October has been an interesting month for anyone following any potential news of treatments for autism.
According to the results of a small study (results that were reported on widely in the news), a chemical that exists naturally in broccoli may be able to improve the symptoms of people suffering from autism.
What is the Chemical in Broccoli?
The chemical is called sulforaphane and it is present in broccoli as well as a few other vegetables including cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower among others. Sulforaphane is not exactly new to us: it has been known for some time that it is a phytochemical which appears to have antioxidant, cancer-fighting and antimicrobial properties.
Now the new study seems to indicate that its properties can have a marked effect on reducing symptoms in patients with autism.
What did the study discover?
The controlled experiment took place with the help of a small sample of young men, 35 in total. All were aged between 13 and 27 years of age. Of these, 26 of them took sulforaphane for 18 weeks.
The dose was calculated according to their body weight, so the actual dose given was between nine and 27mg. The remaining nine men took a placebo. All those who took part had what was deemed to be a moderate to severe case of autism.
Of those who took sulforaphane, two-thirds of them experienced improvements in their symptoms. These included a reduction in lethargy and irritability, while other areas such as motivation and communication were improved.
The study was carefully managed so no one but the researchers knew which subjects were receiving the placebo and which had the actual dose of sulforaphane. The people who were looking after those with autism were to observe their behaviour over the course of the experiment and for four weeks afterwards.
There were noticeable improvements in 17 out of the 26 who had the regular dose of sulforaphane. The group that received placebos didn’t experience much change at all.
What’s the next step?
Obviously the small number of subjects involved in the test mean this is merely an interesting initial foray into experimenting with sulforaphane as a potential treatment for those suffering from autism. This study only focused on young men within a specific age group.
It is impossible to tell whether similar results would be achieved with women or indeed men of different ages. Furthermore a much larger study involving more people would have to be planned before we could hope to see whether similar results could be extrapolated from that.
In addition the sulforaphane used in the dose given was taken from broccoli sprouts. As we have seen, other vegetables contain the phytochemical as well. Thus it would be prudent to experiment with various sources to see if one gained significantly better results than others. However there is reason to be cautiously optimistic here.
Raw food or Broccoli supplements?
Most of us are aware that boiling vegetables of all kinds ends up taking most of the goodness out of them. That’s why lightly steaming them or eating them raw is generally the best way to consume them. It’s certainly the case that sulforaphane is present in higher quantities in raw broccoli, cauliflower and other vegetables than it is when you cook them.
However according to the lead researcher in the above study, Dr Andrew W Zimmerman, it would be unrealistic to eat enough raw vegetables each day to get the dose they worked with in the study. While he would not state which product they used in the study (it isn’t available to the general public) there are many supplements on the market that do have sulforaphane in them. This is by far the easiest way to get the daily dose required to potentially make a difference.
One interesting point to note is that the improvements achieved among those who took sulforaphane each day during the study eventually all but disappeared once the dose ended. It took around a month for the changes to disappear, but this seems to indicate a need for a regular dose to be given in order to maintain the improvements. If a regular treatment for autism were to be created in the future from sulforaphane, one assumes it would have to be prescribed for life.
Replicating the responses generated by a fever
It has been noted in the past that when autism patients succumb to a fever, their autism symptoms can actually improve. Researchers have also discovered that sulforaphane seems to improve the body’s so-called heat shock response.
This response is designed to kick in and protect the body’s cells in the event the individual has a temperature. Since this occurs when someone has a fever, and this in turn has led to improved symptoms in autistic individuals, it is believed this is the reason why sulforaphane has produced good results in the study.
Is it time to start eating more broccoli?
We’ve already mentioned you’d have to eat a lot of the stuff to get anywhere near the amount that was reduced down into the doses used in this study. However given the many other benefits of eating vegetables it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
It’s good to know there are supplements on the market that make it easy to get a daily dose of sulforaphane if you want to have it. While we should undoubtedly wait to see where further research goes in relation to sulforaphane and autism, we already know this phytochemical has plenty of other perks.
Back in 2012 it was reported to be effective in treating leukaemia. It is a natural detoxifying chemical and is also thought to have the potential to reduce the odds of getting breast cancer, as well as a couple of other cancers. Its antioxidant properties have also been shown to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure.
In short, this is clearly something we should all be more interested in. Perhaps in the future, those with autism will be commonly prescribed a sulforaphane supplement to combat its symptoms.