The mechanism by which bitter melon effectively treats Type 2 diabetes has been revealed by researchers.
The bitter melon is a nontoxic vegetable that has long been an important part of traditional Chinese medicine. Despite tasting very bitter, the melon is widely consumed as a food in Asia. The melon has evolved bitter compounds over time to help it evade consumption by animals.
From the pulp of the bitter melon, the researchers isolated four bioactive compounds that all stimulate the human enzyme AMPK (AMP-activated protein kinase). It is well known that this protein has a role in regulating metabolism and glucose utilization.
Glucose is the main fuel of the body’s cells. After a meal, glucose derived from the food is circulated in the blood and goes on to be stored in the liver and to promote growth of cells, organs, bone and muscle. When a person has not eaten for some time, the amount of glucose circulating in the blood is low. In order to fuel bodily functions, glucose is released from storage in the liver and as fasting/starvation continues, body fat and protein become a fuel source. This is quite unhealthy if allowed to continue.
Type 2 diabetes manifests itself as a high concentration of glucose circulating in the blood (hyperglycemia) due to an impaired ability of cells to take up glucose. This occurs in people partly because they don’t produce enough insulin, which promotes glucose uptake, and partly because their cells have developed “insulin resistance”, the inability to use the available insulin effectively.
The researchers at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica have shown that the efficacy of treating Type 2 diabetes with bitter melon is no longer supported by merely anecdotal stories.
Chemical compounds in bitter melon activate AMPK which promotes the movement of glucose transporters to the surface of cells. More transporters on cells’ surfaces increase the uptake of glucose from circulation in the blood into tissues of the body, such as muscle, thus lowering blood sugar levels.
Exercise is an effective method of activating AMPK with the same result. It is recommended for normal treatment of Type 2 diabetes.
Some diabetes drugs on the market have the same beneficial effect as bitter melon and may be a more convenient treatment to take regularly, but they often result in unwanted side effects and severe complications when combined with other medications. Bitter melon’s side effects are rare and it has been used for hundreds of years by practitioners of Chinese medicine.
Some of the compounds found in the bitter melon were not known to exist. The mechanism of AMPK activation by the compounds may proceed via a pathway that is different from that of modern Type 2 diabetes pharmaceuticals. Either this novel pathway or the unique combination of compounds in bitter melon may be why the vegetable is generally a safe treatment.
Bitter melon is found in many Asian grocery stores. It is also sold in liquid extract and capsule form.