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Sulforaphane: A Real, Scientifically Backed Superfood

With all the buzz circulating around “superfoods” on the internet and in health shops, the topic can get a bit confusing. What even is a superfood in the first place? How did these foods get their title? What evidence is there to support that the superfood at hand would be a good incorporation into your daily diet? I know it used to confuse the hell out of me, to the point where I gave up on trying to find “the one”.

superfood

Many articles that I read would start off with some version of how the new superfood would cure all of your diseases, make you live twice as long and give you the body you’ve always wanted. Then, somewhere near the end, there would be a convenient link to buy this new superfood or supplement. This is unfortunate because there are some real foods out there that could possibly yield incredible benefit.

Despite the fog when it comes to superfoods, one can find their way to the truth through using real scientific evidence. There are actually foods out there that can significantly reduce your chances of getting cancer, protect your cells from harm, lower your chances of developing conditions like heart disease and diabetes, all while decreasing your rate of aging. Currently, a growing body of scientific evidence supports these claims along with a host of other benefits through the incorporation of foods containing a compound called sulforaphane(SFN) just 3-5 times per week!

Overview

This may sound a bit technical, but a simple overview of where SFN comes from and how our bodies process it will be useful to help you get the most out of this article. First, we don’t obtain much sulforaphane from food itself, but rather a compound called glucoraphanin(GRA) from food along with the enzyme myrosinase (fun fact: your gut bacteria actually make some myrosinase as well!). Once inside your body, GRA is turned into sulforaphane by myrosinase. Then, SFN is free to run around your body fixing stuff!

SFN diagram

GRA and myrosinase are found in many cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc…), but they are most abundant in broccoli and exponentially more abundant in broccoli sprouts [14].

Benefits

So now you know a little bit about SFN, but you are most likely reading this to find out how SFN can actually help you. Lucky for us, there are literally too many studies to read that have been done on SFN, but there are some common themes. Below you will find some of my most interesting findings.

Cancer Prevention

Cancer is one of the biggest public health fears of our time, and SFN is here to help! There are many recent studies relating SFN to reduced cancer incidence, so you don’t just have to trust the internet. One such study showed that eating 3-5 large portions was correlated to a decrease of 30-40% in cancer development. Even consuming as little as 1 portion was shown to help [16]. In accordance with this amazing benefit, SFN was also able to reduce cancer progression through gene regulation and by limiting the amount the unwanted cells are able to grow [17].

Furthermore, another interesting way that SFN helps prevent cancer is that it can protect against UV light from the sun or other unnatural sources. In mice, a SFN cream was applied to their skin, which was able to decrease damage and slow tumor progression by 50% [18].  It does so by directly repairing DNA that was deformed by UV light [11] and enhancing cellular defenses [2]. The next time you feel a sunburn coming on, instead of grabbing the aloe you might be better off reaching for the broccoli sprouts! On a related note, SFN was also shown to repair DNA damage caused by pesticides [11], which we inevitably encounter on a daily basis. Many forms of cancer stem from DNA damage, so repairing it is crucial.

Inflammation

When SFN was administered to mice, there was a significant decrease in proinflammatory markers [1]. SFN was actually able to change how our body’s DNA creates inflammatory responses. Keeping inflammation in the body under control is crucial to defending yourself from various unwanted conditions like heart disease, joint pain, and aging. It was also shown to reduce inflammation in the brain, which may help lower your chance of developing diseases in the brain such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s [7].  As a part of this process, SFN was also able to directly protect neurons from damage in mice [8].

Antioxidant Properties

Look at any fruity drink and you will likely see it being marketed as containing super antioxidants. There are good reasons for looking for antioxidants, but unfortunately, the juice concentrate you are about to drink will most likely have negligible effects. SFN, on the other hand, gets many of its favorable properties from being a very powerful antioxidant that can rid our bodies of reactive oxygen species and many other pollutants.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are detrimental to cells and DNA which can then lead to disease and faster aging. Because of this, getting rid of them is important. Luckily for us, many studies have shown that SFN is VERY good at getting rid of these ROS in the body [3].  Regarding ROS, there was also a study done on mice that shows specifically how SFN protects cells from damage [4]. This was shown to be especially important for improving liver function in humans[9].

