Bitter leaf belongs to the Asteraceae family in the large genus Vernonia.  The plant is a shrub with moderate canopies occurring in open, regrowth forest locations; it is often raised around habitations.

The leaves are broad, ovate and spirally-arranged on branches.  As a pot-herb and source of medicinals, bitter leaf is in a special class in terms of the cultural methods of preparation.  The leaves are squeezed in water with salt added to wash off toxic materials which ooze out as foamy, brown exudates until they are clean.  This is one form in which the vegetable is sold in the market.

In the early 80s when the crusade for the use of herbal medicine began, bitter leaf was one of the abused local herbs. Some people drank the exudates that were traditionally washed out of the leaves before use as vegetables.  I know two close friends who came down with massive skin eruptions which required medical attention!  This is probably due to the presence of raphides which are bundles of needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate in the bitter leaf.

Bitterleaf is used as vegetable, sole or mixed with other vegetables.  Do you know that bitter leaf has been made into capsule in the USA? I saw the picture of the bottle last month and what came to my mind was “will someone from Africa still buy this?”

Bitter leaf has been used as food and medicine for centuries in Africa. The plant has a wide spectrum of uses in African traditional medicine and has been used in the management and treatment of a number of health conditions.

For instance, African traditional healers across the African continent use the plant for treating and managing a number of conditions like fever, malaria, stomach ache, skin infections (like ringworm, acne), diabetes, cancer, insomnia, hepatitis, toothache, jaundice, diarrhoea, bilharzia, pneumonia, tuberculosis, stroke, arthritis, wounds, fatigue and cough. It is also used as an anti-parasitic, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-helminthes; as a laxative, an appetiser, an aphrodisiac and for body weight loss.

Recent studies indicate that extracts of bitter leaf exerts antibiotic action against drug-resistant micro-organisms and can prevent or delay the onset of breast cancer and diabetes.  According to a study carried out by researchers at the University of Jos, bitter leaf has an anti-diabetic effect in diabetes mellitus (Type 2 diabetes).

A nutritionist, Dr Grace Johnson, reported that bitter leaf can improve fertility because of its ability to boost the function of the reproductive system, balance hormones and help the ovary to release healthy eggs.  However, according to a study, administration of bitter leaf extract at higher dosage for a long duration provoked varying degrees of testicular degeneration ranging from a significant reduction in sperm concentration and motility to abnormal morphology of sperm cells in male rats.

Bitter leaf contains vitamins A, C, E, B1, B2 and minerals such as zinc, manganese, iron, potassium, and calcium.


Stimulates uterine contractions: A long time before advanced medical practice and medications were readily available, bitter leaf was one herb used to assist women with childbearing, especially if difficulty was being encountered. It possesses uterine stimulatory properties which help to propel the child along the uterine and subsequently vaginal tract. It also helps with removing the placenta (after birth).


Bitter leaf has also been used traditionally for management of fever, especially in poor countries with lack of access to essential medications such as the anti-pyretics. Fever can be lethal in babies where it can lead to irreversible brain damage or more. This makes bitter leaf indispensable as a life-saver. Its anti-pyretic actions are due to the presence of several flavonoid compounds that help to modulate central temperature regulation.


Digestive parasites may hibernate inconspicuously for years while they slowly leach nutrients from their host, gradually leading to a state of chronic malnutrition. This is why it is important to regularly schedule anti-parasitic treatment or if unavailable, to take advantage of natural alternatives such as bitter leaf. Its anti-parasitic actions target both adult and larval stages of parasites making it a great comprehensive treatment option for people who cannot afford conventional medicine or where clinics may not be available.

Helps reduce cancer risk: Bitter leaf is interesting in the sense that it can help to reduce risk of having cancer and  also treat cancers, though it is best employed early after detection. It is a melting pot of natural compounds which exert anti-oxidant and tumour-suppressing actions which enhance the immune system’s natural cancer treatment functions. While more studies definitely need to be undertaken to confirm its potential in treating cancer on a larger scale, natives of areas where it can be found abundantly growing attest to its efficacy.

Supports breast milk production:Bitter leaf appears to be a mother’s best friend. In addition to helping get the baby out, it also stimulates the natural production of breast milk. Its galactagogue properties are especially useful to new mothers who may experience difficulty with lactating for the first time.


It is a handy tool in your quest to achieve weight loss as well. For instance, bitter leaf can help to suppress your appetite, which equates to reduced caloric intake over the course of the day. It assists in blood glucose management which facilitates enhanced fat utilisation.

Lowers blood pressure:Bitter leaf contains potassium as an electrolyte mineral that plays roles in balancing salt and water concentration in blood and extra-cellular fluid; it also possesses vaso-dilatory properties. It can help regulate the flexibility of blood vessels in response to changes in blood volume.


It is helpful in the detoxification of the kidneys and liver, the main organs which facilitate the removal of waste material by the body. Under stressful conditions, enzymes produced by these organs may become elevated in turn leading to inflammatory processes. Bitter leaf assists with homeostasis of these organs and can support their optimal functioning.  Bitter leaf has also been used traditionally for management of kidney stones as it promotes urine flow. It can also prevent the development of fatty liver disease.


Owing to the many traits of bitter leaf, it is not surprising to discover that it can be used in the management of skin conditions. For instance, consumption and localised applications of bitter leaf made into a paste can soothe eczematous rashes, reduce psoriatic flare-ups (itchy skin eruptions) and even help to prevent infections of deep wounds.

@ Olufunke Punch Newspaper

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