According to research, extracts from okra could help offset damage done by oxidative stress and insulin resistance, and simultaneously improve your blood glucose levels. Those results were attained when scientists tested okra extracts on pregnant rats with induced gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM).
During the featured study on rats from 2015,1 scientists found okra extract exerted potential antihyperglycemic and hypolipidemic effects. The okra was also associated with reduced damage to pancreatic tissues. In a recent study,2 researchers concluded that okra may improve glucose homeostasis and β-cell (beta cells that produce, store and release insulin3) impairment in diabetes.
Okra, you may know, is a vegetable known as a favorite in the American south for dishes like Creole-style gumbo. The Abelmoschus esculentus (okra) plant, also known as Hibiscus esculentus (being related to the hibiscus plant, as well as cotton), is also called lady fingers because it produces several tapering, pentagon-shaped, fuzzy pods with pointed tips and lots of compartmentalized seeds.4
As an ancient, flowering plant with origins all over the world, okra has several more names: gombo, bamia or bamya in France; bhindi in India, quibombo in Spain and simply “bamies” in the Mediterranean and Middle East. It was probably brought to the Southern U.S. by slaves from West Africa, who often used it to thicken soups.5 In fact, this plant does require balmy temperatures to thrive.
The seedpods are the part of the plant with the most gastronomical interest. As Cooking Channel TV maintains, they can be barbecued, pickled, skewered and grilled, or sautéed. It doesn’t have to be doused in canola or some other “vegetable” oil, coated with flour and deep-fried; you can use healthy ingredients:
“Gumbo is nothing without the okra that breaks down and helps thicken the stew … Okra is often paired with acidic flavors like lemon juice or tomatoes to balance out the earthy, woody flavors … Yankee Okra, or okra sautéed in olive oil with garlic, crushed red pepper, thyme and basil, pairs the flavors you know and love with an ingredient that you will soon be familiarizing yourself with.”6
Okra water is a form of this vegetable that has emerged recently, and it’s gained more interest since it may improve your blood sugar levels. To make okra into a drink, the pods are soaked for several hours or overnight, during which time the skin and seeds will be absorbed into the liquid. Another way is to slice the pods thinly before soaking them, but the resulting beverage may be slightly bitter. Just remember the benefits!
Okra May Benefit Diabetes, Lower Blood Sugar Levels
According to the study,7 “Therapeutic Effect of Okra Extract on Gestational Diabetes Mellitus Rats Induced by Streptozotocin,” scientists divided 30 rats into three groups: those with GDM, an intervention group and a control group.
Once the model was established successfully, the study notes,8 200 mg of okra extract was given (orally) to the rats in the intervention group, while the other two groups received only the okra solution and water.
To be precise, it wasn’t extracts from okra alone that scientists used, but an okra solution similar to that used in other studies. A study in 2011, for instance, tested okra’s ability to prevent liver damage.9 Shade-dried okra pods were “coarsely powdered and macerated,” then placed in 3 liters of 96 percent ethanol for 72 hours before being “suspended” in distilled water (which does not dissolve it) before being given to the rats.
At the conclusion, the study authors wrote that due at least in part to the antioxidant substances in okra, the rats’ oxidative stress and insulin suppression was decreased, and along with it their blood glucose levels.
Previous studies have found similar results, including a 2005 study published in the journal Planta Medica,10 in which scientists purified a chemical called myricetin, an antioxidant flavonoid found in okra, and gave it to rats via IV. The result was that the rodents’ muscles were more readily able to absorb glucose, which consequently lowered their blood sugar levels.
It appears okra may support the function of insulin and has even been deemed a potential adjuvant therapy for treating diabetes, whether consumed as a nutraceutical or vegetable.11
Diseases and Disorders Okra — in any Form — May Improve
A 2018 study12 asserts that okra could improve metabolic complications, and if it has a beneficial effect on the pancreas in rats, benefits may translate to humans, as well.
Type 2 diabetes and obesity are the most common endocrine-based metabolic diseases, characterized by hyperglycemia and impaired insulin resistance. Causes are complex and often interrelated, and include:
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Eating high amounts of processed foods, which typically contain sugar, grains and unhealthy fats
- Genetic predisposition
While okra alone may not cure diabetes, studies show there is evidence that it helps. Several beneficial nutrients in okra have a positive effect on several other problems, as well:13
- Potassium — Helps optimize your nerve impulses, digestion, blood pressure, heart rhythm and pH balance
- Vitamin B — While there are different types, in okra it’s specifically B1, or thiamin, which imparts neurological benefits; B2, or riboflavin, which helps maintain sharp vision; and B6, aka pyridoxine, helps babies’ brains develop properly and helps convert food to energy
- Vitamin C — Can reduce both the duration and severity of the common cold14
- Folic acid — Makes and repairs your DNA and produces red blood cells, and is important for pregnant women and women of child-bearing age as a deficiency can lead to birth defects, such as spina bifida15
- Calcium — A mineral crucial for bone health, but vitamin D is also needed to help absorb it. Additionally, it plays a role in muscle contraction, blood clotting and cell membrane function
The Nutrient Compounds Behind Okra’s Health Benefits
The featured study isn’t the only one that’s revealed remarkable health benefits of okra consumption. Research on okra may be in the early stages, but as it turns out, the relatively meager information already out there supports what other researchers have discovered in the past decade or so.
For instance, a study in 2011 highlights the antidiabetic and antihyperlipidemic potential of okra peel and seed powder in diabetic rats.16 Okra seeds have also been used in Turkey for lowering blood sugar levels,17 which further casts this humble veggie in a very good light by listing the science behind many of its health benefits.
The peel is one of the most popular okra parts used to get the medicinal qualities from this little pod. It can be shredded using a lemon zester or grate, and one-half teaspoon is recommended as sufficient to get the desired benefits. Grinding the seeds after drying them is another method, and simply adding them to your smoothie or protein drink is another. Seeds can be purchased either from a health food store or ordered online.
Besides being rich in dietary fiber, which helps keep your system moving smoothly and efficiently and can both cut hunger cravings and keep you fuller longer, there are other key reasons why eating okra can help with any of the above.
Another study indicates that lowered recovery times after a workout and improved energy levels are a few of the benefits of eating okra. As it happens, okra has a particularly high set of nutrients that fight fatigue, one of them being the antioxidants. The seeds in particular contain polysaccharides, polyphenols and several flavonoids, all of which are important in your diet to battle fatigue. The study notes that:18
“Fatigue is becoming a more and more common symptom in normal humans with the increasing pace of modern life. Large community surveys have showed that more than half of the adult population complains about fatigue. Long-term accumulated or chronic fatigue not only lowers the quality of life, but also leads to chronic-fatigue syndrome and other organic illnesses.”
Glutathione peroxidase and superoxide dismutase also increased dramatically, but the study noted that the polyphenols in the seeds are about 24 times as much as those in the skins, but the content of polysaccharides in the seeds is much lower compared to the skins.
While okra consumption has been shown to block the absorption of the drug Metformin, prescribed to help manage blood sugar levels, you may want to talk to your doctor about the benefits of adding okra to your diet.
From the clinical evidence, the upshot may be that eating whole okra pod, prepared your favorite way, may contribute to a more active and consequently healthier lifestyle overall. And even if you’re not a fan of using it in your cooking, simply making and drinking okra water can be beneficial too.