What do aloe and bitter melon have in common? Yes, they’re both plants, but both have also been identified as having powerful medicinal effects. New studies show both aloe and bitter melon exert positive effects on diabetes and high blood sugar (hyperglycemia).
High blood sugar occurs either when you don’t produce insulin (type 1 diabetes) or your cells don’t respond to insulin properly (type 2 diabetes, which represents 90 percent of patients).
This is an advanced stage of insulin resistance, and since your insulin is inadequate, sugar can’t get into your cells and instead builds up in your blood, causing a variety of problems. This is why diabetics have elevated blood sugar levels. Symptoms include frequent urination, constant thirst and persistent hunger.
Diabetes is so prevalent it’s been called a global epidemic, and in most people, the condition is not under control. There are multiple therapies, drugs and treatments, but the side effects can be devastating.
Nevertheless, annual drug costs for diabetes in the U.S. are around $245 billion, even though type 2 diabetes is typically preventable and even reversible by leading a healthy lifestyle. According to an article in 24/7 Wall St.:
“Diabetes directly caused 75,578 deaths in 2013, the sixth highest death toll from a single disease in the United States. Further, diabetes is likely far more deadly than the numbers suggest.
Only 10 percent of deaths of those with diabetes have the disease recorded on their death certificates. Diabetes is also a significant risk factor for … other diseases.”
Worldwide, 382 million people are diabetic, but in ancient Greek, Roman and early Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic traditions, people used a plant known as aloe barbadensis — aloe vera — to curb symptoms. What did they know that modern science has only begun to reveal in recent decades?
Aloe Vera to the Rescue
Aloe is a subtropical succulent with thick, spiky leaves. Often grown indoors as a houseplant, it produces a thick, clear gel or “latex” for cuts and burns.
Traditional uses were for constipation, asthma, headaches, arthritis and diabetic symptoms. More recently, it’s been used to treat seborrhea (a skin condition), psoriasis, genital herpes and constipation.
Analysis of nine studies on aloe vera has scientists looking further into its potential to combat diabetes and pre-diabetes.Scientists at the David Grant USAF Medical Center analyzed the findings and found that diabetics with a fasting blood glucose above 200 milligrams a day benefitted most from oral aloe vera.
Those who took aloe vera orally had lowered fasting blood glucose levels (by nearly 47 milligrams per deciliter) as well as lowered HbA1C (a measure of average blood sugar over the past two to three months) by 1.05 percent.
Active ingredients in aloe are plentiful; 75 compounds in the outer “rind” and inner gel contain, as the scientists noted: “enzymes, minerals, anthraquinones, monosaccharide, polysaccharides, lignin, saponins, salicylic acids, phytosterols and amino acids,” some of which may play a part in helping to control hyperglycemia.
Other bioactive trace elements they identified included manganese, zinc, chromium and magnesium, already known as important for glucose metabolism by raising insulin’s effectiveness. Another study showed antioxidants and phenolics in aloe vera may also scavenge free radicals.
Aloe Vera Effectiveness, Traditional and Contemporary
One study showed aloe vera to have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiproliferative and antioxidant functions due to C-glycosides barbaloin and isobarbaloin.
Another review, published in the Journal of Diabetes & Metabolic Disorders found that “the use of aloe vera extract in pre-diabetic patients could revert impaired blood glucose within four weeks, but after eight weeks could alleviate an abnormal lipid profile.”
“Compared with the controls, aloe vera supplementation significantly reduced the concentrations of fasting blood glucose,” according to a study published in the journal Nutrients.
I have been so impressed with aloe that i planted around 300 aloe plants at my home and i use one to two freshly harvested leaves in my smoothie every day to reap some of its many magnificent health benefits. I believe fresh aloe is better than any supplement.
Wheat germ oil, cilantro and aloe were used in another study to reduce blood glucose levels in diabetic rats. In an animal study, an aloe supplement significantly improved insulin resistance and suppressed adipogenesis genes, activating AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) to improve metabolic disorders.
Bitter Melon Has Sweet Impact on Diabetes
Then there’s bitter melon, with its origins in Southern China. It looks rather like a cross between a warty green pepper and a cucumber, and tastes more bitter than an unripe grapefruit. How is it that this obscure vegetable is astounding scientists with its ability to combat diabetes?
Also called bitter gourd, this member of the Cucurbitaceae family (with gourds, watermelon and cucumber) turns from green to yellow to orange as it ripens. While it is a food some people in the world enjoy eating, its most notable use is as a medicine.
