Science has proven time and again that Mother Nature is the best physician, and food is the best medicine. Broccoli, for example—and to an even greater degree, broccoli sprouts—have been repeatedly shown to be one of nature’s most valuable health-promoting foods, capable of preventing a number of health issues, including but not limited to:
Small quantities of fresh Broccoli sprouts contain as much cancer protection as larger amounts of the mature vegetable sold in food markets, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Just 5 grams (0.17 ounces) of sprouts contain concentrations of the compound glucoraphanin equal to that found in 150 grams (5.2 ounces) of mature Broccoli. The compound is a precursor to sulforaphane, proven in animal studies to boost cell enzymes that protect against molecular damage from cancer-causing chemicals.
Sulforaphane has been shown to mobilize, or induce, the body’s natural cancer protection resources and help reduce the risk of malignancy. Broccoli is the best source of the chemical precursor to sulforaphane — glucoraphanin. Now, Broccoli sprouts are an “exceptionally rich source” of inducers of cellular enzymes for “detoxifying” chemical carcinogens — cancer causing compounds. Some of these compounds are potent enhancers of phase 2 enzymes, which speed the detoxication of electrophiles and reactive oxygen metabolites. Therefore, they say, induction of phase 2 enzymes by these compounds can “…protect cells against mutagenesis and neoplasia.”
The researchers attempted to calculate how much Broccoli one would have to eat in order to produce a significant degree of protection against cancer, based on epidemiologic evidence. They found that one would have to eat about two pounds of an average Broccoli a week in order to reduce, say, one’s risk of colon cancer by about 50%.
An additional complication is that it is impossible to determine by the looks of this cruciferous vegetable alone or even with knowledge of how and where it was grown whether you are buying the ‘high-inducer’ or ‘low-inducer’ Broccoli. The enzyme-inducing abilities of samples taken from 22 varieties of fresh and 7 brands of frozen mature Broccoli vary greatly. Only sophisticated scientific measurements can determine the concentrations.
But fresh Broccoli sprouts offer an alternative. One can get away with eating 10 to 100 times lower quantities. Three day old sprouts have the additional advantage that they’re far more uniform in their potency. Broccoli sprouts look and taste something like alfalfa sprouts, according to the researchers. The report also notes that small quantities of Broccoli sprout extracts markedly reduced the size of rat mammary tumors that were induced by chemical carcinogens.
The researchers refer to the concept of “chemoprotection” — deliberate efforts to increase the body’s own defense mechanisms to reduce susceptibility to carcinogens by administration of substances that can be precisely identified, and ideally, delivered in the diet. The interesting aspect of chemoprotection strategies is that they’re almost never organ-specific. Chemoprotection produces a general cancer protective effect which blocks multiple steps — a cascade of steps — that are common to cancer formation.
The Anti-Cancer Properties of Broccoli
Sulforaphane, a sulfur compound, has also been shown to kill cancer stem cells, thereby slowing tumor growth. Some researchers believe eliminating cancer stem cells may be key to controlling cancer.
This is something current chemotherapies cannot do, but food can! I have long touted the cancer busting power of broccoli; ever since studies in the mid-1990s showed that the broccoli compound glucoraphanin — a precursor to sulforaphane – boosts cell enzymes that protect against molecular damage from cancer-causing chemicals.9, 10
Studies have also found that sulforaphane normalizes DNA methylation 11—a process by which a methyl group (one carbon atom attached to three hydrogen atoms) is added to part of a DNA molecule. DNA methylation is a crucial part of normal cell function, allowing cells to “remember who they are and where they have been” and is important in regulating gene expression.
DNA methylation also suppresses the genes for things you don’t want, such as viral and other disease-related genes, and abnormal DNA methylation plays a critical role in the development of nearly all types of cancer.
The sulforaphane from broccoli plays a role in activating more than 200 different genes. Specifically, it appears that broccoli contains the necessary ingredients to switch ON genes that prevent cancer development, and switch OFF other ones that help it spread. And you don’t have to consume a truckload of broccoli to reap its benefits.
In fact, a 2008 study published in PLoS One12 found that just four servings of broccoli per week could protect men from prostate cancer. One serving of broccoli is about two spears, so that’s only 10 broccoli spears per week. In this study, the researchers collected tissue samples over the course of the study and found that the men who ate broccoli showed hundreds of beneficial changes in genes known to play a role in fighting cancer.
Sulforaphane Works on a Wide Variety of Cancers
Other researchers have looked at sulforaphane’s effect on breast cancer, and discovered that it hinders the growth of human breast cancer cells as well—at least in the laboratory. Here, they found that it does so by disrupting the action of protein microtubules within the cancer cells, which promote cell division and growth. Interestingly enough, certain cancer drugs also work in this manner. The upside of broccoli, of course, is that it doesn’t come with ANY of the side effects associated with synthetic drugs. Furthermore, as reported by PreventDisease.com13:
“Previous research has also proven that the compound blocks the formation of breast tumors in rats, and it can even force colon cancer cells to commit cell suicide. It seems that sulforaphane works its magic on the detoxification enzymes that try to defend the cancer-promoting substances.”
