Bitter melon or bittergourd, is a crop from the Cucurbitaceae family that is often seen in most Filipino households - either thinly sliced and tossed in a pan of ground pork or stirred in a couple of whisked eggs.
Cucurbits contain toxins called cucurbitacins, and are behind the bitter taste of the gourds. This is why some consumers of bitter gourds suffer from benign poisoning, such as diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea and abdominal pains.
A recent report published in the peer-reviewed JAMA Dermatology journal last March 28, however, shows another symptom from bitter gourd poisoning: hair loss.
The report was written by Dr. Philippe Assouly and puts to light two case reports of women experiencing food poisoning after ingesting cucurbits or bitter gourds. In one case, a woman who consumed bitter-tasting pumpkin soup experienced digestive problems for a day.
About a week later, she experienced substantial hair loss.
"The meal had been shared with her family, who had eaten less of the soup than she had, and they experienced symptoms of food poisoning but no hair loss," Dr. Assouly observed.
In another case, an adult woman also suffered from food poisoning that involved severe vomiting after eating a meal that consisted of squash. The report wrote, "Those with whom she had shared the meal were not affected. The meal had included squash, and the others had not partaken of the squash beyond a taste because it tasted bitter."
While hair loss induced by plant ingestion is rare, Dr. Assouly also wrote that the implicated mechanism of toxic effects from these plants on the hair follicle seems mainly due to their anti-mitotic action. Anti-mitotic properties arrest the process of cell division and are used to kill cancer cells.
"It seems important and useful to be aware of this toxic association of alopecia (autoimmune disease that attacks hair follicles) with a common plant," he said.
While Dr. Assouly's report shows substantial proof that ingestion of bitter gourds may cause food poisoning and hair loss, this doesn't mean that ampalaya should now be ruled out from the Filipino's dining table.
You may still enjoy your ginisang ampalaya (a stir-fried bittergourd dish) once in a while, granted that it is in moderation.