Nutritionally, bitter melon gives many other more standard veggies a run for their money. According to Bonnie Plants, a century-old company that has nearly 70 greenhouses of various plants and vegetables across the U.S., it offers:
“Iron, twice the beta-carotene of broccoli, twice the potassium of bananas and twice the calcium of spinach. It also contains high amounts of fiber, phosphorous and Vitamins C, B1, B2 and B3.
… The bitter flavor is due to the melon’s quinine content. In many countries, bitter melon is consumed as a treatment for malaria.”
In relation to its use against diabetes, Livestrong reported:
“Compounds present in bitter melon, such as vicine, polypeptide-P and charantin, help improve how your body absorbs and metabolizes sugar, which aids in proper blood sugar regulation.”
Bitter Melon Could Be a Game-Changer for Diabetics
Diabetes Self-Management magazine described a newly diagnosed patient whose doctor put him on metformin. His blood glucose dropped to the low 200s, but the doctor upped his dose.
Then the patient heard about possible benefits from bitter melon tea and got some at a local Asian grocery. Even though I do not recommend relying on supplements alone without appropriate changes to your diet and lifestyle, the description that follows is revealing:
“He started drinking one cup of tea in the morning and one in the evening. The very next day, his fasting glucose dropped to around 80. He stopped his metformin and his fasting glucose levels have been under 100 ever since.
His A1C dropped from 13.5 to 6.3. Since he has only been on the tea for a few weeks, his A1C will probably drop further at the next test. This is a man who is heavy, eats lots of pasta and rice and whose exercise is ‘walking the dog twice a week.’ Nothing else in his lifestyle has changed.”
Besides having normalized glucose levels, this patient’s triglyceride levels returned to normal after being “dangerously high” for years. While not everyone’s results may be as dramatic, one of his friends who saw no results for weeks reportedly saw a sudden drop in his glucose levels, which remained low, after trying bitter melon tea.
Scientists from China, Australia and Germany reported that four compounds in bitter melon activate the AMPK enzyme (the same one activated in aloe vera studies), which moves glucose from your blood to your cells and also regulates metabolism.
How to Purchase Bitter Melon and Aloe for Supplementation
As bitter as bitter melon may be when you eat it out of hand, the tea is said to taste even better than green tea. It’s available at many Asian groceries. Capsule form is also widely available online. Aloe vera supplements in different forms are also available from many health food retailers. It comes in juice form as well as capsules.
Precautions in the Use of Bitter Melon and Aloe
While it speaks to the powerful compounds working in both bitter melon and aloe, keep in mind that too much may drop your blood sugar to hypoglycemic levels, associated with such symptoms as blurred vision, jitters, fatigue, headache and dizziness. Bitter melon also may cause stomach pain or diarrhea.
Aloe juice is a potent laxative (which is why it was traditionally used for constipation). Its use should also be monitored because it may interfere with the absorption of certain medications.
How to Treat Diabetes Using Lifestyle Approaches
While aloe vera and bitter melon appear useful for diabetes, your primary strategy for preventing and treating type 2 diabetes should be via comprehensive lifestyle changes.
One of the best recommendations for people with type 2 diabetes is to eat a high-fiber, low net-carb diet. While U.S. dietary guidelines recommend 20 to 30 grams of fiber per day, the optimal amount is more like 50 grams for every 1,000 calories you eat. However, most people only get half that amount.
To calculate your net carbs, take the total number of carbohydrates in grams you’ve eaten in the day and subtract the amount of fiber in grams. The resulting number is your net carbs. A key way of preventing diabetes is to keep your net carbs below 50 grams per day.
Eating the right amount of fiber helps decrease your diabetes risk and protects against weight gain. Including fermentable fibers in your meals, such as cabbage and beans, is important, as your intestinal bacteria ferments them into the short-chain fatty acids butyrate and propionate, involved in sugar production.
It should be noted, however, that while fiber from vegetables lowers your diabetes risk, fiber from fruit and grains does not. Fiber from grains raises both your insulin and leptin levels, both implicated in most major diseases, including diabetes, so both sugar and grains should be limited in your diet. Establishing proper leptin signaling is possible by eating the proper diet, including the right type of fiber.
Exercise is also extremely important in preventing and reversing type 2 diabetes. Studies show that intense exercise, such as high-intensity interval training, can improve your insulin intensity by 24 percent in as little as four weeks.
Other recommendations for preventing type 2 diabetes include avoiding processed foods, limiting your protein intake and balancing your omega-3 and omega-6 fats ratio. You also want to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D, either from the sun or supplementation. Getting proper sleep is also crucial.