People with type 2 diabetes may do well not to turn down some broccoli, suggest a new study. Indeed, broccoli is rich in an antioxidant, known as sulforaphane, which researchers found may slow or even treat type 2 diabetes in obese adults.
Diabetes is one of the most common chronic disorders that is characterized by the body’s inability to regulate blood glucose levels. Type 2 diabetes is characterized by insufficient quantities of the natural hormone insulin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 29 million Americans have diabetes. This figure is triple the amount reported in 1980. And of this number, about a quarter of diabetics don’t know about their condition.
Currently, in addition to lifestyle changes, medications can help patients manage their blood glucose. However, one of the most widely prescribed diabetes drug, metformin, can’t be given to all patients with type 2 diabetes due to side effects. Thus, researchers at the Lund University Diabetes Center in Sweden set out to find alternative compounds.
The team began by first screening over 3,800 compounds for potential gene expression changes associated with type 2 diabetes. They landed on the sulforaphane compound, which seemed to turn down the expression of genes that are associated with type 2 diabetes symptoms. Sulforaphane is abundant in cruciferous vegetables – like broccoli, cabbage, and garden cress.
The result was confirmed in liver cells, where exposure to sulforaphane reduced glucose production. Similarly, in mice with type 2 diabetes, the compound appeared to shift the animals’ liver from a “diseased state” to a healthier one, the authors wrote.
Spurred with the positive lab results, the team took their compound to a small trial with 97 diabetic patients. In addition to their usual medication, patients were randomized to either receive sulforaphane powder, or placebo. At the 12-week trial, the group that received the sulforaphane powder seemed to have lower levels of fasting blood glucose, as compared to the placebo group.
But the study has several caveats. First, the sulforaphane powder seemed to be effective for the diabetic patients who were also obese and had poor blood sugar control. So, even if the extract does help lower blood glucose, it doesn’t seem to be a universal metformin alternative. Second, the sulforaphane powder that patients received in the trial is highly concentrated and purified. Thus, the glucose-lowering effects may be diminished by merely eating broccoli or consuming over-the-counter sulforaphane supplements.
"At this point we cannot recommend that anyone take the currently available extracts on the market to treat type 2 diabetes,” said Dr. Anders Rosengren, the study’s lead author. The team next plans to investigate sulforaphane’s potential in prediabetes patients.
So while the team can’t say for sure that sulforaphane will help treat diabetes naturally, there may still be cause to eating more broccoli. As an antioxidant, sulforaphane inhibits the oxidation of molecules, thereby buffering cells against damages brought on by carcinogens. Thus, the compound antioxidant has already been associated with anticancer benefits.