If Miracle Foods Exist, This Is Definitely One (You’ve Never Heard Of)

TOP LINE

TV doctors and celebrities have made many claims about “miracle foods” -- but the one food that comes closest is also probably the one food you have never heard of. Broccoli Sprouts have potent anticancer and antioxidant qualities that affect the heart, liver, kidneys, blood, brain, eyes, and immune system.

Why It Matters

Hate eating vegetables? This true “miracle food” is not only amazing in its positive health effects, but what is arguably more amazing is just how little of it you need in order to get them. Just a quarter cup of broccoli sprouts seems to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and liver failure.

Key Takeaways

  1. Sulforaphane is the compound with incredible health benefits found in broccoli sprouts. 
  2. Sulforaphane primarily fights cancer by slowing cancer cells’ growth. It also lowers cholesterol levels, improves insulin sensitivity, improves liver function, protects the eyes and brain, and seems to have a positive effect on overall immune function. 
  3. Broccoli sprouts have approximately 20 to 50 times the amount of chemoprotective compounds found in mature broccoli. 
  4. Chop broccoli sprouts before cooking them to increase the amount of sulforaphane. 
  5. Broccoli sprouts should be grown at home -- and are easy to grow.
Broccoli sprouts in a glass dish with broccoli fleurets on a white plate.

Is there anything that may drastically improve your health without any negative side effects? Yes: broccoli sprouts. 

Broccoli sprouts are three- to four-day-old baby broccoli plants that are similar in appearance to alfalfa sprouts, but with a different taste. They’re inexpensive and easy to grow yourself -- which you should do (more on that below). They can be eaten in a salad, as a topping for virtually any food, or even blended into a smoothie. 

Broccoli sprouts owe most of their health benefits to a compound called sulforaphane.

Sulforaphane is a sulphur rich compound found in the cruciferous vegetable family which includes broccoli, cabbage, kale, brussel sprouts, bok choy, cauliflower, mustard greens, and collard greens.

Sulforaphane and Cancer 

Sulforaphane is a super-potent anticancer compound, disrupting the way cancer grows and spreads in the body, stops cancer’s corruption of our genes, and has shown particular promise in liver, skin, prostate, and breast cancer. (1)

 Disrupting Cancer’s “Communication”

Cancer is an abnormal growth of cells that are often capable of growing and dividing uncontrollably. In some cases, cancer cells communicate with healthy cells using enzymes to help silence our defenses. Three hours after eating a cup of broccoli sprouts, these enzymes are suppressed in the bloodstream. (2)

Stopping Cancer’s Genetic Changes

Cancer also causes changes in gene expression, or the way DNA functions in our bodies. 

Think of DNA as a panel of light switches and dimmers to control a room’s lights. Every person is born with a specific set of “switches and dimmers,” our DNA. However, based on changes in internal and external environments, these switches may turn on or off, and the dimmers may grow brighter or darker. Our DNA doesn’t change, but how it is expressed in the body does. 

Everything from exercise, to stress levels, to diet -- and disease, like cancer -- affect these “switches and dimmers.”

Even in the presence of these changes to genetic expression caused by cancer, sulforaphane exerts its anticancer effects by reversing these genetic modifications. (3) 

Specific Benefits for Certain Cancers

Sulforaphane has also shown potential benefits for breast cancer, prostate cancer, skin cancer, and liver cancer. 

Breast Cancer. At a dose of just ¼ cup of broccoli sprouts per day, sulforaphane can reduce breast cancer stem cells’ ability to form tumors (4). 

Prostate Cancer. Prostate cancer (aside from non-melanoma skin cancer) is the most prevalent form of cancer for men in the United States (5). Less than a single serving a day of cruciferous vegetables per day may cut the rate of prostate cancer progression in half (6). 

Skin Cancer. Sulforaphane has a combinatory effect with drugs in controlling skin cancer growth; it doesn’t kill skin cancer cells, but prevents further growth (7).

Liver Cancer. Sulforaphane caused a slowdown in the spread of liver cancer cells and disrupted their growth. Due to this effect, sulforaphane will be an interesting topic of research in the future as a preventative mechanism against liver cancer (8). 

Sulforaphane, Liver Function, and Inflammation 

Not only does sulforaphane have a positive effect on liver cancer, but it has benefits well before cancer develops, increasing liver function and reducing inflammation. 