As a powerful antioxidant, SFN can also help your body rid itself of harmful toxins, specifically airborne pollutants. If you live in a city or anywhere near one, this is important. It has been shown that an increased intake of SFN was linked to inhaled air pollutants leaving the body 20-50% more than the baseline [10]. This is essential because the harm that they are able to do is greatly limited. SFN was also correlated to a decrease in the severity of many allergenic diseases such as asthma by protection from airborne pollutants [13].

Cholesterol

Maintaining a healthy cholesterol profile is common knowledge in the process of keeping your heart in good condition and regulating hormones, among other things. SFN, once again, can help us out in this category. One study found a correlation between participants who consumed 10 grams of broccoli sprout powder and a significant reduction in LDL (the bad stuff) while raising HDL (the good stuff) [5]. In addition, the same findings have also been demonstrated in other studies in as little as a week of consuming broccoli sprouts[6].

Immune System

As we age, there is an increased risk of falling victim to pathogens and other problems that occur with a weakened immune system. SFN was also able to slow the degradation of immune cells that occurs with age from oxidants in mice through being a powerful antioxidant as discussed earlier. It also helps by increasing the hormonal messengers that activate the immune system [4].

Sexual Health

This aspect of SFN is less studied, but still important nonetheless. In mice that had testicular cancer and other reproductive damage from environmental toxins, high doses of SFN were able to significantly increase testosterone, sperm count and sperm quality [12].

smoothieConclusion

By this point, I hope that you have been convinced to include more cruciferous veggies into your diet, specifically broccoli and broccoli sprouts (my preference). Even throwing a handful into a smoothie in the morning could lower your risk of cancer and many other diseases. Don’t forget an increased immune system and slower cellular aging as well.

While there are a lot of studies and implications above, there are numerous studies that could have been chosen accompanied by a much deeper analysis. For this reason, if you want a more in-depth approach to the mechanisms and pathways affected by SFN, I encourage you to check out where I was first introduced to SFN: Dr. Rhonda Patrick’s blog and podcast at foundmyfitness.com.

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References

[1] Townsend, Brigitte E., and Rodney W. Johnson. “Sulforaphane Reduces Lipopolysaccharide-Induced Proinflammatory Markers in Hippocampus and Liver but Does Not Improve Sickness Behavior.” Nutritional Neuroscience, vol. 20, no. 3, July 2015, pp. 195–202., doi:10.1080/1028415x.2015.1103463.

[2] Benedict, A. L., et al. “The Indirect Antioxidant Sulforaphane Protects against Thiopurine-Mediated Photooxidative Stress.” Carcinogenesis, vol. 33, no. 12, 2012, pp. 2457–2466., doi:10.1093/carcin/bgs293.

[3] Tortorella, Stephanie M., et al. “Dietary Sulforaphane in Cancer Chemoprevention: The Role of Epigenetic Regulation and HDAC Inhibition.” Antioxidants & Redox Signaling, vol. 22, no. 16, 2015, pp. 1382–1424., doi:10.1089/ars.2014.6097.

[4] Kim, Hyon-Jeen, et al. “Nrf2 Activation by Sulforaphane Restores the Age-Related Decrease of TH1 Immunity: Role of Dendritic Cells.” Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, vol. 121, no. 5, 2008, doi:10.1016/j.jaci.2008.01.016.

[5] Bahadoran, Zahra, et al. “Broccoli Sprouts Powder Could Improve Serum Triglyceride and Oxidized LDL/LDL-Cholesterol Ratio in Type 2 Diabetic Patients: A Randomized Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial.” Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, vol. 96, no. 3, 2012, pp. 348–354., doi:10.1016/j.diabres.2012.01.009.

