One look at Karela and the thought of a cucumber’s disabled sister. It has a shrivelled look when compared to the cucumber. It is also known as bitter melon or bitter squash. It is its namesake, a bitter vegetable, making it the one most persons are ready to avoid. But I grew up hearing that “good medicine is bitter to the taste” and it seems that the Karela is the essence of this maxim.
Bitter melon originated on the Indian subcontinent, and was introduced into China in the 14th century. It is now widely grown in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean for its edible fruit, which is extremely bitter. Its many varieties differ substantially in the shape and the bitterness of the fruit.
Medicinally, the plant has a long history of use by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and Brazil. A leaf tea is used for diabetes, to expel intestinal gas, to promote menstruation, and as an antiviral for measles, hepatitis, and feverish conditions. It is used topically for sores, wounds, and infections and internally and externally for worms and parasites.
In Brazilian herbal medicine, bitter melon is used for tumours, wounds, rheumatism, malaria, vaginal discharge, inflammation, menstrual problems, diabetes, colic, fevers, worms. It is also used to induce abortions and as an aphrodisiac. It is prepared into a topical remedy for the skin to treat vaginitis, hemorrhages, scabies, itchy rashes, eczema, leprosy and other skin problems.
Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru the tree is used for similar reasons. Regardless of location, traditional uses were for the same illnesses. Science has not fully supported these claims, but medical researchers have found evidence that supports their usage for diabetes and cancer.
Scientists from Saint Louis University have for the first time found that an extract from bitter melon not only killed human breast cancer cells but also prevented them from multiplying. Karela has been known to be highly rich in all essential minerals and vitamins, including vitamin A, B1, B2 and C, besides iron. Ratna Ray, professor in the department of pathology and lead researcher, said she was surprised that the extract from karela she stir fries inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells.
It is surprising indeed that such a simple and not too pleasant looking fruit can have so many benefits, but it seems that our ancestors were right… the best medicine is the bitter medicine.