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Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disorder characterized by high blood sugar and insulin resistance. Long-term complications from poorly controlled type 2 diabetes include heart disease, stroke, diabetic retinopathy (and subsequent blindness), kidney failure, and diminished peripheral blood flow, which may lead to amputations. An estimated 500 million people worldwide are living with type 2 diabetes. A 2017 study suggests that sulforaphane may be beneficial in treating the symptoms of type 2 diabetes.

Sulforaphane is an isothiocyanate compound derived from cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and mustard. Sulforaphane is produced when the cruciferous plant is damaged by insects or eaten by humans. The compound activates cytoprotective mechanisms within cells in a hormetic-type response and has demonstrated beneficial effects against several chronic health conditions, including autism, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and others.

The authors of the study identified sulforaphane out of more than 3,800 drugs and natural products as a potential therapeutic for type 2 diabetes based on statistical analysis that showed that sulforaphane’s protective effects (called a drug signature) had the potential to counteract diabetes’ harmful effects (called a disease signature).

They then conducted a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study involving 97 adults with type 2 diabetes. All the participants were of Scandinavian ethnicity and had diabetes for less than 10 years. Sixty of the participants had well-controlled diabetes; the remaining 37 had poorly controlled diabetes. Of those with poorly controlled diabetes, 17 were obese, and 20 were not obese.

After undergoing blood tests to check their fasting blood sugar and HbA1c (a measure of long-term blood sugar control) and taking an oral glucose challenge, the participants took either a placebo or powdered broccoli sprout extract (containing 150 µmol sulforaphane per dose) every day for 12 weeks.

At the end of the study period, the blood tests and the oral glucose challenge were repeated. The participants who took broccoli sprout extract and whose diabetes was well-controlled experienced no changes in their fasting blood sugar or HbA1c levels. The participants who were heaviest and had poorly controlled diabetes saw the greatest benefits from the broccoli sprout extract. After 12 weeks of treatment, obese participants’ fasting blood sugar levels and HbA1c levels decreased, but the participants who received a placebo experienced slightly increased blood sugar and HbA1c levels.

The researchers also measured the amount of sulforaphane in the participants’ blood and noted that the levels varied from person to person. The higher the blood concentration, however, the greater the change in the participants’ fasting blood sugar.

Although very few of the participants experienced any negative effects after taking the broccoli sprout extracts, the authors of the study cautioned against prescribing it to patients because more testing needs to be done to understand how sulforaphane works and who would benefit most from it.

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