My Broccoli Mantra
I eat broccoli every day. No, it’s not because I’m a glutton for punishment, or that I’ve been proselytized from years of working in nutrition. I hope that after reading this, you will also learn to love it too for its extensive complexity. Maybe you already do, and just need a little nudge to eat it more. I promise you, some of the science I’m going to reveal will make you want to eat it on a daily basis too.
You’ve seen broccoli in the headlines before as a health food, but don’t stop reading because of that. We’ve all heard it is called a super food, but if you are like me, you have gotten wary of headlines about any food-related topic in the news. But broccoli isn’t hype. It is also not a cash cow for some industry, so the science behind it isn’t very prone to monetary persuasion.
Broccoli Complexity Is Off The Charts
Brassica is the class of plants that broccoli lives in, and 100s plants in this family share some common characteristics. Stick with me here, we are going to get into some of the science of brassica. The medicinal qualities of broccoli are vast.
I’ll go into the cardiovascular, anti-aging, anti-cancer, brain benefits, and detoxification reasons you also should be having Brassica foods every day too. I will explain how to best incorporate them into your diet painlessly as well.
Before reading this, you probably knew that broccoli is nutritious because it has vitamin C, fiber, and vitamin K. Not to diminish these fine nutrients, but there is some serious power in two classes of compounds in the brassica family called sulforaphane and indoles. This is where many of the medicinal effects come in. of this truly powerful plant and family of brassica.
What is Sulforaphane?
Sulforaphane in broccoli is a form of isothiocyanate, and this substance has potent anti-cancer effects; it is present exclusively in raw broccoli and broccoli sprouts.
So, if you are looking for sulforaphane benefits, stick with raw. This compound makes one of the most potent antioxidants in the body called glutathione.
Sulforaphane purposefully improves detoxification enzymes in the body and turns on an anti-aging gene known as NRF2.
NRF2 is fascinating as it plays a key role in reducing many of the chronic diseases we suffer from today, including cancer and autoimmune diseases.
Up and coming research on sulforaphane is showing impressive results for potentially reducing chances of type 1 diabetes, memory loss, and also mitigating autism. It has potent anti-inflammatory effects and can dampen down the grand-daddy of all inflammatory substances in the body called NF-kB.
Inflammation plays a role in neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular disorders, cancer, and autoimmune disorders to name a few, and NF-kB has been linked to all of these diseases. Some impressive pre-clinical work is showing benefits of sulforaphane in glioblastoma, bladder cancer, colon cancer, and breast cancer, but what is certain is that high intakes of sulforaphane are linked to low rates of all of these diseases of aging.
It also appears to help protect the liver and kidney from toxic exposures, and increases the function of liver enzymes to promote detoxification of pollutants.
If you don’t think you are exposed to pollutants, you need to check your denial radar.
Sulforaphane is especially high in broccoli sprouts, at over 1100 mg/100 grams of sprouts. In contrast, raw broccoli has 150 mg/100 grams.
You might consider broccoli sprouts a new and healthy snack food in your diet; they are inexpensive and sold in little to-go containers in many supermarkets.
*Sulforaphane has synergistic effects with foods like mustard and turmeric, so enjoy raw broccoli sprouts with some mustard or spiced vinaigrette.
Broccoli Hormone Benefits
Another powerful compound family in Brassica is called indoles. You may see indoles on broccoli supplement labels called indole-3-carbinol (I3C) or diindolylmethane (DIM).
Yes, you can supplement broccoli sprouts for sulforaphane, but the fresh plants are humble and don’t sport labels.
These compounds called indoles have the ability to keep estrogen balance in the body, and more importantly, detoxify the hormone pathway, making estrogens less carcinogenic.
Indoles also positively affect insulin and growth factors, both part of the complex mileu that affects growth of cancers in general, as well as other diseases of aging like heart disease.
Indoles also help keep testosterone balance healthy, keeping testosterone from converting into estrogen. They have numerous anticancer effects.
The hormonal balancing act of Brassica is thought to be the reason that they reduce some of the most common kinds of cancer, including colon, prostate and breast cancer.
Indoles in Brassica also seem to reduce the chances of cervical dysplasia, and may be helpful in chronic pain situations such as fibromyalgia.
Let’s break it down the details of hormones a bit next.
What is Estrogen?
Estrogen is actually a family of hormones: estradiol, estrone, and estriol. And yes, men, you have estrogen too, and are sensitive to its graces and ravages.
Many tissues besides sex organs have estrogen receptors, including colon, breasts, heart, bladder, liver, brain, and skin.
Only unbound estrogen circulates in the blood, and has activity on specific tissues such as those listed above. Estrogen is metabolized, or changed in the body as well, and this is where broccoli comes in to change your hormonal environment. Some estrogen metabolites become carcinogenic and toxic, while others become protective.
A Close Look at Broccoli Hormone Effects
The estrogen forms called 16a OH Estrone and 4-OH Estrone, are thought to be carcinogenic.
