Sulforaphane – Why And How To Eat Every Day
One of my passions as a Functional Medicine doctor is helping my patients get to the root cause of their health concerns. I see many people who’ve been to numerous doctors with no answers and have been told that their labs are “normal,” when clearly they are experiencing fatigue, headaches, digestive symptoms and more.
As a health detective, when there are no obvious answers, we need to go deeper and look at chronic infections, toxin exposures, hormones and other areas of health that conventional medicine might not consider.
I often find high levels of various toxins in lab work in my patient population. It’s not a surprise given how many toxins are in the environment, a topic I write about often on my blog.
Whether it’s heavy meals, endocrine disrupting chemicals from flame retardants or cookware, pesticides in food, mold, or even air and water pollution, the burden takes a toll on the body’s detoxification systems. Many need detoxification support depending on their genetics or epigenetic factors.
I truly believe that food is powerful medicine. Sulforaphane is one of the many particular compounds in food that is a great example. It is an incredible ally when it comes to detoxification and other systems in the body. Let’s dive into sulforaphane and how to begin incorporating it into your life, easily and deliciously.
In this article, you will learn more about:
- What sulforaphane is
- Health benefits of sulforaphane
- Sulforaphane’s role in detoxification
- Food sources of sulforaphane
- How to make broccoli sprouts at home
I’m so excited to share this topic with you – let’s dive in!
What Is Sulforaphane?
Sulforaphane is a sulfur-containing compound found in cruciferous (Brassica family) vegetables including broccoli, cabbage cauliflower and brussels sprouts. It’s categorized as an isothiocyanate.
When a storage form called glucoraphanin interacts with an enzyme called myrosinase in these plants, through cutting, chewing or other methods of breaking the cell walls, sulforaphane is formed.
Sulforaphane is the active component to which many health benefits are attributed.
Sulforaphane is one of the most potent antioxidants and detoxifiers. Sulforaphane tells our DNA, through the Nrf2 pathway, to activate genes that produce antioxidants, including glutathione, and detoxification enzymes. Sulforaphane isn’t an antioxidant itself, but the antioxidant protection it promotes lasts for days!
The Nrf2 pathway in the body is described as the “activator of cellular defenses” or the “master redox switch” and sulforaphane is a powerful activator. It may even be more powerful than common compounds with similar effects including curcumin (from turmeric), silymarin (from milk thistle) and resveratrol (from red wine).
Health Benefits Of Sulforaphane
Sulforaphane benefits are far reaching. Because of its actions on the Nrf2 pathway as discussed, sulforaphane has been shown to reduce oxidative stress, increase antioxidant capacity, support glutathione synthesis, improve mitochondrial function, and reduce inflammation.
These are the reasons that sulforaphane is a hot research topic with studies popping up all the time examining the use of sulforaphane for many conditions.
Sulforaphane and Brain Health
Sulforaphane is considered neuroprotective and is a “nootropic” or brain-boosting compound. Initial research, largely looking at animal models, suggests that sulforaphane may be effective as part of an overall treatment protocol for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions.
In one study in patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder, those receiving sulforaphane instead of placebo experienced great improvements in behavior, including a 34 percent improvement in scores on the Aberrant Behavior Checklist and 17 percent improvement on the Social Responsiveness Scale.
Sulforaphane and Cancer
Sulforaphane has many actions making it a desirable compound for cancer researchers. Sulforaphane has been shown to be chemoprotective, meaning it can help protect or heal healthy tissue from cancer treatments. In addition, sulforaphane might help with apoptosis, the immune system process that flags and eliminates cancerous cells. Sulforaphane also inhibits a pathway called NF-kB, an inflammatory pathway in cells.
Some cancers, including certain breast cancers, have a hormonal component. Sulforaphane helps to support healthy estrogen detoxification in the liver by pushing estrogen metabolites down a non-cancerous pathway. In breast cancer, sulforaphane helps to restore the estrogen receptors on cells.
The DUTCH Panel test is an important lab test for looking at estrogen metabolism in the body, whether you are at risk for breast cancer or are experiencing any symptoms of high estrogen or other hormone imbalances. I use this frequently in my practice and can be a good tool for assessing if sulforaphane is a good fit for you.
