By Dr. Mercola
Science has proven time and again that Mother Nature is the best physician, and food is the best medicine. Broccoli, for example—and to an even greater degree, broccoli sprouts—have been repeatedly shown to be one of nature's most valuable health-promoting foods, capable of preventing a number of health issues, including but not limited to:
- Osteoarthritis4, 5
How Broccoli Can Help Slow Progression of Arthritis
What is Broccoli Good For? For starters, it can help with arthritis. Most recently, the benefits of broccoli for the prevention and treatment of the most common form of arthritis has made headlines. As reported by BBC News6:
"Eating lots of broccoli may slow down and even prevent osteoarthritis, according to a team of researchers at the University of East Anglia who are starting human trials following on from successful lab studies.7
Tests on cells and mice showed that a broccoli compound, sulforaphane - which humans can also get from Brussels sprouts and cabbage - blocked a key destructive enzyme that damages cartilage."
According to lead researcher Ian Clark, the results are "very promising," as they've now shown that sulforaphane works in each of the three laboratory models they've tried so far—in human and cow cartilage cells, tissue, and live mice.
Broccoli, however, is one of the richest sources of this potent compound, and broccoli sprouts appear to be one of the richest sources of all. The compound also has anti-diabetic and antimicrobial activity. According to Clark:8
"As well as treating those who already have [osteoarthritis], you need to be able to tell healthy people how to protect their joints into the future. There is currently no way in to the disease pharmaceutically and you cannot give healthy people drugs unnecessarily, so this is where diet could be a safe alternative. Prevention would be preferable and changes to lifestyle, like diet, may be the only way to do that."
The Anti-Cancer Properties of Broccoli
Sulforaphane, a sulfur compound, has also been shown to kill cancer stem cells, thereby slowing tumor growth. Some researchers believe eliminating cancer stem cells may be key to controlling cancer.
This is something current chemotherapies cannot do, but food can! I have long touted the cancer busting power of broccoli; ever since studies in the mid-1990s showed that the broccoli compound glucoraphanin -- a precursor to sulforaphane – boosts cell enzymes that protect against molecular damage from cancer-causing chemicals.9, 10
Studies have also found that sulforaphane normalizes DNA methylation11—a process by which a methyl group (one carbon atom attached to three hydrogen atoms) is added to part of a DNA molecule. DNA methylation is a crucial part of normal cell function, allowing cells to "remember who they are and where they have been" and is important in regulating gene expression.
DNA methylation also suppresses the genes for things you don't want, such as viral and other disease-related genes, and abnormal DNA methylation plays a critical role in the development of nearly all types of cancer.
The sulforaphane from broccoli plays a role in activating more than 200 different genes. Specifically, it appears that broccoli contains the necessary ingredients to switch ON genes that prevent cancer development, and switch OFF other ones that help it spread. And you don't have to consume a truckload of broccoli to reap its benefits.
In fact, a 2008 study published in PLoS One12 found that just four servings of broccoli per week could protect men from prostate cancer. One serving of broccoli is about two spears, so that's only 10 broccoli spears per week. In this study, the researchers collected tissue samples over the course of the study and found that the men who ate broccoli showed hundreds of beneficial changes in genes known to play a role in fighting cancer.
Sulforaphane Works on a Wide Variety of Cancers
Other researchers have looked at sulforaphane's effect on breast cancer, and discovered that it hinders the growth of human breast cancer cells as well—at least in the laboratory. Here, they found that it does so by disrupting the action of protein microtubules within the cancer cells, which promote cell division and growth. Interestingly enough, certain cancer drugs also work in this manner. The upside of broccoli, of course, is that it doesn't come with ANY of the side effects associated with synthetic drugs. Furthermore, as reported by PreventDisease.com13:
"Previous research has also proven that the compound blocks the formation of breast tumors in rats, and it can even force colon cancer cells to commit cell suicide. It seems that sulforaphane works its magic on the detoxification enzymes that try to defend the cancer-promoting substances."
The interesting aspect of chemoprotection strategies is that they're almost never organ-specific. Rather, chemoprotection produces a general cancer protective effect which blocks multiple steps -- a cascade of steps -- that are common to cancer formation. This is probably a reason why broccoli appears to work against a variety of different types of cancers.
Sprouts—An Even More Potent Alternative
As stated earlier, about 10 broccoli spears per week has been shown to offer protection against prostate cancer, which isn't a whole lot, but research14 has shown that fresh broccoli sprouts are FAR more potent, allowing you to eat far less in terms of quantity. This is also an excellent alternative if you don't like the taste (or smell) of broccoli. In terms of research, even small quantities of broccoli sprout extracts have been shown to markedly reduce the size of rat mammary tumors that were induced by chemical carcinogens. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University15:
"Three-day-old broccoli sprouts consistently contain 20 to 50 times the amount of chemoprotective compounds found in mature broccoli heads, and may offer a simple, dietary means of chemically reducing cancer risk."