However, not all estrogen is bad. Estradiol metabolites known as 2-OH Estradiol and 2-OH Estrone, have protective benefits, and seem to counteract “bad” estrogen. 16a OH Estrone levels are high in cases of breast, ovarian, cervix, uterine and other hormone-sensitive cancers, while 2-OH Estrone levels are low.
Levels of the dangerous estrogen metabolite are also higher in women suffering from PMS and perimenopause.
Brassica indoles help the body produce more of the “good” estrogen 2-OH estrone, and thereby improving the ratio of good to bad estrogen.
Estrogen metabolites like 16a OH Estrone may contribute to pain, or more importantly, broccoli sprouts (indoles/sulforaphane) may reduce symptoms of pain in a new research study.
This is where pain (or lack of) can be your guide to better health, at least in a logical sense.
If you supplement with broccoli extract, and/or start eating hearty portions of sturdy Brassica every day, and your pain decreases with hormonal cycling, it is a possible sign that you are making more protective estrogen.
That is, you will be increasing the 2-OH Estrone variety, and helping to clear the toxic types of estrogen. Of course, you could always have a functional medicine practitioner check these levels for you.
While we know that certain genes favor 16a OH Estrone, insulin and growth factors play a BIG role in cancer growth.
Indoles from Brassica have the ability to favorably alter hormonal cell signalling of insulin and growth factors, making it a very promising therapy for estrogen sensitive tissues, but also for diseases where insulin is known to cause damage like diabetes and heart disease.
I wish the American Cancer Society’s or American Heart Association’s logo was a broccoli sprout. We need to start talking about prevention, not just new drugs. Seriously.
Watch out for xenoestrogens; these are estrogen mimickers, wreaking havoc in the body, and they are known to disrupt hormone activities in the body.
Where do they live? In processed foods rich in vegetable oils, sugary foods, herbicides, pesticides, hormonally injected livestock, household cleaning products, plastics, food additives, and cosmetics.
Stress confers a more toxic hormonal mix in the body, so find ways to find peace and joy in your daily life. See my blog called Where Is My Mind for a personal journey of my own, and ways to relieve emotions.
Did you order your broccoli yet?
By helping with estrogen balance, indoles also likely help with other painful female issues like PCOS and endometriosis, fibromyalgia, and painful periods.
The choice to supplement or not may depend on your baseline diet, or how much you are willing to try if you are suffering.
The choice was an easy one for me after I bought my first bottle of broccoli sprout extracts years ago.
They really did help me feel better, even though I ate a lot of Brassica. I eat way more of Brassica today than I did back then, and considering the amount of estrogen-mimicking chemicals in the environment, and broccoli’s ability to break these down, the choice became clear, at least for me.
If you do choose to supplement broccoli extracts, you will know a bottle of it when you smell it. It has a very characteristic, strong scent (translation: pungent) of broccoli. There is certainly some quality assurance in the fact that if it smells like it, it probably is potent.
Let’s face it. We live in a world of hormonal-driven diseases, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer, and many would argue that cardiovascular disease is rooted in hormonal imbalance. What is a balance, and how do we obtain it?
First, and foremost, ditch synthetic additives in foods and packaged garbage as much as possible. Next, give your body the tools it needs to have healthy hormones.
Indole Content of Foods
- Brussel Sprouts, at 104mg per 44g (half cup)
- Garden Cress, 98mg at 25g (half cup)
- Mustard Greens, 79mg at 28g (half cup, chopped)
- Turnip, 60mg at 65g (half cup, cubes)
- Kale, 67mg per 67g (1 cup, chopped)
- Kohlrabi, 31mg per 67g (half cup, chopped)
- Red Cabbage, 29mg per 45g (half cup, chopped)
- Broccoli, 27mg per 44g (half cup, chopped)
- Horseradish, 24mg per 15g (tablespoon)
- Cauliflower, 22mg per 50g (half-cup chopped)
- Choy, 19mg per 35g (half cup, chopped)
*Indoles are derived from a broader class of compounds called glucosinolates. This is a partial list of glucosinolate content of various Brassicas. Source: McNaughton et al.
Cooking Broccoli Tips and General Eating Guidelines
Indoles become inactive after even a short window of cooking. To be technically accurate, a few seconds of cooking it can actually make it more active, but most recipes don’t lend themselves to this method of preparation.
Cooking the vegetable, even microwaving or boiling, will dramatically reduce the indole content of Brassica. To keep it simple, eat it raw and eat it up! Put some mustard and spices or lemon dressing on it. i
Do you get bloated when eating broccoli? This may be a sign you have a leaky gut; stay tuned for one of my future blogs to find out how to best deal with this.
As a rule, gradually increase the levels of Brassica in your diet so that you don’t have excess bloating.
I believe eating should be enjoyable but also purposeful.
Take a look at the food you are eating next time, and say to yourself, what is this giving me for my health? This makes it easier to say no to Dairy Queen and say yes to real foods like broccoli. You may learn you feel so much better that it becomes part of your daily routine too.
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Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 20 years, has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. Has researched supplements and plants as medicine throughout her career. Loves helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.