[6] Murashima, Megumi, et al. “Phase 1 Study of Multiple Biomarkers for Metabolism and Oxidative Stress after One-Week Intake of Broccoli Sprouts.” BioFactors, vol. 22, no. 1-4, 2004, pp. 271–275., doi:10.1002/biof.5520220154.

[7] Holloway, Paul M., et al. “Sulforaphane Induces Neurovascular Protection against a Systemic Inflammatory Challenge via Both Nrf2-Dependent and Independent Pathways.” Vascular Pharmacology, vol. 85, 2016, pp. 29–38., doi:10.1016/j.vph.2016.07.004.

[8] Schachtele, Scott J., et al. “Modulation of Experimental Herpes Encephalitis-Associated Neurotoxicity through Sulforaphane Treatment.” PLoS ONE, vol. 7, no. 4, 2012, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036216.

[9] Kikuchi, Masahiro. “Sulforaphane-Rich Broccoli Sprout Extract Improves Hepatic Abnormalities in Male Subjects.” World Journal of Gastroenterology, vol. 21, no. 43, 2015, p. 12457., doi:10.3748/wjg.v21.i43.12457.

[10] Kensler, Thomas W., et al. “Modulation of the Metabolism of Airborne Pollutants by Glucoraphanin-Rich and Sulforaphane-Rich Broccoli Sprout Beverages in Qidong, China | Carcinogenesis | Oxford Academic.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 1 Nov. 2011, academic.oup.com/carcin/article/33/1/101/2463507/Modulation-of-the-metabolism-of-airborne.            

[11] Topè, Avinash M., and Phyllis F. Rogers. “Evaluation of Protective Effects of Sulforaphane on DNA Damage Caused by Exposure to Low Levels of Pesticide Mixture Using Comet Assay.” Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part B, vol. 44, no. 7, 2009, pp. 657–662., doi:10.1080/03601230903163624.

[12] Yang, Shu-Hua, et al. “Sulforaphane Prevents Testicular Damage in Kunming Mice Exposed to Cadmium via Activation of Nrf2/ARE Signaling Pathways.” International Journal of Molecular Sciences, vol. 17, no. 10, Nov. 2016, p. 1703., doi:10.3390/ijms17101703.

[13] Heber, David, et al. “Sulforaphane-Rich Broccoli Sprout Extract Attenuates Nasal Allergic Response to Diesel Exhaust Particles.” Food Funct., vol. 5, no. 1, 2014, pp. 35–41., doi:10.1039/c3fo60277j.

[14] West, Leslie G., et al. “Glucoraphanin and 4-Hydroxyglucobrassicin Contents in Seeds of 59 Cultivars of Broccoli, Raab, Kohlrabi, Radish, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, Kale, and Cabbage.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, vol. 52, no. 4, 2004, pp. 916–926., doi:10.1021/jf0307189.

[16] Jeffery, Elizabeth H., and Anna-Sigrid Keck. “Translating Knowledge Generated by Epidemiological And in-Vitro studies into Dietary Cancer Prevention.” Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, July 2008, doi:10.1002/mnfr.200700226.

[17] Singh, Shivendra V., et al. “Sulforaphane-Induced G2/M Phase Cell Cycle Arrest Involves Checkpoint Kinase 2-Mediated Phosphorylation of Cell Division Cycle 25C.” Journal of Biological Chemistry, vol. 279, no. 24, Aug. 2004, pp. 25813–25822., doi:10.1074/jbc.m313538200.

[18] Dinkova-Kostova, Albena T., et al. “Protection against UV-Light-Induced Skin Carcinogenesis in SKH-1 High-Risk Mice by Sulforaphane-Containing Broccoli Sprout Extracts.” Cancer Letters, vol. 240, no. 2, 2006, pp. 243–252., doi:10.1016/j.canlet.2005.09.012.

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