Bitter leaf, scientifically called Vernonia amygdalina, is one of the most popular herbs in Africa. Native Africans have used it for centuries to treat various ailments. Today, it’s still used as a known herbal remedy to treat digestive issues, bleeding, malaria, and other health issues. Bitter leaf is a small plant with dark leaves and rough bark belonging to the Asteraceae family. They’re native to tropical Africa but are predominantly grown in West Africa where they grow rapidly on most types of soils.

The leaves are very bitter, hence its names are fondly called Onugbu, Ewuro (Nigeria), Awonwono (Ghana), Omubirizi (Uganda), Ndoleh (Cameroon), Ebichaa (Ethiopia), and Umubilizi (Rwanda). All the plant’s parts including the leaves, stems, and roots are used in herbal remedies. The leaves contain a variety of bioactive compounds, such as phenolic compounds, flavonoids, alkaloids, saponins, sesquiterpene lactones, and many more. And studies have found that these compounds are responsible for bitter leaf’s impressive health benefits.

Potential health benefits of bitter leaf

The medicinal benefits of the bitter leaf (Vernonia amygdalina) include:

Antioxidant properties

The bitter leaf plant is rich in plant compounds that function as antioxidants. Antioxidants defend your cells against oxidative stress and help prevent metabolic disorders like diabetes, cancer, and coronary heart disease. Some of these antioxidants are flavonoids, phenolic acids, and sesquiterpenes. They act by scavenging free radicals, detoxifying, and inhibiting stress response proteins.

Malaria

Malaria is a disease caused by the plasmodium parasite and is transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected mosquito. Studies have found bitter leaf to be a cheap and effective treatment for malaria. One animal study found that bitter leaf extract exhibited significant antiplasmodial activity against Plasmodium berghei – a species of the malaria parasite. Another study found that active compounds (sesquiterpene lactones) in bitter leaf showed significant activity against Plasmodium falciparum. However, more human studies are needed to determine the exact mechanism of action.

Parasitic infestations

Bitter leaves have been in use in traditional African medicine to treat worm infestations. And recent studies in chimpanzees and gorillas have backed up these claims. One Tanzanian study found that worm-infested chimpanzees were cured completely of their symptoms (stomach pain, diarrhoea) after eating bitter leaves.

Microbial infections

In ancient African medicine bitter leaf has been used to treat bacterial and fungal infections. One test-tube study found that the aqueous extract of bitter leaf inhibited the growth of the Saureus and Ecoli – two infectious bacteria. Another study found that bitter leaf extract lowered the growth of fungi and bacteria in palm wine – reducing the risk of spoilage. Although these studies have found activity against microbial infections, more human studies are still required.

Diabetes management

High blood sugar is the most common symptom of diabetes and other chronic conditions. Several studies have found that antioxidants and fibre found in bitter leaf plants may help lower sugar levels. One study found a 21.4% decrease in blood glucose levels of diabetic rats that were administered with bitter leaf extract after 14 days. Another animal study discovered that bitter leaves significantly lowered fasting blood sugar, total cholesterol, triglyceride, and LDL-Cholesterol after fourteen days of administration. Still, human-based research on the effects of bitter leaves on blood sugar is lacking.

Cancer prevention

Cancer is a disease that involves the uncontrolled growth of cells. Several studies have reported that antioxidants found in bitter leaves could help destroy free radicals that cause cancer. One test-tube study reported that bitter leaf extracts inhibited the growth of cancerous cells found on the nasopharynx. The study also discovered two compounds (Chernomyrdin and vernodalin) that showed anti-cancer effects. In another test-tube study, extract from bitter leaf suppressed the growth of breast tumour cells. However, human studies are needed before making any recommendations.

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Other uses of bitter leaf

The following are traditional uses of bitter leaf:

• Wound treatment: In traditional African medicine, fresh bitter leaves are crushed, and the fresh juice is used to treat cuts, bruises, or boils. It’s believed to stop bleeding and prevent infection.

• Weight loss: Bitter leaves are rich in fibre and may help promote weight loss. One study found that bitter leaf extract lowered total cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood.

• Beer production: Due to its rich antioxidant content and bitter taste, the leaves are often used as a hop substitute in beer production. Also, it is used to prevent microbial contamination of beer products. Bitter leaf is incredibly useful and has shown activity against malaria, cancer, diabetes, parasites, and heart disease. However human-based research is still limited.

Although it is considered safe in normal dosage, always remember to reduce the bitterness by washing thoroughly if you are adding it to your diet. And if you are using the crude leaves remember not to go overboard with it.

It is of common knowledge that the use of medicinal plants, including bitter leaf, as a fundamental component of the African traditional healthcare system is the oldest of all therapeutic healthcare systems. In many parts of rural Africa, traditional healers prescribing medicinal plants are the most easily accessible and affordable health resource available to the local community and at times the only therapy that subsists.

For instance, at a time of distress that the whole world is battling a pandemic, African countries can leverage their herbal resources to make earnings. Just like Madagascar demanded over N78 million from Nigeria, for the supply of coronavirus cures, other African countries can also cash in from sales of herbs.

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Herbal solutions can help in the creation of jobs in Nigeria, and Africa at large. As the country and continent struggle to survive with a crippling economy, herbal solutions can play significant roles in the economy of nations. Should a country consider being an exporter of herbal solutions alone, is a plus for the country’s economy.

For instance, in Nigeria, according to the maiden report of the COVID-19 impact monitoring survey recently released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the employment and income of Nigerians have been widespread. Thus, Nigerians are losing their jobs as both individuals and firms face undaunted challenges due to the snowballing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is currently ravaging the world economy.

Adekunle AYOOLA

M.A Politics and Society

Lancaster University.

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