A broccoli a day keeps COVID (and colds) away? Researchers are looking into it

BALTIMORE — Your mom was right: Eat your vegetables!

Vegetables have long been a mainstay of a healthy diet, but there may be one more reason to eat your greens. They may stave off a bad COVID-19 infection.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center found that a chemical compound called sulforaphane found in abundance in broccoli cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts might slow growth of coronaviruses such as those that cause COVID-19 and the common cold.

At the start of the pandemic, the researchers began looking for potential treatments for the virus when they came across the compound. They haven’t tested it in humans yet, but in cells and mice they found sulforaphane was a promising weapon against severe disease because it interferes with virus replication. That’s how the virus spreads in the body.

“I was screening multiple compounds for anti-coronavirus activity and decided to try sulforaphane since it has shown modest activity against other microbial agents that we study,” said Lori Jones-Brando, a Hopkins Children’s Center microbiologist and senior author of a paper recently published on the findings in the Nature journal Communications Biology.

This isn’t the first time health researchers have looked at greens for more than just a healthy gut. Other Hopkins researchers have been looking into using the compound to prevent or treat breast cancer after discovering there was some anti-cancer benefit to sulforaphane decades ago.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

The compound is especially alluring because it’s not hard to find. The veggies, plus supplements made from the greens are readily found in stores with no prescription — although the researchers warn against rushing out to buy supplements just yet, as their work is early and the supplements are generally unregulated by the government.

They’ll continue testing the compound for its COVID-19 potential and plan to study the effects in humans.

In studies so far, the research team exposed cells to sulforaphane one to two hours before infecting the cells with the coronaviruses. It reduced replication of a half dozen types of the virus by 50%. That included the delta and omicron variants and the common cold virus.

They also found a similar result when they exposed cells to the compound after the virus.

Same for the results when they lowered the dosage of sulforaphane but combined it with a low dose of remdesivir, an antiviral medication that has been found to shorten recovery times for those hospitalized with COVID-19.

Another benefit of sulforaphane is that it reduces inflammation in the lungs, a potentially deadly immune response to COVID-19.

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