Sulforaphane, a compound found in broccoli sprouts, has been shown to benefit autism in a way no drug ever has in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study.
In previous articles, we explored how autism may be due to synaptic dysfunction. This view suggests the condition can be treated and reversed. This possibility has enticed parents and researchers who observed how fever could decrease symptoms of autism.
Researchers have explored the potential of sulforaphane as a treatment for autism because of its effects on four other factors in autism: oxidative stress, lower antioxidant capacity, mitochondrial dysfunction, and brain inflammation. What’s more, this doesn’t only occur in a petri dish. Sulforaphane has been found to cross the blood-brain barrier, so when you eat broccoli, sulforaphane quickly reaches your brain and exerts its protective effects—at least it does in theory. You don’t know, of course, until you put it to the test.
You can understand why such a study could attract researchers from such leading institutions as Harvard and Johns Hopkins, and get published in one of our most prestigious journals, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. What did they find? First, what did they do? In a placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized trial, young men (aged 13–27) with moderate to severe ASD [autism] received sulforaphane from broccoli sprouts or an indistinguishable sugar pill. They were dosed according to body weight: Those under 100 pounds got about a tablespoon of broccoli sprouts’ worth of sulforaphane a day, which is about a cup’s worth of broccoli, those weighing between 100 and 200 pounds got about the equivalent of two cups of broccoli or two tablespoons of fresh broccoli sprouts, and those over 200 pounds got three cups’ worth a day or a little under a quarter cup of broccoli sprouts.
Why didn’t the researchers use actual broccoli or actual sprouts? If they had, it wouldn’t have been a blinded study. The patients, doctors, and parents would know who was and who wasn’t getting the special treatment, which could introduce bias through the placebo effect. Instead, with this study set-up, no one knew until the end who got the sulforaphane and who got the placebo.
The researchers chose dietary sulforaphane because of its capacity to reverse oxidation, synaptic dysfunction, and inflammation, but when put to the test, did it actually work? The placebo didn’t. Give people with autism nothing, and nothing much happens. But effectively secretly sneak them some broccoli, and substantial improvements in behavior, social interaction, and verbal communication occurred.
However, it all disappeared once the broccoli was stopped. On the Aberrant Behavior Checklist, which includes things such as repetitive behaviors, there was no big change in the placebo group, which is what you’d expect. But the abnormal behaviors associated with autism plunged in the sulforaphane group—the group who got the sulforaphane found in only about five cents’ worth of broccoli sprouts a day. The study ended in week 18, however, and a month later, things were heading back to where they started.
There were similar findings on a Social Responsiveness Scale: significant improvements were seen until the treatment was stopped, and then the participants went right back to functioning as poorly as those in the placebo group had continued to function. And these weren’t just scores on a page. “The substantial improvements … were conspicuous”—the doctors, parents, and caregivers could see the improvements. No drug has ever been shown to have these kinds of effects. What’s more, these were young men, starting at age 13. One could imagine it working as well or even better with younger children because their brains are still developing. And, is there a downside? Not likely. Broccoli sprouts are eaten all over the world without any reports of adverse effects. But remember, we’re talking about whole foods, not sulforaphane supplements.
Indeed, broccoli sprouts work, but commercial broccoli sprout supplements hardly work at all. Broccoli has sulforaphane, with the florets more so than the stems, and broccoli sprouts have about 10 times more sulforaphane. In comparison, broccoli pills, powders, and supplements have little or none. So, broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables are for all kids, whether they have autism or not, and they may be for pregnant women as well for the potential prenatal prevention of autism in the first place.
This article covers the big finale to my initial three-part video series on autism. For the background that led researchers down this path of clues, check out “Fever Benefits for Autism in a Food” and “Fighting Autism Brain Inflammation with Food.” You can also check out: “Flashback Friday: The Best Foods for Fighting Autism and Brain Inflammation” on NutritionFacts.org.
We understand there may be a variety of challenges pertaining to catering to picky palates, sensory and food texture sensitivities, or kids who are reluctant to try new foods. We hope this evidence-based article can provide some helpful health information to parents and health practitioners.
For more tips and tricks, check out “How to Get Kids to Eat Their Vegetables,” on NutritionFacts.org.
Michael Greger, MD, FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. He has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” and “The Colbert Report,” and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous “meat defamation” trial. This article was originally published on NutritionFacts.org
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