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PD). Bitter melon seeds contain a compound called vicine. People with G6PD deficiency may get anemia, headaches, fever, and stomach pain from eating vicine in bitter melon[*].
- If you’re scheduled for surgery. Due to the blood glucose lowering effect of bitter melon, if you are planning on having surgery or recovering from surgery it’s best to avoid any herbs that may alter your metabolism. Stop using bitter melon at least 2 weeks before any surgical procedure[*].
Takeaway: Bitter Melon for Blood Sugar Control
Bitter melon is a potent supplement for regulating your blood sugar. It’s great after a higher-carb meal (like a carb refeed day on a cyclical keto diet), and it could even be useful for getting off diabetes medication (be sure you talk to your doctor about it, though).
Bitter melon is also a keto-friendly fruit and a way to get more nutrients and antioxidants in a keto diet. Give it a try to keep your blood sugar and energy stable all day.