The interesting aspect of chemoprotection strategies is that they’re almost never organ-specific. Rather, chemoprotection produces a general cancer protective effect which blocks multiple steps — a cascade of steps — that are common to cancer formation. This is probably a reason why broccoli appears to work against a variety of different types of cancers.
Sprouts—An Even More Potent Alternative
As stated earlier, about 10 broccoli spears per week has been shown to offer protection against prostate cancer, which isn’t a whole lot, but research14 has shown that fresh broccoli sprouts are FAR more potent, allowing you to eat far less in terms of quantity. This is also an excellent alternative if you don’t like the taste (or smell) of broccoli. In terms of research, even small quantities of broccoli sprout extracts have been shown to markedly reduce the size of rat mammary tumors that were induced by chemical carcinogens. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University15:
“Three-day-old broccoli sprouts consistently contain 20 to 50 times the amount of chemoprotective compounds found in mature broccoli heads, and may offer a simple, dietary means of chemically reducing cancer risk.”
When compared to either broccoli or cauliflower, which also contains sulforaphane,16 three-day-old broccoli sprouts contain anywhere from 10 to 100 times higher levels of glucoraphanin, compared to the mature varieties. Best of all, you can grow broccoli sprouts at home quite easily and inexpensively. Another major benefit is that you don’t have to cook them. They are eaten raw, usually as an addition to salad.
Furthermore, if you opt for mature broccoli heads, it becomes more important to make sure you’re purchasing a variety of high potency.17 In tests, the chemoprotective abilities of samples from 22 varieties of fresh and seven brands of frozen mature broccoli varied greatly. Fresh broccoli sprouts, on the other hand, are far more uniform in their potency.
Interestingly, researchers have found that an extract of broccoli sprouts helps protect your skin from sun damage, which could potentially lead to skin cancer. According to Dr. Paul Talalay, a professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore:18
“Cells contain an elaborate network of protective genes that code for proteins that protect against four principal injurious processes to which all of our cells are exposed and which are the causes of cancer, degenerative disease and aging. Those four processes are: oxidation; DNA damage; inflammation and radiation, namely ultraviolet radiation. The cells’ protective system normally operates at about one-third capacity, so the real question is what would ramp up that system.
The highest doses of sulforaphane extract reduced UV-induced redness and inflammation (erythema) by an average of 37 percent, although protection varied from 8 percent to 78 percent. If you apply an extract of broccoli sprouts that contains high levels of sulforaphane to regions of human skin, you can protect them very substantially.” [Emphasis mine]
How to Grow Your Own Broccoli Sprouts
Broccoli sprouts look and taste similar to alfalfa sprouts, and are easily grown at home, even if you’re limited on space. I strongly recommend using organic seeds, and a pound of seeds will probably make over 10 pounds of sprouts. From the researcher’s calculations mentioned earlier, this can translate up to as much cancer protecting phytochemicals as 1,000 pounds (half a ton) of broccoli! This guide from SproutPeople is an excellent resource on how to grow. You can buy organic broccoli seeds from them as well as our favorite sprouter: the EasySprouter (very inexpensive, Amazon also sells). Watch the video below to see just how easy it is to grow a continual supply of broccoli sprout!
Your Diet Can Be a Powerful Cancer Prevention Tool
There’s little doubt that one of the best ways to improve your health is to make sure you’re eating plenty of fresh, organic vegetables, ideally locally-grown, with a majority of them consumed raw. Two of the easiest and most efficient ways to optimize your vegetable intake is to juice your vegetables and add sprouted seeds. Sprouting is undoubtedly one of the best ways to increase the nutritional content of your diet, as the sprouting process tends to increase nutrient content and bioavailability of those nutrients.
Sprouts—which again are eaten raw—also contain valuable enzymes that allow your body to absorb and use the nutrients of all other foods you eat as well. Some sprouts, like sunflower seeds, have up to 30 times the nutrient density of even home grown organic vegetables. I personally consume about 4-6 ounces of sunflower seed sprouts every day that I either grow at home or our team does in our office.
- 1 American Journal of Hypertension February 2012 2012 Feb;25(2):229-35
- 2 Preventdisease.com August 29, 2013
- 3 See ref 2
- 4 BBC News August 28, 2013
- 5 CNN Health August 29, 2013
- 6 See ref 4
- 7 Arthritis & Rheumatism 2013 Aug 27 [Epub ahead of print]
- 8 See ref 2
- 9 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences October 14, 1997 vol. 94 no. 21 11149-11151
- 10 Johns Hopkins University September 15, 1997
- 11 Nature 2008
- 12 PLoS One 2008 Jul 2;3(7):e2568
- 13 See ref 2
- 14 Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1997 September 16; 94(19): 10367–10372
- 15 See ref 10
- 16 See ref 14
- 17 Horticultural Science 40(l):50-53. 2005 (PDF)
- 18 See ref 2
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