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What is sulforaphane?

Sulforaphane is a chemical that’s produced when we eat leafy green vegetables like broccoli, spinach and Brussels sprouts. It’s especially abundant in sprouted broccoli seeds. Sulforaphane is the compound that gives broccoli its characteristic bitter taste. A number of clinical studies have focused on the possible benefits of sulforaphane for the treatment of osteoarthritis, certain cancers, respiratory illnesses and skin and blood disorders. Research has also focused on the possible benefits of sulforaphane in the treatment autism.

What foods contain sulforaphane?

Sulforaphane is found in leafy green vegetables that belong to the cruciferous family. They include:

  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Cauliflower
  • Cabbage
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Bok choy

These greens contain:

It’s best to eat these vegetables raw or only lightly steamed to retain the phytochemicals that make cruciferous vegetables beneficial to health.

Sulforaphane and autism

Autism is a developmental condition.

A small 2014 pilot study, carried out in the US and reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that daily treatment with sulforaphane derived from broccoli may improve some symptoms experienced by people with autism. The study involved 40 young men, aged between 13 and 27, who had been diagnosed with moderate to severe autism. Of these men 26 were given a daily dose of sulforaphane, and 14 were given a placebo. During the study period their behaviour and social interactions were monitored. Results report significant improvements in:

  • Irritability
  • Lethargy
  • Repetitive movements
  • Hyperactivity
  • Communication
  • Motivation
  • Mannerisms

Of those given sulforaphane, some showed noticeable improvements in:

  • Social interaction (46%)
  • Aberrant behaviours (54%)
  • Verbal communication (42%)

Results of this study suggest sulforaphane may help make people with autism calmer and more sociable, however, one third of those taking part showed no improvements. The study has been welcomed by the scientific community as intriguing and important, but some experts say it is too soon to draw any firm conclusions about the benefits of sulforaphane for people with autism. Researchers acknowledge more studies are needed with larger numbers of adults and children to verify these findings.

Sulforaphane and osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is wear and tear arthritis and is the most common form of arthritis in the UK.

There's some early evidence that sulforaphane can help slow osteoarthritis damage.

Sulforaphane and cancer

Sulforaphane has been linked to lowering the risk of cancer. This is based on a review published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that showed at least 70% of research into cruciferous vegetables found a link between them and protection against cancer.

Studies suggest various components in these greens may stop the growth of cancer cells in tumours of the breast, lining of the uterus, lungs, bowel, liver and cervix. Also, studies that track the diets of people over time have shown green leafy vegetables are linked to lower rates of prostate cancer.

Some research suggests sulforaphane may help stimulate enzymes that play a role in detoxifying carcinogens before they can damage cells, but more research is needed.

Another theory suggests sulforaphane derived from green, leafy vegetables may help protect against cancer by reducing oxidative stress. This is when harmful molecules called free radicals build up in the body. One study showed a 22% drop in oxidative stress when people ate a diet rich in leafy greens, although more research is needed.

Sulforaphane and other conditions

Sulforaphane has been the focus of various clinical trials linked to possible benefits for a number of other conditions including:

More research is needed to establish the benefits of sulforaphane for these conditions.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on September 09, 2016

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