Sulforaphane, a Chemical in Broccoli, May Help Diabetics Control Blood Sugar

A chemical called sulforaphane could be a new option for people with Type 2 diabetes who need help managing their blood sugar. 

In a study just published in Science Translational Medicine, researchers randomized 97 people diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes to take a concentrated broccoli sprout extract containing sulforaphane once a day for 12 weeks or a placebo with the same regimen. All but three of the participants were taking metformin, a standard treatment for controlling blood sugar.  

RTX2AT8W Broccoli at a market in Vienna. A new study shows yet another health benefit for the vegetable: A chemical it contains could help people with Type 2 diabetes manage blood sugar. Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Glucose production was reduced among patients taking the ultraconcentrated sulforaphane. The compound improved fasting glucose and glycated hemoglobin, or HbA1c, an indicator of blood sugar levels in obese patients with dysregulated Type 2 diabetes. And sulforaphane also showed a protective effect against some complications linked to diabetes, such as neuropathy and kidney failure. 

How did the researchers light upon sulforaphane as a blood sugar manager? Genetics and math. Led by Annika Axelsson, of Lund University Diabetes Centre in Sweden, the scientists created a genetic profile for Type 2 diabetes based on 50 key genes, alterations of which are associated with the disease. They then screened 3,852 different compounds to find any that might reverse that genetic signature. Sulforaphane stood out.

Before studying the compound in humans, Axelsson and colleagues first gave sulforaphane to animals. In rats with diabetes, the compound, which occurs naturally in cruciferous vegetables, had the intended effect, reversing the genetic signature in the animals’ livers. The chemical also controlled blood sugar at a level comparable to metformin. 

The human study that followed indicated that concentrated sulforaphane could be a viable treatment for Type 2 diabetes. Because up to 15 percent of the 300 million people with Type 2 diabetes worldwide cannot take metformin due to the risk of kidney damage, new ways to help patients manage blood sugar are needed. The researchers emphasize that high doses of sulforaphane cannot yet be recommended to patients as a drug treatment, the study results are a clear sign that the approach is worth pursuing. 

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