The liver acts as a detoxifier of the blood, converting toxins into waste products, and metabolizes nutrients and drugs. For example, after eating broccoli and brussel sprouts, an individual's liver function is increased such that they clear caffeine from their bloodstream far faster than normal -- meaning they would need to drink more caffeine to get the same effect as usual.

A prevailing idea in the medical community is that carcinogens from cooked meats may increase the risk of cancer. When testing carcinogen content from individuals that consumed cooked meats, broccoli sprout consumption reduces the amount of carcinogens found in subjects' urine, meaning their livers filtered more from the bloodstream. This liver enhancing function appears to last even two weeks after subjects stopped consuming cruciferous vegetables (9). 

Beyond protecting from possible carcinogens we ingest, sulforaphane can protect us from the things we do as well. 

While exercise is one of the most important things you can do for overall health and reducing risk of mortality, exercise still induces stress on the body and causes inflammation. A new study showing sulforaphane’s effects on protecting the liver from exercise induced inflammation by increasing the activity of the liver’s antioxidant defense enzymes (10). 

This exercise-related protective effect doesn’t seem to be limited to just the liver. A similar reduction in inflammation (oxidative stress) on skeletal muscle after exhaustive exercise was seen in rats with sulforaphane treatment (11). 

In addition to the liver and skeletal muscle, the beneficial effects of sulforaphane on reducing oxidative stress have been found in various tissues throughout the body, such as the brain, kidneys, and heart (12). 


Sulforaphane’s Effect on Cholesterol and Diabetes 

Having high LDL cholesterol levels is considered to be a significant risk factor for heart disease (13). 

When healthy subjects consumed 100g of broccoli sprouts per day for one week, they experienced a decrease in both total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, and an increase in HDL cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol. Subjects also exhibited decreased markers of oxidative stress (inflammation) in their bloodstream (14). 

In Type 2 diabetic patients, four weeks of 10g/day of broccoli sprouts resulted in a significant decrease in serum insulin concentration (blood sugar levels). 

Another study analyzing the effects of broccoli sprout supplementation on symptoms of Type 2 diabetes noted decreased insulin resistance and oxidative stress. 

Sulforaphane also may result in a reduction of diabetic complications such as vascular issues, kidney problems, and fibrosis (scarring of tissue) (17).  

Brain, Eye, and Immune Function 

Sulforaphane is being researched for its beneficial effects on preserving brain function. Sulforaphane protects against inflammation in and injury to the brain and helps prevent chronic neurodegeneration (18). 

BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is a protein found in the brain that helps the survival of nerve cells by controlling their growth, development, and function. In mice models of Alzheimer's, sulforaphane enhanced the expression of BDNF (19). 

This means something as simple as adding ¼ cup of broccoli sprouts to your daily diet may protect existing brain cells and encourage the growth of new ones. 

While Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other diseases that affect the brain have no known cures or drugs to treat them, it is possible that sulforaphane shows promise. 

Sulforaphane has so many effects on various tissues in the body and for the sake of brevity in this article, it's difficult to touch upon them all. Let’s wrap up by touching upon sulforaphane’s benefits on immune function and eye health. 

Broccoli sprouts may provide a boost to the immune system, as consumption seems to enhance the antiviral response of immune cells in humans (20).  Although only studied in a petri dish, sulforaphane inhibited 23 out of 28 tested bacterial and fungal species (21). As of now, sulforaphane has promising antiviral components stemming from influenza to hepatitis C, but will need further research on live animal models to determine its antibacterial and antifungal properties (22). 

When it comes to eye health, we all think of Vitamin A and eating carrots, but because of sulforaphane’s antioxidative properties, it can protect the human lens cells of the eyes against oxidative stress. This may prove beneficial to all individuals, and especially those that are at risk of cataract (23). 

How to Prepare Broccoli Sprouts for Maximal Effect 

Sulforaphane must be converted into its active form by an enzyme called myrosinase. This enzyme is activated when the broccoli tissue is crushed or chewed. 

If broccoli or broccoli sprouts are cooked before cutting, the enzyme is deactivated and not as much sulforaphane will be formed (24). 

To maximize the amount of sulforaphane in cooked broccoli sprouts, first chop the broccoli sprouts and then wait 40 minutes before cooking. 

Do Broccoli Sprout Supplements Work? 

As with most supplements, it’s best to consume the nutrient from its source. Since most broccoli sprout supplements lack the enzyme necessary for the conversion of its precursor into sulforaphane, supplements do not have the same effects as whole broccoli sprouts (27). 

