Here in the Philippines, Ampalaya is a common vegetable for our meals, but it also has a long use in Chinese herbal medicine for diabetes. The problem is that nobody knows why it works, or if it works, but nevertheless it is one of the herbs sold over the counter here in the Philippines.

The Philippine Herbal Medicine website provided the photo; they have a page on the bitter melon’s use in herbal medicine:

Ampalaya contains a mixture of flavanoids and alkaloids make the Pancreas produce more insulin that controls the blood sugar in diabetics. Aside from Ampalaya’s medicinal value, it is good source of vitamins A, B and C, iron, folic acid, phosphorous and calcium.

Here in the Philippines it is used also for other problems, like infections and fevers and rheumatism. But like most herbal medicines, the use is based on anecdotal experience by herbalists, some who have studied and some who are self appointed (not all well trained), not by scientifically trained physicians.

But ScienceDaily reported that Chinese scientists have extracted four compounds from the pulp of the bitter melon that increase insulin sensitivity, similar to exercize or certain medicines used for Diabetes treatment.

The four compounds isolated in bitter melon perform a very similar action to that of exercise, in that they activate AMPK.

Garvan scientists involved in the project, Drs Jiming Ye and Nigel Turner, both stress that while there are well known diabetes drugs on the market that also activate AMPK, they can have side effects.

“The advantage of bitter melon is that there are no known side effects,” said Dr Ye. “Practitioners of Chinese medicine have used it for hundreds of years to good effect.”

Diabetes is not simple. We used to think it was just not enough insulin, but now we realize it starts with “insulin resistance”, making the body need much higher levels of insulin to use sugar for energy. In pre diabetes, often the insulin level is higher than normal, until the pancreas wears out and voila, you need to add insulin.

So one of the ways to treat diabetes is to make the body use insulin more efficiently.

Exercize and weight loss do this, as do several commonly used Diabetes medications.

However, if the compounds found in the simple bitter melon are found to do the same thing, it would enable a cheaper alternative medicine for Diabetes—and with the increase in nutrition/calorie intake associated with globalization causing an epidemic of obesity in Asia, such a compound could be a life saver.

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The results are published online March 27 in the international journal Chemistry & Biology.research by the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Shanghai.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket, and she writes medical essays at HeyDoc Xanga Blog.

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