When compared to either broccoli or cauliflower, which also contains sulforaphane,16 three-day-old broccoli sprouts contain anywhere from 10 to 100 times higher levels of glucoraphanin, compared to the mature varieties. Best of all, you can grow broccoli sprouts at home quite easily and inexpensively. Another major benefit is that you don't have to cook them. They are eaten raw, usually as an addition to salad.
Furthermore, if you opt for mature broccoli heads, it becomes more important to make sure you're purchasing a variety of high potency.17 In tests, the chemoprotective abilities of samples from 22 varieties of fresh and seven brands of frozen mature broccoli varied greatly. Fresh broccoli sprouts, on the other hand, are far more uniform in their potency.
Interestingly, researchers have found that an extract of broccoli sprouts helps protect your skin from sun damage, which could potentially lead to skin cancer. According to Dr. Paul Talalay, a professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore:18
"Cells contain an elaborate network of protective genes that code for proteins that protect against four principal injurious processes to which all of our cells are exposed and which are the causes of cancer, degenerative disease and aging. Those four processes are: oxidation; DNA damage; inflammation and radiation, namely ultraviolet radiation. The cells' protective system normally operates at about one-third capacity, so the real question is what would ramp up that system.
The highest doses of sulforaphane extract reduced UV-induced redness and inflammation (erythema) by an average of 37 percent, although protection varied from 8 percent to 78 percent. If you apply an extract of broccoli sprouts that contains high levels of sulforaphane to regions of human skin, you can protect them very substantially." [Emphasis mine]
How to Grow Your Own Broccoli Sprouts
Broccoli sprouts look and taste similar to alfalfa sprouts, and are easily grown at home, even if you're limited on space. I strongly recommend using organic seeds, and a pound of seeds will probably make over 10 pounds of sprouts. From the researcher's calculations mentioned earlier, this can translate up to as much cancer protecting phytochemicals as 1,000 pounds (half a ton) of broccoli!
I used to grow sprouts in Ball jars over 10 years ago but stopped doing that. I am strongly convinced that actually growing them in soil is far easier and produces far more nutritious and abundant food. It is also less time consuming. With Ball jars, you need to rinse them several times a day to prevent mold growth. Trays also take up less space. I am now consuming one whole tray of sprouts every 2-3 days and to produce that much food with Ball jars I would need dozens of jars. I simply don't have the time or patience for that. You can find instructions on how to grow sprouts by viewing a step-by-step guide at rawfoods-livingfoods.com.
Your Diet Can Be a Powerful Cancer Prevention Tool
There's little doubt that one of the best ways to improve your health is to make sure you're eating plenty of fresh, organic vegetables, ideally locally-grown, with a majority of them consumed raw. Two of the easiest and most efficient ways to optimize your vegetable intake is to juice your vegetables and add sprouted seeds. Sprouting is undoubtedly one of the best ways to increase the nutritional content of your diet, as the sprouting process tends to increase nutrient content and bioavailability of those nutrients.
Sprouts—which again are eaten raw—also contain valuable enzymes that allow your body to absorb and use the nutrients of all other foods you eat as well. Some sprouts, like sunflower seeds, have up to 30 times the nutrient density of even home grown organic vegetables. I personally consume about 4-6 ounces of sunflower seed sprouts every day that I either grow at home or our team does in our office.
Juicing is another great way to get a wider variety of veggies into your diet, and will help your body absorb all the nutrients from the vegetables by making them easily digestible. You're also avoiding the risk of damaging any of their sensitive micronutrients through cooking, which destroys many micronutrients by altering their shape and chemical composition. For more in-depth guidelines and information about juicing, I recommend you review the juicing section of my nutrition plan.
My Recommended Vegetables List provides a guide to the most nutritious vegetables and those to limit due to their high carbohydrate content. Broccoli is certainly on the most nutritious list, but so are many others like celery, Bok Choy and beet greens. Remember, variety is key. So while broccoli and broccoli sprouts are the focus of this article, they should be part of a wide variety of vegetables and legumes in your diet. There are many other foods that contain other cancer-protective nutrients and compounds, as well as so-called anti-angiogenetic foods, which effectively help "starve" cancer by preventing blood vessels from forming to feed microscopic tumors in the first place:
Green tea Berries: strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries Cherries Red grapes Kale Turmeric Nutmeg Artichokes Parsley Garlic Tomato Maitake mushroom
Fermented veggies are another outstanding superfood. But whatever method you choose; juiced, whole, sprouted, cooked or fermented, do make it a point to eat your veggies. This is one food group that is incredibly diverse, so there's a wide variety to choose from and plenty to suit virtually everyone's tastes. And, as you can see, mounting evidence shows that eating vegetables every day is a cornerstone of good health, and a habit that can go a very long way toward preventing disease of all kinds, including cancer.