Sulforaphane and Heart Health
Largely because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions, via the activation of the Nrf2 pathways, sulforaphane has been shown to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. Often heart disease is related to high blood pressure, inflammation in the arteries, obesity and diabetes, all of which benefit from increased antioxidant levels in the body.
Sulforaphane and Digestive Health
Sulforaphane may play a role in protecting the mucosal lining of the digestive tract from damage caused by infections including H. Pylori and the use of NSAID medications, which can damage the gut. In both mice and humans with H. Pylori, sulforaphane showed a protective effect by inhibiting the growth of this bacteria.
Sulforaphane And Detox
Detoxification is a body process that happens naturally, yet in today’s world is something we need to be thinking about supporting on a daily basis. I think about this in terms of both reducing the toxin exposures we can control as well as by supporting the body’s ability to clear the toxins with practices like saunas, hydration and specific foods. You can learn more about detoxification and how to detox here.
Sulforaphane and other isothiocyanates strongly induce detoxification enzymes, especially in Phase 2 of the liver detoxification process. They not only help to clear natural estrogens from the body, but also many other chemical compounds often referred to as xenobiotics because they are foreign to the body.
One study showed an increased urinary excretion of air pollutants from drinking a broccoli sprout based, and sulforaphane-rich beverage.
Sulforaphane is exclusive to cruciferous veggies and I often recommend one or more servings per day to reap the benefits. Here are some to include in your diet:
- Bok choy
- Broccoli rabe
- Broccoli sprouts
- Brussels sprouts
- Chinese cabbage
- Collard greens
- Daikon radish
- Mustard greens
To capitalize on the effects of sulforaphane, these vegetables are best eaten raw or lightly steamed to preserve this component. You can also chop or massage (as in the case of a massaged kale salad or coleslaw for example) these vegetables and then let them sit for a few minutes prior to consuming in order to allow the enzymatic reaction to occur that produces the sulforaphane. Good chewing also helps. Be sure to check out my recipes for lots of delicious cruciferous vegetable dishes.
Broccoli sprouts by far contain the highest concentration of glucoraphanin, and therefore sulforaphane, than the other vegetables on this list. Three day old sprouts contain up to 100 times higher levels of sulforaphane than mature plants, meaning you can eat a smaller amount of sprouts to get a therapeutic effect. When consumed daily, a quarter cup is a good place to start.
How To Make Broccoli Sprouts
Broccoli sprouts are often available at natural food stores and even farmers markets, so this is a great option for many. However, making your own broccoli sprouts at home is quite easy and also economical. Plus, you get to consume them at their freshest for greater health benefits.
This is a fun way to do some indoor gardening and get fresh sprouts throughout the year, but especially in the winter when other options might be less available. It’s a great project for kids too. I truly believe that if they grow it, they will eat it! (Or at least be more likely to try it.)
Makes: about 4 cups of broccoli sprouts
Ingredients and equipment:
- A wide mouthed quart canning jar with a sprouting lid (you can easily make your own lid by cutting a piece of wire mesh to fit the top of the jar and securing it with the ring part of the canning jar lid)
- 2 tablespoons organic broccoli seeds for sprouting
- Filtered water
- A little patience
- Place the seeds in the jar and cover them with filtered water about halfway up the jar. Let the seeds soak on the counter overnight.
- The next morning, drain the water off. Flip the jar over and set it in a bowl to catch any drips. Make sure the jar is at an angle so there is good air circulation. Place in a warm, dark place such as inside a kitchen cabinet.
- A few times each day, rinse the seeds with filtered water and fully drain the jar. Return to the dark place.
- After 2-3 days the sprouts will have yellow leaves and will be about an inch long or so. Transfer the bowl and jar to a windowsill where the sprouts will be exposed to sunlight and begin to green up. Keep rinsing the sprouts a few times each day until they are mature and ready to eat.
- Store extra sprouts in the fridge and get another jar started so you always have a supply on hand. Broccoli sprouts may be added to salads, sandwiches, smoothies or any dish for some added texture, flavor and sulforaphane.
I hope you’ll try adding more cruciferous veggies, including broccoli sprouts, to your diet and let me know what you notice! If you were already a fan of these bitter and health promoting vegetables, sulforaphane is just another reason to always have some in your fridge.
You’ll truly be using food as your medicine to increase antioxidants and support detoxification in a beautifully simple and delicious way.
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