Chronic illnesses like cancer and cardiovascular disease are ever-present in our lives. Whether it’s a friend, colleagues or family member, chances are someone you know is facing a serious health challenge.
Research is showing us that food can do so much more than give us energy. Some foods play an important role in preventing disease – and may even help reverse certain chronic conditions.
One such food is broccoli. A huge amount of research has gone into broccoli and one of its compounds, sulforaphane. Sulforaphane has the potential to protect us from cancer and other chronic conditions; it may even help to reverse some of them. I’ll eat to that!
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at sulforaphane and what it does in the body. We’ll also learn how to eat broccoli to get the maximum benefits from this incredible superfood.
What is broccoli?
Broccoli (from the species Brassica oleracea) is a cruciferous vegetable, in the same family as cauliflower, kale, cabbage, bok choy, watercress, wasabi and arugula. It’s basically a large, green edible flower with a taste similar to cabbage (they are related, after all). The stalks and florets are eaten both raw and cooked; some people even eat the leaves. Broccoli sprouts and microgreens are also popular, as they can give us a powerful dose of essential nutrients. But more on that a bit later.
The Nutritional Profile
Broccoli is rich in nutrients and fiber. It contains several potent antioxidants, including carotenoids such as beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin; vitamins A, B6, C, and K; and some essential minerals.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli also contain a group of substances known as glucosinolates, which are sulfur-containing chemicals. These chemicals are responsible for the pungent aroma and bitter flavor of cruciferous veggies – and the reason why broccoli is considered a superfood. These chemicals are also responsible for broccoli’s chemo-preventive properties; animal studies have shown that broccoli can inhibit the formation of cancer cells.
The Health Benefits
Let’s get a little technical.
Broccoli contains a glucosinolate known as glucoraphanin. When broccoli is broken up, cooked, chewed or digested, glucoraphanin is broken down by an enzyme called myrosinase. It is then converted to other compounds, one of them being sulforaphane.
Research has shown that sulforaphane:
1. Has anti-cancer properties.
Research suggests that sulforaphane inhibits phase 1 enzymes which activate substances that may get metabolized into carcinogens. It also induces phase 2 enzymes that detoxify the body of potential carcinogens and other disease-causing compounds.
2. Acts as a potent antioxidant.
Sulforaphane has been shown to induce the expression of antioxidant enzymes via the Nrf2 (Nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2) dependent pathway. This pathway is the master regulator of the body’s antioxidant pathway. Through it, Nrf2 can bind to the antioxidant response element (ARE), which in turn triggers an antioxidant and protective response within the cells. Antioxidant responses are important in dealing with free radicals, cell damage and toxic by-products.
A number of other foods activate the Nrf2 pathway: dark chocolate, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, green tea, ashwagandha, legumes, cruciferous vegetables and even red wine. Exercise also activates this pathway. But sulforaphane is the most bioavailable and most potent Nrf2 activator.
3. Is anti-inflammatory.
After sulforaphane enters the cell, it not only interacts with the Nrf2 pathway, but also other pathways – including the one responsible for regulating the inflammatory response. Why is this important? Because controlling inflammation helps to reduce the likelihood of cancer progressing – or even developing in the first place.
4. Acts on gene expression.
There are chemical compounds whose activity can regulate genes. This activity qualifies as epigenetic changes as these compounds change the expression of the gene and not its DNA.
What’s exciting is that epigenetic changes can be reversed through better lifestyle choices. Most importantly, they can respond to dietary compounds from whole plant foods.
Lifestyle factors that may modify epigenetic patterns include diet, physical activity, environmental pollutants such as smoke and chemicals, and psychological stress. 90% of all cancers have been attributed to epigenetic modifications.
Sulforaphane has been shown to act on epigenetic regulation by suppressing and inhibiting histone deacetylases (HDACs). And HDACs have been correlated with cancer development, progression and recurrence.
Researchers believe that targeting epigenetic modifications could be a powerful and simple strategy for cancer prevention. They also believe this can extend to cardiovascular health, brain health and ageing.
How to use:
Studies have shown that 3 to 5 servings of cruciferous vegetables per week lead to better health outcomes.
Studies have also shown, however, that there can be large variations in sulforaphane levels due to a number of factors (including the plant variety and how it is grown, picked, transported, stored and cooked). Make sure your broccoli is fresh – and organic whenever possible.
Studies indicate that if broccoli is cooked at high temperatures or for too long, the enzyme myrosinase is inactivated. Without myrosinase, sulforaphane cannot be produced. It’s best to steam broccoli for not longer than 4-5 minutes.
Another good option is to consume broccoli sprouts or microgreens. Studies have shown that three-day-old sprouts contain 10–100 times higher levels of glucoraphanin than the mature plant(1). Dr Rhonda Patrick (@foundmyfitness) recommends about 100g or half a cup of broccoli sprouts per day.
If you’d like to get the benefit of broccoli without having to cook it, consider an organic broccoli powder supplement like the one from Good Life Organics. It eliminates the cooking issues and saves you the effort of finding broccoli sprouts or microgreens or growing them yourself.
Whilst broccoli is considered a generally safe vegetable to eat, not everyone can eat or likes to eat cruciferous vegetables.
In case you were wondering, broccoli stems have a high FODMAP (Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Monosaccharides And Polyols) content, which means they aren’t recommended for IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). FODMAP is the scientific term for groups of carbohydrates that are notorious for triggering digestive symptoms like bloating, gas and stomach pain.
The good news is that broccoli florets are a low-FODMAP food. If you have IBS, you can still have up to ¼ cup a day.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to add this superfood to your diet. And while no single will solve all of your health problems, making broccoli part of a balanced diet, with as much organic food as possible, certainly seems like a smart approach.
1. Broccoli sprouts: An exceptionally rich source of inducers of enzymes that protect against chemical carcinogens. Jed W. Fahey, Yuesheng Zhang, Paul Talalay. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1997 Sep 16; 94(19): 10367–10372. doi: 10.1073/pnas.94.19.10367. PMCID: PMC23369
2. Sulforaphane – role in aging and neurodegeneration. Roberto Santín-Márquez, Adriana Alarcón-Aguilar, Norma Edith López-Diazguerrero, Niki Chondrogianni, Mina Königsberg. GeroScience. 2019 Oct; 41(5): 655–670. Published online 2019 Apr 2. doi: 10.1007/s11357-019-00061-7. PMCID: PMC6885086
3. The role of Sulforaphane in cancer chemoprevention and health benefits: a mini-review. Reza Bayat Mokhtari & Narges Baluch & Tina S. J. Cell Commun. Signal. (2018) 12:91–101. DOI 10.1007/s12079-017-0401-y.
4. Multi-targeted prevention of cancer by sulforaphane. John D. Clarke, Roderick H. Dashwood, Emily Ho. Cancer Lett. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2009 Oct 8. Published in final edited form as: Cancer Lett. 2008 Oct 8; 269(2): 291–304. Published online 2008 May 27. doi: 10.1016/j.canlet.2008.04.018. PMCID: PMC2579766
5. Nutrition and cancer: A review of the evidence for an anti-cancer diet. Michael S Donaldson. Nutr J. 2004; 3: 19. Published online 2004 Oct 20. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-3-19. PMCID: PMC526387