Okra for Diabetes

Okra is a vegetable used in cooking in warm climates. Recently, some websites have posted that it is a “diabetes cure.” What is the science on okra? How can it help you?

Okra’s scientific name is Abelmoschus esculentus. It is used as a thickener in stews because of the goopy stuff in its seed pods. That same goop keeps many of us from eating it at all, but it may contain powerful medicine.

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Like bitter melon, okra has been tested successfully in rodents, but not in humans, and not in America. In researching this article, I found articles from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, and Japan, and the studies are definitely worth looking at.

A 2005 study from Taiwan published in the journal Planta Medica tested okra in rats with diabetes. Researchers purified a chemical called myricetin from the okra. They gave the rats the solution by IV. The myricetin greatly increased rats’ muscles’ ability to absorb glucose, which in turn reduced their blood sugar levels.

A study from Bangladesh was published in the online journal ISRN Pharmaceutics, based in Cairo, Egypt. The study showed that purified okra given to rats orally through a feeding tube slowed glucose getting out of the intestines, which sharply reduced after-meal glucose level spikes.

In a study from India published in the Journal of Pharmacy & Bioallied Sciences, in 2011 researchers fed diabetic rats powdered okra seed and peel extracts. After up to 28 days of consuming the extracts, the rats showed a significant reduction in blood sugar levels. Their triglyceride (lipid) levels also returned to near normal.

In just these three studies, we see evidence that okra may help insulin function or even act as a substitute for insulin. It also slows glucose from getting into the blood in the first place, like drugs such as acarbose (brand name Precose). And it improves lipid (cholesterol) levels like statin drugs do.

Only one problem — all research was done on animals in Asia, so those studies don’t register with the American health system. I kept reading comments from doctors and readers that “there is no research” or “no clinical evidence” that okra helps. Therefore, these commenters believed that no one should try it.

For now, nobody seems to be designing or recruiting for human studies on okra. You can, however, find out for yourself if it works for you.

Using okra as medicine
You can cook with okra, eat it raw, or soak it in water and drink the water. There are no studies on cooked okra, so I don’t know if it works as well as the other ways. The cooking site Culinate, run by food author Megan Scott, recommends eating it raw as a snack. “To eat okra this way,” she says, “you need to pick or purchase it reasonably small — no longer than 3 to 4 inches [long], about 3/4 inch in diameter.”

I tried biting off bits of a raw okra pod and it didn’t taste bad, except when I hit the goop. I couldn’t tolerate that texture.

If you want to cook it with reduced slime, Scott suggests “Roasting and grilling are two…methods for coaxing a lot of flavor from okra spears while discouraging sliminess. Simply toss the okra, halved lengthwise or not, in a simple marinade, and grill or roast over high heat.”

Okra is a staple of Indian cuisine, so you can find some easy recipes on Indian cooking sites.

Okra in water is a big Internet thing now. Take two to four small pods, cut off the tips, puncture or slice the sides, and soak them overnight in 8 ounces of water. Then take the pods and squeeze the goop into a new cup and add water to that. According to this video, it tastes like unsweetened coconut milk. I tried it, and it was not unpleasant. I liked it.

If you try this, treat it as a medicine. Take it every day for at least four weeks. Don’t skip. I read comments from people who brought their A1C down as much five points with once-daily okra water. Keep records of your sugars and show them to your doctor.

Problems with okra
If you eat it, you may have trouble with the taste or texture. Okra in water doesn’t have such problems for most people.

Okra seems to block metformin in the intestines the same way it blocks glucose. So if you’re on metformin, consult with your doctor before trying okra.

I’ve found no published reports of hypoglycemia (low sugars) from okra, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Be careful if you are taking insulin or a sulfonylurea drug.

There might be a slightly increased risk of kidney stones if your body makes stones of the calcium oxalate type. No studies confirm this, and I found no anecdotal reports either. Like many vegetables, though, okra is high in oxalates.

On the other hand, a Chinese study showed that eating okra improved kidney function in people (not rats this time) with diabetes.

As happens with drugs, with bitter melon, or with any effective treatment, some people see their numbers improve and think “Oh good, now I can go back to eating junk and sitting around all day.” This will not work — okra is part of a diabetes management plan, not a cure.

Consult with your doctor, especially when it comes to reducing your medications.

To me, the evidence says, “Go for the okra water.” Keep records and let us know what happens.