Sulforaphane (SFN) is a plant compound. It is present in Brassica vegetables family (cruciferous vegetables) like broccoli. As an isothiocyanate, SFN contains sulfur.
In broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, it is in the inactive form called glucoraphanin. Glucoraphanin belongs to the glucosinolate family of plant-based compounds.
When glucoraphanin (sulforaphane precursor) comes in contact with the enzyme myrosinase, sulforaphane becomes active. Like many other plant substances, sulforaphane has a wide range of benefits and positive effects. Lower cancer risk is one of them.
In this post, we discuss reasons to consume more sulforaphane, especially through vegetables such as broccoli. Read on to learn more.
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Cancer and cruciferous vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables are abundant in various nutrients.
These include vitamins C, E, K, and folate, minerals, and several carotenoids such as beta-carotene, zeaxanthin, and lutein. At the same time, these vegetables are a good source of fiber. Besides these nutrients, cruciferous veggies contain the above-mentioned glucosinolates.
When you prepare, chew, and digest these foods, the body breaks down glucosinolates into biologically active compounds such as:
- Isothiocyanate sulforaphane
Of these compounds, indoles and isothiocyanates are most widely studied for anti-cancer effects. Sulforaphane belongs to the latter.
These particular compounds in cruciferous vegetables have the potential to inhibit the formation of cancer in several organs such as the bladder, colon, breast, liver, stomach, and lung. They could also help prevent or inhibit pancreatic cancer.
Sulforaphane and indoles in cruciferous vegetables exhibit anti-cancer effects through several mechanisms. These mechanisms are:
- Protecting cells from DNA damage
- Inducing cell cycle arrest and apoptosis (cell death)
- Inactivating carcinogens
- Anti-inflammatory effect
- Antiviral and antibacterial properties
- Inhibiting angiogenesis (blood vessel formation) and tumor cell migration (necessary for metastasis)
What The Research Says
Research primarily focused on animals. Studies on humans are not as common. The current evidence on cruciferous vegetables shows promising results in reducing cancer risk.
For example, a study from the Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention found that intake of cruciferous vegetables can indeed lower prostate cancer risk. These findings are of huge importance. Why? Numbers show about one in eight men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at one point in his lifetime. Also, about one in 41 men will die of prostate cancer. Compounds from these vegetables could also act on prostate cancer cells.
Cruciferous vegetables can reduce the risk of other cancers too.
In one study from the Netherlands, women who had a high intake of these vegetables were less likely to develop colon cancer.
Additionally, evidence also shows women who eat at least five servings of cruciferous vegetables a week are at a lower risk of lung cancer.
More studies are necessary to determine how these vegetables act on colon cancer cells. However, this compound could inhibit the growth of HT29 cells, colorectal cancer cells. Components of cruciferous vegetables may have a favorable effect on biomarkers of cancer-related processes.
For instance, these compounds could be effective at reducing the growth of abnormal cells.
Benefits of sulforaphane
Cruciferous vegetables such as raw broccoli owe most of their health and anti-cancer potential to sulforaphane. But, this compound does much more than that. Below, we are going to address some of the most important benefits of this compound. These health effects are probably going to inspire you to eat broccoli, even if you hate it at the moment.
One of the most well-known benefits of sulforaphane is anti-cancer activity. But, how does the compound work?
It is highly likely that a combination of different mechanisms plays the role here, and they revolve around sulforaphane and its glutathione conjugate. You can see them below.
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals. As a result, they prevent or manage oxidative stress and damage it would cause.
You see, free radicals are tiny particles with incredible power to damage and weaken healthy cells in the body. They get into your body in many ways ranging from UV rays to pollution, exposure to heavy metals, food additives, preservatives, and more. Natural processes in the body, such as digestion, may also produce a certain level of free radicals. When the amount of free radicals is higher than the concentration of antioxidants, you’re at a higher risk of developing various health problems.
Free radicals accelerate the aging process too, and it can also increase the risk of cancer.
Through antioxidant effects, sulforaphane can neutralize free radicals and protect you from toxins that introduce them to your body. It’s vital to mention sulforaphane releases antioxidant and detoxification enzymes, which prevent the growth of cancer cells. These enzymes protect us against carcinogens, compounds that cause cancer.
Sulforaphane is a powerful inducer of thioredoxin reductase, which exhibits potent antioxidant activity.
Inflammation is a part of the process wherein the immune system defends the body from invaders, pathogens, bacteria, and viruses. In a nutshell, inflammation is a part of the body’s healing process.
However, long-term inflammation is a bad thing. It may increase the risk of many health problems. Sulforaphane has strong anti-inflammatory effects. Consumption of broccoli can relieve inflammation.
