Science has repeatedly proven that food is a profoundly effective medicine that can activate many healthy nuclear transcription factors in your body. Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, for example, have been repeatedly shown to be one of nature’s most valuable health-promoting foods, capable of preventing a number of common health issues.
Cruciferous veggies, which include broccoli, cabbage, collards, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale and bok choi, just to name a few, contain several plant compounds that are important for optimal health, including powerful chemoprotective compounds.
One of the most well-known of these is sulforaphane, an organic sulfur. Studies have shown sulforaphane supports normal cell function and division while causing apoptosis (programmed cell death) in colon,1liver,2 prostate,3 breast4 and tobacco-induced lung cancer.5 Just three servings of broccoli per week may reduce a man’s risk of prostate cancer by more than 60 percent.6
Sulforaphane may also be helpful in the treatment of breast cancer. When tested in mice and cell cultures, sulforaphane was found to actually target and kill cancer stem cells, thereby preventing the formation and spread of tumors.7
Another important chemoprotective phytochemical found in cruciferous veggies is indole-3 carbinol (I3C),8 which in your gut is converted into diindolylmethane (DIM). DIM in turn boosts immune function and, like sulforaphane, plays a role in the prevention and treatment of cancer.9,10
How Cruciferous Vegetables Help Prevent Colon Cancer
Recent research11,12 has again confirmed the importance of cruciferous vegetables for cancer prevention, in this case colon cancer. As reported by Newsweek,13 “Scientists found mice who were fed a diet containing a chemical found in the brassica family of plants had healthier guts, and were less likely to develop inflammation and colon cancer.”
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Aside from converting to DIM, which has anticancer activity, I3C also works by activating a protein called aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR), which communicates with immune and epithelial cells in your gut lining, thereby helping to reduce inflammation caused by pathogenic bacteria.
AhR also helps stem cells convert into mucus-producing cells in your gut lining. These cells also help extract nutrients from the foods you eat, all of which translate into improved gut function and health.
When you have insufficient amounts of AhR, the stem cells end up producing malfunctioning cells that divide in an uncontrolled manner. This abnormal cell division is ultimately what results in abnormal growths that can turn into malignant tumors in your colon.
Consumption of cruciferous vegetables essentially helps prevent this chain of events by boosting I3C. According to coauthor Amina Metidji, Ph.D., with the Francis Crick Institute:14
“When we fed [the mice] a diet enriched with I3C, they did not develop inflammation or cancer. Interestingly, when mice whose cancer was already developing were switched to the I3C-enriched diet, they ended up with significantly fewer tumors, which were also more benign.”
Molecular immunologist and senior author Gitta Stockinger, Ph.D., added:15,16
“While there are many reports linking consumption of vegetables to improved health there was so far no molecular basis for this. Our study shows what component of vegetables affects the intestinal barrier and how it does so …
Seeing the profound effect of diet on gut inflammation and colon cancer was very striking. Many vegetables produce chemicals that keep AhR stimulated in the gut. We found that AhR-promoting chemicals in the diet can correct defects caused by insufficient AhR stimulation …
While we cannot influence our genes that may predispose us to certain diseases, we can do something about the environmental influences via our diet to ensure that our protective gut barrier is optimally supported. You probably cannot eat too many vegetables.”
Other Health Benefits of I3C
I3C also has other health benefits. Of the various indoles, I3C and its metabolites are powerful antioxidants. Research has also shown it can help balance both male and female hormones, thereby supporting reproductive health in both sexes.
Importantly, DIM has been shown to balance 4-hydroxyestrone, an estrogen that can have damaging effects and plays a role in reproductive cancers. In one study, supplementation with I3C at dosages of 200 and 400 milligrams per day for three months reversed early-stage cervical cancer in 8 of 17 women.17 As noted by Superfoods:18
“[I3C] initiates a series of reactions in the body that culminates in the elimination of estrogen. Researchers have observed that metabolism of estrogen occurs via one of two pathways:
The ‘harmful’ metabolic pathway, 16 alpha-hydroxylation or the ‘beneficial’ metabolic pathway, 2-hydroxylation. [I3C] helps to regulate cell growth rates, and helps to change a strong and inflammatory form of estrogen into a safer, less aggressive form.”
Other studies suggest I3C works synergistically with the anticancer drug tamoxifen to improve outcomes. I3C also supports your liver’s detoxification processes, and helps heal liver damage by supporting the reproduction of normal, healthy cells.
Cruciferous Veggies Are an Important Part of an Anticancer Diet
Sulforaphane is one of several compounds known as isothiocyanates, which have the ability to spark hundreds of genetic changes, activating some genes that fight cancer and switch off others that fuel tumors.19
As noted in one study,20 “research suggests that cruciferous vegetables are not only an important source of nutrients, but perhaps a key to eliminating cancer as life threatening disease.” According to Olga Azarenko, a scientist at the UC Santa Barbara laboratories, whose research shows how the healing power of these vegetables works at the cellular level:21
“Breast cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women, can be protected against by eating cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage and near relatives of cabbage such as broccoli and cauliflower. These vegetables contain compounds called isothiocyanates which we believe to be responsible for the cancer-preventive and anti-carcinogenic activities in these vegetables.”
Broccoli, and even more so broccoli sprouts — which typically contain anywhere from 20 to 50 times more chemoprotective compounds than mature broccoli22,23 — contain the highest amounts of isothiocyanates. Other vegetables containing isothiocyanates include:
Other Health Benefits of Cruciferous Vegetables
Cancer prevention is not the only health benefit you can reap from eating more cruciferous veggies though. Not by a long shot!
These veggies provide dozens of super-nutrients that support optimal, bodywide health, including fiber, the anticancer compounds sulforaphane24,25,26,27 and glucoraphanin,28,29 anti-inflammatory and free radical quenching phenolic compounds30,31,32 and immune-boosting DIM.33,34
Aside from cancer, these and other compounds found in broccoli and other cruciferous veggies have been shown to:35