Could Broccoli Sprouts Help Treat Type 2 Diabetes?

iStock / iStock

The next big diabetes drug may have been sitting in the salad bar all along. Researchers say concentrated broccoli sprout extract could be an excellent tool for regulating blood glucose in people with Type 2 diabetes (T2D). They published their findings in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Scientists have been interested in broccoli sprout extract (BSE) for some time now. The active ingredient, a compound called sulforaphane (SFN), has already been tested as a potential treatment for a number of conditions, including cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Nobody had considered SFN for diabetes before. The authors of the current study weren’t even considering it. They had just been looking for existing drugs that matched T2D’s genetic signature. Out of 3852 different compounds, just a few possible leads emerged. The most promising among them was SFN.

The researchers took that lead and ran with it. They tested the compound’s effects on the liver and blood sugar in not one, but a whole bunch of settings, starting with computer models of genes, then moving to liver cells cultured in the lab, then mice and rats.

The results of each experiment informed the next one—and the results were promising. SFN seemed to reduce glucose production in liver cells and change T2D gene expression in rats.

Finally, the researchers moved into testing the drug on people. They recruited 103 obese people with hard-to-manage T2D at a Swedish hospital and tested how well each person’s body metabolized glucose. For 12 weeks, study participants took a daily dose of either BSE concentrate or a placebo. They watched for other symptoms or side effects and monitored their blood sugar as usual. Two weeks later, the researchers checked the participants’ glucose tolerance again.

The results were as encouraging as the previous experiments’. Patients who took the drug saw significantly decreased blood sugar levels without any serious side effects. And, the authors write, “SFN also protects against diabetic complications such as neuropathy, renal failure, and atherosclerosis in animal models because of its antioxidative effects.”

Before we all get too excited, there are a lot of caveats to consider.

“High doses of BSE cannot yet be recommended to patients as a drug treatment but would require further studies,” the authors write, “including data on which groups of patients would potentially benefit most from it.”

That’s for sure. All of the experiments we describe here were small. All of the rats and mice, and 75 percent of the human participants, were male. All 97 humans who completed the study were Swedish, obese, and between the ages of 35 and 75, and all the women involved were postmenopausal. And study participants took refined BSE. They didn’t just eat broccoli sprouts.