The Health Benefits of Bitter Cucumber

The centuries-old remedy is officially banned by the FDA

Bitter cucumbers growing

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In This Article

Bitter cucumber (Citrullus colocynthis), is a desert vine native to Asia and the Mediterranean that bears small, hard fruit that looks similar to a yellow watermelon when ripe. Inside the fruit are pumpkin-like seeds and the bitter pulp that gives the plant its name. Long used in traditional and Ayurvedic medicine, it contains antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds thought to aid in the treatment of a wide range of medical conditions.

In premodern medicine, bitter cucumber was used as a laxative and one of 16 ingredients in a cure-all known as confectio hamech. In traditional Arabic medicine, bitter cucumber is alternately used as a laxative, diuretic, or purgative, often with the intent of "cleansing" the body of what ails it.

Today, bitter cucumber is widely sold as a homeopathic remedy, often under the presumption that it boosts immunity and improves glucose control. Despite its purported benefits, bitter cucumber was banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1991 due to potentially severe toxic effects. That hasn't entirely stopped the sale of the product, mainly through online vendors.

Bitter cucumber should not be confused with bitter melon (Momordica charantia), a medicinal plant sometimes referred to as Chinese bitter cucumber.

Also Known As

  • Bitter apple
  • Colocynth
  • Desert gourd
  • Indravaruni (Ayurveda)
  • Vine of Sodom
  • Wild gourd

Health Benefits

Bitter cucumber is touted as a natural remedy for a variety of health conditions, including bacterial infections, constipation, diabetes, gallbladder problems, high blood pressure, liver disease, kidney stones, psoriasis, and ulcerative colitis. It is is also said to protect against cancer and alleviate neurologic pain (including diabetic neuropathy).

Many of these benefits are attributed to antioxidant compounds called flavonoids and polyphenols found in many plants. In addition, bitter cucumber is said to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-relieving) effects, although the exact mechanism of action remains unclear.

In addition, bitter cucumber has a long history of use in folk medicine as a contraceptive. Proponents suggest that consuming bitter cucumber can induce menses and, by doing so, reduce the odds of becoming pregnant.

Not surprisingly, there is little research to support any of these claims. Despite this, alternative practitioners believe that bitter cucumber has a place in the treatment of certain specific illnesses, most commonly diabetes and hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol).

Even within this narrowed scope of use, bitter cucumber still poses concerns. According to a 2014 study in the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine, diabetic lab rats given an intra-abdominal injection of a C. colocynthis extract did achieve reductions in blood sugar and cholesterol. But, the reductions came at a high price, namely necrosis (tissue death) of the pancreas and the severe impairment of liver function.

Possible Side Effects

Despite its longstanding use in traditional medicines, bitter cucumber contains a substance known as cucurbitacin that is highly toxic. Cucurbitacin causes irritation to the mucosal tissues of gastrointestinal and urinary tracts, causing the desired laxative and diuretic effects.

But, it does so by exerting potent cytotoxic (cell-killing) effects that damage the mucosal lining of the intestines and other organs. These can lead to an array of potentially serious complications, including:

High doses of cucurbitacin in bitter cucumber have been known to cause death.

Cucurbitacins can also lead to spontaneous abortion in pregnant women and be passed to nursing babies through breast milk. Even applied to the skin, bitter cucumber can cause redness, swelling, and blistering.

Interactions

Because bitter cucumber can affect blood sugar, it can potentially interact with diabetes medications, triggering acute hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Due to its laxative and diuretic effects, bitter cucumber may also increase the concentration of certain drugs due to the loss of body fluids.

Chief among the concerns are blood thinners like Coumadin (warfarin), diuretics like Lasix (furosemide), and cardiac medications like digoxin. Abnormally high concentrations of these medications can increase the risk of side effects, including bleeding and hyperkalemia (high potassium).

Dosage and Preparation

Bitter cucumber is primarily sold as a dietary supplement, mostly in pellet, granule, tincture, and powder forms. The supplements are mainly sold online or in shops specializing in homeopathic or Ayurvedic medicines. In homeopathy, bitter cucumber is often included in multi-ingredient remedies known as homaccords.

At present, there is no dosage of bitter cucumber that can be considered safe.

It is unclear at which dose bitter cucumber may become poisonous or lethal. According to a study issued by the FDA, sheep showed signs of poisoning and died within four to 24 days of eating bitter cucumber fruit and leaves. According to the investigators, the lethal doses ranged from 250 milligrams per kilogram of body weight (mg/kg) to 10,000 mg/kg.

Such disparities only punctuate the need to avoid bitter cucumber in any form.

Other Questions

Why is bitter cucumber available if it is banned?

Dietary supplements are not strictly regulated in the United States, allowing alternative and traditional medicines to reach consumers with little, if any, safety testing. Even if a product like bitter cucumber is banned by the FDA, components of the product can still find their way into supplements and remedies, especially those imported from overseas.

Unless legal action is taken—usually after multiple complaints or reports of illness or deaths have been filed—smaller manufacturers can often "fly under the radar" of the FDA.

The bottom line is this: the fact that a supplement is available and "natural" does not mean that it is safe.

If in doubt, speak with your doctor or pharmacist, or call the FDA Consumer Hotline at 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332).

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Complementary Medicines Evaluation Committee. CMEC 62 Complementary Medicines Evaluation Committee. Sydney, Australia; June 8, 2007.

  2. Pashmforosh M, Vardanjani HR, Vardanjani HR, et al. Topical Anti-Inflammatory and Analgesic Activities of Citrullus colocynthisExtract Cream in Rats. Medicina (Kaunas). 2018 Sep; 54(4): 51. doi:10.3390/medicina54040051.

  3. Wink M, van Wyk BE, Wink C. (2008) Handbook of Phytomedicines, Herbal Drugs, and Poisons (1st Ed). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-3-8047-2425-9.

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