Now, this is particularly important if we bear in mind inflammation is associated with some cancers too. When the inflammatory process becomes chronic, cell mutation and proliferation may ensue. This may create an environment that is conducive to the development of cancer.
When it comes to inflammation, it’s useful to mention NRF-2 activation. By activating the NRF-2 pathway, this compound can decrease autoimmune inflammation. As a result, it could aid the management of autoimmune conditions.
Damage to the DNA can negatively affect a cell’s ability to repair itself. This is particularly the case if damage occurs to a gene that makes a DNA repair protein. In turn, errors keep building up, and over time they allow cancer to develop.
Sulforaphane treatment has the potential to block mutations in DNA that lead to cancer. By protecting DNA, sulforaphane and sulforaphane metabolite can protect you and your health.
Slower growth of tumors
Cancerous cells multiply uncontrollably. That’s why tumors and cancers spread so rapidly. The good thing is that sulforaphane can decrease the ability of the treated cells (cancerous cells) in studies to multiply.
In other words, this compound may slow the growth of tumors or lower their ability to spread to other parts of the body. One mechanism of action is the release of enzymes that act on carcinogenic compounds. Decreased metastasis potential could aid cancer treatment. A lot more research on this subject is necessary, especially on human subjects.
It’s important to mention the studies rely on a concentrated form of sulforaphane. That means it’s not clear whether the amounts found in fresh vegetables could have the same effect.
While human studies show the potential of this compound in preventing cancer, a lot more of them are necessary to learn more.
Better heart health
Although sulforaphane is usually associated with cancer prevention, this compound has many other essential benefits. One of them is its potential to improve heart health. A growing body of evidence confirms sulforaphane may boost cardiovascular health. Heart-healthy effects of sulforaphane occur due to several mechanisms.
One potential mechanism is the anti-inflammatory role of sulforaphane.
You see, inflammation can lead to narrowing of the arteries and thereby contribute to heart disease.
Consumption of broccoli can significantly reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol.
High levels of LDL cholesterol can lead to the formation of plaque in arteries and pave the way to atherosclerosis. This condition is a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases and events such as heart attack and stroke. In one study, eating 100g of broccoli a day for one week was enough to experience these favorable effects.
Of course, more research on these effects is necessary. That said, eating more broccoli could help you protect your heart.
Diabetes is a lifelong condition characterized by insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels. According to some estimates, 463 million people in the world are living with diabetes. By 2030, there will be about 578 million people with diabetes worldwide. That number is projected to jump to 700 million by 2045.
A 12-week study from the Science Translational Medicine made interesting findings. The study followed 97 people with type 2 diabetes. They consumed broccoli sprout extract every day. The extract was equivalent to 150 µmol of sulforaphane. Results showed SNF could positively affect blood glucose levels.
Basically, sulforaphane effectively decreased fasting blood glucose levels by 6.5%. At the same time, this compound improved hemoglobin A1c, a marker of long-term blood sugar control. The effects of sulforaphane were especially strong in obese subjects with poor diabetes control. Eating sulforaphane-rich broccoli can improve several markers of diabetes. Some of them include:
- Increased antioxidant capacity and decreased oxidative stress
- Improved HDL (good) cholesterol
- Lower triglycerides
- Improved insulin sensitivity, i.e., decreased insulin resistance.
Preventing diabetes complications
In animal studies, sulforaphane prevented diabetes-related complications. These complications included:
- Tissue damage
- Vascular complications
- Diabetes-induced heart dysfunction
- Heart damage
- Thickening of the heart muscle
Sulforaphane has the potential to protect against UVA and UVB inflammation, skin damage, and sunburn. How does sulforaphane protect the skin?
Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of this plant compound are responsible for these benefits.
You see, UV radiation induces direct DNA damage and inflammation while suppressing the immune response. Sulforaphane can amplify protection against UV radiation-induced inflammation and decrease the susceptibility to erythema (skin redness). As you’re already aware, sun exposure and UV radiation play a significant role in premature skin aging. They do so by triggering oxidative stress and inducing the degradation of collagen. As a result, the skin gradually loses its firmness and elasticity.
Bear in mind that eating broccoli isn’t enough to protect your skin.
While sulforaphane can protect against UV damage, you should still strive to use sunscreen when you’re going outside
Other benefits of sulforaphane
As seen throughout this post, sulforaphane has truly remarkable benefits. Besides anti-cancer effects, this compound can also improve other aspects of health. For example, heart health, skin health, and aid the management of diabetes.
However, there are many other important effects of sulforaphane we should address.
