Okra, an unusual looking vegetable believed to be first cultivated in Ethiopia and ancient Egypt, is known not only for its culinary value, but its medicinal significance as well. With a long list of potential benefits that shouldn’t be ignored, okra has been found to soothe the digestive tract, improve detoxification, blood sugar balance, and cholesterol balance. Seemingly, the secret to okra’s health-promoting power is in its fiber and mucilage properties, which gives it that slippery – often described as slimy – texture.
Okra, or Abelmoschus esculentus, is the edible seed pod of a tropical flowering plant in the mallow family. Because okra pods are long and tapered, they’re sometimes referred to as “lady fingers.” Okra is a staple of Middle Eastern, Northern African, and Caribbean cuisine and is also popular in the United States, mainly the South. When okra pods are sliced open, they release a mucilaginous liquid that is used as a thickener in stews like gumbo and other Creole and Cajun dishes. In the South, okra is traditionally served battered and fried, pickled, or sautéed.
Okra’s Nutritional Benefits
Okra is packed with important vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B6, B1, folic acid, magnesium, and manganese, making it an excellent methylation-supporting food. Okra also offers substantial amounts of vitamins A and C, making okra a high-antioxidant food, great for supporting eyesight and healthy skin. The many phytonutrients found in okra also contribute to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, including quercitin, anthocyanins, rutin, polyphenols, flavonoids and tannins. In fact, okra has been shown to decrease lipid peroxidation, thereby protecting important lipid molecules from oxidation and free radical damage. In addition to its impressive nutritional profile, the distinctive blend of polysaccharides, fiber, pectin, and mucilage found in okra appear to be a major part of their unique potential health benefits.
Okra’s Trifecta: Detoxification, Cholesterol, and Blood Sugar Balance
The fiber in okra has been found to be a demulcent, soothing to the intestinal tract, and potentially helpful in cases of gastritis. In fact, the mucilage in okra has been shown to have anti-adhesive properties that block the adhesion and colonization of Helicobacter pylori bacteria to stomach lining. It has even been proposed that okra may be able to prevent the recurrence of H. pylori infections.
An important mechanism by which okra and its mucilage and fiber function is through binding to and allowing for the excretion of bile acids. Dietary fiber binds to bile acids, allowing for the excretion of cholesterol and toxic metabolites through the stool. When compared to other high fiber vegetables, okra was found to have significantly higher bile acid binding capacity than the other vegetables tested. This kind of binding process is important to many aspects of health, but specifically benefit detoxification and cholesterol balance.
- Detoxification: The fiber in okra binds to toxic metabolites in the digestive tract, preventing reabsorption, a fundamental aspect to proper detoxification. Okra has also been shown to increase the levels of key detoxification enzymes, including superoxide dismutase, catalase, glutathione peroxidase, and reduced glutathione in animal studies.
- Cholesterol Balance: The fiber in okra has been known to help the body eliminate cholesterol through the digestive tract by binding to bile, has been shown to improve markers of dyslipidemia. Okra extracts may reduce circulating triglycerides and free fatty acids and increase HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels. These findings suggest that eating okra may be beneficial for both bowel detoxification and cholesterol balance.
- Blood Sugar Balance: The fiber in okra may help stabilize blood sugar by slowing the absorption of glucose from the intestinal tract and has been found to reduce hemoglobin A1C, an important marker of blood sugar control. Researchers suspect that a compound found in the leaves and seeds of okra pods may also possess additional blood sugar lowering qualities. In fact, okra may protect pancreatic β-cells from diabetes-related damage by regulating certain genes involved in insulin release.
Other Surprising Health Benefits of Okra
With such significant potential benefits to major human health problems, it is surprising that research has uncovered even more possible benefits to okra – including benefits to skin and energy levels:
- In preliminary research, a high flavonoid okra extract preparation was found to protect human skin cells from ultraviolet (UV) B damage. The okra extract was found to reduce oxidative stress through the Nrf2-ARE Pathway, a pathway that triggers an increase in the production of endogenous antioxidants. Furthermore, the okra extract was found to prevent intracellular reactive oxygen species (ROS) production, cytotoxicity, and depletion of endogenous antioxidant enzymes that typically result from UV-B exposure.
- Okra is considered an “anti-fatigue” vegetable, and researchers suspect this effect comes from the seeds of okra pods and their polyphenols and flavonoids. Okra seeds were found to reduce levels of lactic acid and blood urea nitrogen (BUN) after exhaustive physical activity. The seeds were also found to enhance glycogen storage in the liver, which allows for better fuel utilization in endurance activity. They also found an increase in circulating antioxidants and levels of superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase. These compounds can combat the excessive ROS produced during exercise, which is a major part of physical fatigue. These effects were also found to promote fatigue recovery.
Who Should Eat More Okra?
With the wide range of health benefits okra has to offer, anyone can benefit from eating it. Practitioners should specifically consider recommending okra to certain populations, including:
- Those with or at risk for dyslipidemia, high cholesterol, high triglycerides or low HDL/”good” cholesterol
- Those with blood sugar dysregulation, especially Type 2 diabetes
- Anyone following a detoxification program
- Those being treated for dysbiosis
- Those who have had recurrent H. pylori infections or struggle with gastritis
- Athletes or those who struggle with fatigue
To gain the most benefit from all that okra has to offer, it is best to prepare them in soups, stews, sautéed or roasted, rather than fried. When it comes to okra, the secret to better health may lie in the “slime,” and also the seeds, reminding us that whole foods offer more than the sum of their parts.