However, one study did show benefits on liver function using a broccoli sprout extract (28).  

Bottom line is, since you don’t know the source, safety, or effectiveness of the product when purchasing supplements, it’s best to consume whole broccoli sprouts. 

Are Broccoli Sprouts Safe? 

Sulforaphane has been studied extensively and it’s been concluded to be safe and non-toxic (29). 

There is an upper threshold where this begins to change, around four or more cups of broccoli sprouts per day (30). 

Broccoli sprouts are grown in warm, humid environments and because of this, have a high risk of contamination. Be careful when purchasing sprouts in stores and make sure they are refrigerated. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) recommends cooking sprouts before consuming to reduce risk of contamination. 

If growing broccoli sprouts at home yourself, which is not only recommended, but incredibly easy to do, store them in the fridge once they're grown. 

Bottom Line 

Sulforaphane is a hot topic of research in the scientific community. It will be interesting to see the developments discovered about its effects on cancer, liver function, diabetes, cardiovascular health, and more in the years to come. In the meantime, order a broccoli sprout grow kit and seeds, and start eating what seems to be a true “miracle food.” 

Andrew Malkiel, MSc 

References 

  1. Su, Xuling, et al. "Anticancer activity of sulforaphane: the epigenetic mechanisms and the Nrf2 signaling pathway." Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity 2018 (2018).
  2. Myzak, Melinda C., et al. "Sulforaphane retards the growth of human PC-3 xenografts and inhibits HDAC activity in human subjects." Experimental biology and medicine 232.2 (2007): 227-234.
  3. Su, Xuling, et al. "Anticancer activity of sulforaphane: the epigenetic mechanisms and the Nrf2 signaling pathway." Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity 2018 (2018). 
  4. Li, Yanyan, et al. "Sulforaphane, a dietary component of broccoli/broccoli sprouts, inhibits breast cancer stem cells." Clinical Cancer Research 16.9 (2010): 2580-2590.
  5. “Prostate Cancer Statistics.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 May 2019, www.cdc.gov/cancer/prostate/statistics/index.htm.
  6. Richman, Erin L., Peter R. Carroll, and June M. Chan. "Vegetable and fruit intake after diagnosis and risk of prostate cancer progression." International journal of cancer 131.1 (2012): 201-210.
  7. Chiang, Tung-Chin et al. “Effect of Sulforaphane and 5-Aza-2'-Deoxycytidine on Melanoma Cell Growth.” Medicines (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 6,3 71. 27 Jun. 2019, doi:10.3390/medicines6030071 
  8. Sato, Shinya, et al. Sulforaphane Inhibits Liver Cancer Cell Growth and Angiogenesis. Diss. iMedPub LTD, 2018.
  9. Murray, Stephen, et al. "Effect of cruciferous vegetable consumption on heterocyclic aromatic amine metabolism in man." Carcinogenesis 22.9 (2001): 1413-1420.
  10. Ruhee, Ruheea Taskin, Sihui Ma, and Katsuhiko Suzuki. "Protective Effects of Sulforaphane on Exercise-Induced Organ Damage via Inducing Antioxidant Defense Responses." Antioxidants 9.2 (2020): 136.
  11. Malaguti, Marco, et al. "Sulforaphane treatment protects skeletal muscle against damage induced by exhaustive exercise in rats." Journal of Applied Physiology 107.4 (2009): 1028-1036.
  12. Guerrero-Beltrán, Carlos Enrique, et al. "Protective effect of sulforaphane against oxidative stress: recent advances." Experimental and Toxicologic Pathology 64.5 (2012): 503-508 
  13. “High Blood Cholesterol, What You Need to Know .” Nih.gov , 2005, www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/public/heart/wyntk.pdf .
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  18. Tarozzi, Andrea, et al. "Sulforaphane as a potential protective phytochemical against neurodegenerative diseases." Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity 2013 (2013).
  19. Kim, Jisung, et al. "Sulforaphane epigenetically enhances neuronal BDNF expression and TrkB signaling pathways." Molecular nutrition & food research 61.2 (2017): 1600194.
  20. Müller, Loretta, et al. "Effect of broccoli sprouts and live attenuated influenza virus on peripheral blood natural killer cells: A randomized, double-blind study." PloS one 11.1 (2016).
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  22. Yu, Jung-Sheng, et al. "Sulforaphane suppresses hepatitis C virus replication by up-regulating heme oxygenase-1 expression through PI3K/Nrf2 pathway." PloS one 11.3 (2016).
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