Improving behavioral symptoms of autism
In one study, 29 male subjects with autism received daily doses of 50-150 µmol of sulforaphane for 18 weeks. The compound improved some symptoms of autism, such as social interaction and verbal communication. A possible theory is that sulforaphane can activate genes that protect cells against oxidative stress, DNA damage, and inflammation. All these things are related to autism spectrum disorder.
Managing Helicobacter pylori infection
Studies show sulforaphane could be beneficial against H. pylori infections. This broccoli compound may decrease colonization of this bacterium and reduce stomach inflammation. The bacterium causes oxidative stress and may cause damage to the stomach lining, slow down damage repair, and induce gastric cancer eventually. SFN treatment can activate antioxidant enzymes and protect cells from oxidative injury
Protection against brain damage
Some studies show sulforaphane could improve recovery and decrease mental decline after a brain injury. Moreover, the compound from broccoli can improve cognitive performance and reduce the dysfunction of working memory after traumatic brain injury. Sulforaphane can weaken cognitive deficits and alleviate brain swelling. It works by attenuating blood-brain barrier disruption and reducing levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Every person experiences pain at one point or another. Proper pain management is important, especially when you have a chronic problem. Sulforaphane could have the potential to reduce pain in a dose-dependent manner by activating opioid receptors. Dose-dependent means the higher the sulforaphane concentration is, the better the effects
Improved liver function
Broccoli sprout improved liver function in men with fatty liver disease, according to a study from the World Journal of Gastroenterology. Sulforaphane can also decrease alanine aminotransferase (ALT), an enzyme. High levels of this enzyme indicate the presence of liver damage from infection, cirrhosis, and other problems.
Consumption of sulforaphane-rich vegetables such as broccoli sprouts can improve constipation. In one study, consumption of 20g of broccoli sprouts for four weeks was enough to tackle constipation. For comparison’s sake, those who ate alfalfa sprouts didn’t experience these effects. Alfalfa sprouts are sulforaphane-free
SFN may exhibit a beneficial effect on asthma and airway inflammation. The compound can also improve airway and lung constrictions in asthmatics.
Sulforaphane may demonstrate antiviral activity when infected cells are exposed directly. For example, it may increase defenses against the common cold and flu.
Management of depression and anxiety
Both depression and anxiety affect millions of people around the globe. Although serious, these mental health conditions are manageable. Sulforaphane could aid the management of depression and anxiety, animal studies have shown.
Repeated administration of this compound reversed depression- and anxiety-like symptoms. It does so by inhibiting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and inflammatory responses from stress in studies. Human studies on this subject are still lacking, but current evidence shows sulforaphane is worth exploring for the management of depression.
Preventing muscle damage
Sulforaphane effectively prevented muscle damage after bouts of exhaustive exercise in one study. These effects resulted from the antioxidant activities of sulforaphane. This plant compound could also reduce dystrophic muscle damage.
A lot more research is necessary to learn as much as possible about the benefits of sulforaphane. Most studies involved animals, not humans.
However, they still had exciting results. Those studies showed why sulforaphane is important and requires more attention.
Eat sulforaphane in plant form
After reading all these benefits of sulforaphane, you probably think it’s time to introduce it to your lifestyle. Indeed, this plant compound can improve your health and quality of life in many ways.
The best way to obtain sulforaphane is through diet.
As mentioned above, cruciferous vegetables are the most abundant natural source of this critical compound. Besides broccoli, the family of cruciferous vegetables also includes:
- Arugula (rocket)
- Bok choy
- Brussel sprouts
- Cabbage (both red and white)
Mustard greens are also a good source of this compound. Before you eat vegetables, you need to cut them first and chew thoroughly. This is very important! You need to this in order to activate sulforaphane in its active form.
Ideally, you should eat vegetables raw or cooked at temperatures below 140°C (284°F). So if you like cooked broccoli, make sure to avoid overcooking them. If you don’t have access to fresh broccoli sprouts or broccoli, you can always go for frozen broccoli.
Another useful thing to do is to microwave broccoli seed to create sulforaphane.
To amplify sulforaphane intake, you may want to add mustard powder or mustard seeds to your meals. These ingredients are abundant in the myrosinase enzyme, which increases sulforaphane bioavailability.
Sulforaphane supplements are beneficial, but you shouldn’t rely on those products only.
Keep in mind dietary supplements isolate nutrients and remove many benefits of the plants. By consuming plant sources of sulforaphane, you also supply the body with many other compounds, vitamins, and minerals that help improve your health.
So, throughout this post, we’ve discussed the benefits of sulforaphane. This compound is present in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables. It has anti-cancer properties and improves our health in many other ways. Further studies are still necessary, though.
Make sure to obtain sulforaphane through a natural diet by increasing intake of cruciferous vegetables