A look at research showing how broccoli targets cancerous cells and spares those that are healthy.
By Joseph Olejak, DC
The journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research reported that sulforaphane, one of the primary phytochemicals in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables that helps them prevent cancer, has been shown for the first time to selectively target and kill cancer cells while leaving normal prostate cells healthy and unaffected.1
What was remarkable about this discovery is that it showed prostate tumor growth was slowed by a diet containing sulforaphane and that “sulforaphane can target cancer cells through multiple chemopreventive mechanisms.” This study showed for the first time that “sulforaphane selectively targets benign hyperplasia cells and cancerous prostate cells while leaving the normal prostate cells unaffected.” What this points to is the innate intelligence in plant compounds; no pharmaceutical or isolated nutraceutical can do that.
In a similar study published in 2011 in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association,2 brassica vegetables (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli) were shown to be associated with decreased risk of colon cancers.
The researchers at Oregon State University found that sulforaphane, which is found at fairly high levels in broccoli, cauliflower, and other cruciferous vegetables, is an inhibitor of an enzyme that plays a role in whether certain genes are expressed or not, such as tumor suppressor genes.
This intriguing news comes on the heels of other reports about cruciferous vegetables that demonstrate they are proven cancer-fighting foods.
One study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign3 found that pairing fresh broccoli with a spicy vegetable that contains the enzyme myrosinase significantly enhances each food’s individual cancer-fighting power and ensures that absorption takes place in the upper part of the digestive system, where a patient will get the maximum health benefit.
What are those foods? Radishes, cabbage, arugula, watercress, and Brussels sprouts, which all boost the benefits found in broccoli. The study noted that these benefits are only conferred if the vegetables are eaten raw or lightly steamed. The more broccoli is cooked, the more these fragile phytonutrients are damaged. If the broccoli is cooked to mush, it is of virtually no nutritional use.
Do supplements made of isolated nutraceuticals have the same effect in the body as whole foods? In another study that looked at supplements that only contained sulphoraphane (i.e., did not have nutrients from other parts of the broccoli plant), the Oregon State University researchers discovered that it was not well absorbed and, as a result, not well utilized.4
This points to the enormous value of eating whole foods and, when possible, using whole-food supplements. When choosing a cruciferous product, look to where care has been taken to grow plants organically and to preserve the entire plant in the supplement.
The potential that whole foods and whole food supplements have to nourish our bodies should be readily apparent. They turn on our genes and amplify our ability to fight cancer. Maybe, as Servan-Schreiber described in his book Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life,5 we don’t have cancer genes, but rather “fast-food intolerant genes.” We can build an anti-cancer biology with the food we eat three times a day.
Joseph Olejak, DC, is an applied clinical nutritionist with 23 years’ clinical practice. He has been speaking on nutrition and public health since 2002. He is the co-author of Synergistic Therapeutics: Herbs and Whole Food Nutrition for 50 Common Ailments. He developed the whole food nutrition certification course currently being taught at New York Chiropractic College, Logan College of Chiropractic, and other chiropractic colleges. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1Clarke DJ, Hsu A, Yu Z, Dashwood RH, Ho E. Differential effects of sulforaphane on histone deacetylases, cell cycle arrest and apoptosis in normal prostate cells versus hyperplastic and cancerous prostate cells. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2011;55(7):999-1009.
2Annema N, Heyworth JS, McNaughton SA, Iacopetta B, Fritschi L. Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and the Risk of Proximal Colon, Distal Colon, and Rectal Cancers in a Case- Control Study in Western Australia. J Am Diet Assoc. 2011;111(10):1479-90.
3Cramer JM, Teran-Garcia M, Jeffery EH. Enhancing sulforaphane absorption and excretion in healthy men through the combined consumption of fresh broccoli sprouts and a glucoraphanin-rich powder. Br J Nutr. 2011; 9(13):1-6.
4Clarke JD, Riedl K, Bella D, et al. Comparison of Isothiocyanate Metabolite Levels and Histone Deacetylase Activity in Human Subjects Consuming Broccoli Sprouts or Broccoli Supplement. J Agric Food Chem. 2011; 59(20):10955-63.
5Servan-Schreiber D. (2009). Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life. (pg. 23). New York: Viking.