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Ampalaya: a Natural Weapon Against Diseases



Text and Photo by Henrylito D. Tacio

Perhaps not too many people know that natural weapons against diseases can be grown right in the garden or farm. One such weapon is the wrinkly green vegetable with a distinctive bitter taste called ampalaya. Known in the science world as Momordica charantia, it is called bitter gourd or bitter melon.

In terms of nutritional contents, the fruits and leaves of the ampalaya are reportedly rich in minerals and vitamins, notably iron, calcium, phosphorus, and Vitamin B. In the Philippines, it is prepared into various dishes: it is stir-fried with ground beef and oyster sauce, or with eggs and diced tomato. A very popular dish from the Ilocos region is the ‘pinakbet,’ which consists mainly of ampalaya, eggplant, okra, string beans, tomatoes, lima beans, and other various regional vegetables stewed with a little bagoong-based stock.

Philippine traditional medicine attributes many medicinal properties to ampalaya. Books and articles on Philippine medicinal plants list several diseases where ampalaya is apparently beneficial. Reportedly, the extract from the leaves or roots shrinks hemorrhoids. The leaf juice is supposedly a good antitussive (i.e., it stops cough), antipyretic (i.e., for fever), purgative, and anthelmintic (i.e., against roundworms).

Ampalaya is also used to treat sterility in women, and it can supposedly alleviate liver problems. Likewise, it is claimed that ampalaya has some antimicrobial activity and can help infected wounds.

“Commonly known as ampalaya in the Philippines, researchers refer to it as a vegetable, fruit, or herb,” wrote Frank Murray in his book, Ampalaya: Nature’s Remedy for Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes. “It is indigenous to Asia, but is cultivated around the world, where it goes by almost 90 different names.”

Yes, ampalaya has been considered as nature’s answer to diabetes. Today, almost 100 studies have demonstrated the blood sugar lowering effect of this bitter fruit. Dr. A. Raman and Dr. C. Lau, who reviewed over 150 pre-clinical and clinical studies on ampalaya’s anti-diabetes properties and phytochemistry, concluded that “Oral administration of fruit juice or seed powder (of bitter melon) causes a reduction in fasting blood glucose and improves glucose tolerance.”

In the Philippines, Dr. William Torres, former director of Bureau of Food and Drugs, came up with this conclusion after reviewing several studies done on ampalaya: “Ampalaya fruits, leaves, seeds and other parts, when used as dry powders, extracts, decoctions, fresh or cooled, have clearly demonstrated hypoglycemic activity.”

Researchers have identified the key compounds present in ampalaya, notably polypeptide-P, plant insulin found only in the ampalaya. Similar to animal insulin. Polypeptide-P lowers elevated blood sugar levels. Dr. Torres reports that ampalaya, when taken regularly, helps increase glucose tolerance and “potentiate insulin.”

Even ampalaya leaves have some blood sugar lowering effect among people with diabetes, according to Dr. Eduardo G. Gonzales of the College of Medicine at De La Salle University. “This effect is noticeable regardless of how the leaves are prepared – boiled then eaten, or in the form of extract, tea, capsule or tablet.”

Dr. Gonzales, however, warned people with diabetes not to be “overly enthusiastic in replacing their proprietary medicines with ampalaya teas, capsules or tablets.” As he wrote in his column published in a national daily: “None of the studies so far conducted on ampalaya and diabetes can be labeled conclusive. All were done using a very limited number of human subjects, and most are not controlled.”

He further cautioned: “Ampalaya should be considered, at best, just an adjunct in the treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus that could possibly reduce the dose of antidiabetic drugs that responsive patients need. It should not be regarded as a stand-alone treatment that can take the place of established medicines.”

Some years back, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first ampalaya tea in the country — Charantia Ampalaya Tea — as ideal for diabetics’ special dietary needs. However, people with diabetes who wish to try ampalaya need not spend money on the tablet, capsule, or tea forms of the plant. They can cultivate the plant or buy it from the market and make their own preparation.

To prepare ampalaya extract, the Department of Health says the following steps should be followed: Wash and finely chop leaves. Add six tablespoons of the chopped leaves to two glasses of water. Boil the mixture for 15 minutes in an uncovered pot. Cooldown and strain. Drink 1/3 cup of the solution 3 times a day. Alternately, ampalaya tops can be steamed and eaten (1/2 cup 2 times a day).

But the Philippines is not the only country promoting ampalaya against diseases. China, too, is doing several studies. In the book Zhong Yao Da Ci Dian (Great Dictionary of Chinese Medicines), ampalaya (or ku gua) is described as bitter and cold and entering the heart, spleen, and stomach channels, or, alternatively, the heart, liver, and lung channels.

“Its traditional functions are that it clears summer heat and flushes heat, brightens the eyes, and resolves toxins,” the book states. “It has been traditionally indicated for heat disease vexatious thirst leading to drinking, summer heat stroke, dysentery, red, painful eyes, welling abscesses, swellings, and cinnabar toxins, and malign sores.”

In China, several studies have shown that ampalaya have cholesterol-lowering effects. In one study, elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels in diabetic rats were returned to normal after two weeks of treatment. In another study, results showed that bitter melon extract reduced triglyceride and low-density lipid (LDL) levels and increased high-density lipid (HDI.) levels. 

In yet another Chinese study, HDLs (the so-called good cholesterols) were consistently elevated by dietary bitter melon both in the presence and absence of dietary cholesterol, indicating an ability of bitter melon to prevent or protect against atherosclerosis.

Though it has been claimed that ampalaya’s bitterness comes from quinine, no evidence could be located supporting this claim. Ampalaya is traditionally regarded by Asians and Panamanians and Colombians, as useful for preventing and treating malaria.

Laboratory studies have confirmed that various bitter fruit species have anti-malarial activity, though human studies have not yet been published.

“It is only now that modern science is beginning to investigate the plant’s many medicinal uses,” Lito Abelarde, president of the Chamber of Herbal Industries of the Philippines Inc., told a national daily.

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