When I was a kid, it was almost impossible to get vegetables into me. This was especially true, if they were of the stinky variety, such as broccoli, rutabagas, Brussels sprouts, turnips, cabbage, mustard greens, collards, kale and cauliflowers. I’m sure I was far from alone in my aversion to these Franken-veggies. Who would have known, that many years later as a nutritional researcher, I would become their biggest supporter.
The above mentioned foods fall under a class called cruciferous vegetables, and the reason so many people are discouraged to eat them, is because of their often bitter taste. The face-squinching flavor associated with cruciferous vegetables, comes from a group of substances called glucosinolates, which are powerful sulfur-containing chemicals. Aside from also being responsible for that pungent aroma, glucosinolates are the main reason cruciferous vegetables are known as nutrient dynamos that are so powerful, they should make you think twice before spurning them the next time you see them on your plate.
I3C – King of the Indoles
Ever hear the saying; “You are what you eat?” Of course you have, but the saying is far from valid, as many of the foods we consume are not properly broken down and absorbed due to poor chewing and digestion. As it pertains to the nutritive wonders of glucosinolates, they too must first be broken down properly before they can exert their powerful healing effects.
When we chew and digest cruciferous vegetables, the glucosinolates are able to breakdown into biologicallyactive compounds called indoles, nitriles, thiocyanates, and isothiocyanates.1 Of these phytonutrients, two stand out from the rest. Indole-3-carbinol or I3C (an indole) and sulforaphane (an isothiocyanate) have been most frequently examined for their health-enhancing, anticancer effects.
I3C, has been shown to be effective for a number of varying conditions, including fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder characterized by widespread pain, especially in the musculoskeletal areas, which is usually accompanied by mood, memory and sleep issues.2 It is also said to have detoxifying properties that have great benefits for the liver and intestines, as well as to the immune system.
But aside from these attributes, the real excitement surrounding I3C is in its ability to help the body maintain hormonal balance. I3C is a mother compound that is able to create many offspring, referred to as metabolites, when it is effectively broken down. With the aid of stomach acid, I3C creates a powerful estrogen controlling compound called diindolylmethane or DIM for short. Both I3C and DIM help the body maintain healthy estrogen metabolism.
Estrogen’s a Bitch
Estrogen is a finicky set of hormones, that left unchecked, can cause increased cancer risk. I3C and DIM have been shown to be highly effective in reducing estrogen-dependent cancers like, breast, endometrial, and cervical cancers. I3C is especially effective at arresting the growth of these cancers, all the while all the while increasing their ability to self-destruct (apoptosis or programmed cell death). The body is capable of making both “good” and “bad” estrogens. The “so-called” good estrogens are called 2-hydroxyestrones and they are very protective when it comes to estrogen-related cancers. The so-called bad estrogens are the ones that are associated most with cancer growth. The most destructible of these estrogen metabolites is 16-alphahydroxyestrone.
Research shows that I3C is able to shift the metabolism of estrogens towards the protective 2-hydroxyestrone variety and away from the damaging 16 variety. According to the American Institute for cancer research, I3C is very effective at preventing the growth of cancer cells in tumors that have developed in different parts of the body such as breast, endometrium, cervix, liver, lung and colon. It also has the ability to fight another risk factor for cancer, oxidative stress, which are harmful molecules generated by the body.
The cancer-fighting properties of cruciferous vegetables are not limited to I3C and DIM. As mentioned previously, these vegetables are also great sources of sulforaphane, which exhibits powerful cancer-fighting properties in its own right. Sulforaphane is able to target and destroy cancer cells, as well as help prevent cancers from developing in the first place. It works through numerous means, one of which is stimulating enzymes the body uses to detoxify cancer causing compounds.
The potency of the cancer-fighting properties of cruciferous vegetables has been proven in numerous studies. In fact, it was found that by consuming just three servings of cruciferous vegetables per week, cancer risk may be reduced by a whopping 41 percent, whereas 28 servings of other vegetables per week is needed to decrease the risk of the same type of cancer by only 33 percent. Pancreatic cancer risk can be decreased by 38 percent with a minimum of one serving of cabbage per week and the risk of breast cancer can be reduced by 50 percent by eating one serving of cruciferous vegetables every day! All studies conducted have a unanimous result: the more cruciferous vegetables that people eat on a regular basis, the lower the cancer risk.
To get the best of cruciferous vegetables in both nutrition and taste, try not to overcook them, as they may produce a strong sulfur odor due to the sulfuric compounds they contain. This strong aroma may affect your palette, making them unappealing and producing the unflattering face-squinch!
- Hayes JD, Kelleher MO, Eggleston IM. The cancer chemopreventive actions of phytochemicals derived from glucosinolates. European Journal of Nutrition 2008;47 Suppl 2:73–88.
- WebMD. Find a Vitamin or Supplement—Indole-3-carbinol. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-1027-indole-3-carbinol.aspx?activeingredientid=1027&activeingredientname=indole-3-carbinol.
- Auborn KJ, et al. Indole-3-carbinol is a negative regulator of estrogen. J Nutr. 2003 Jul;133(7 Suppl):2470S–5S.
- Muti P, et al. Estrogen metabolism and risk of breast cancer: a prospective study of the 2:16alpha-hydroxy-estrone ratio in premenopausal and postmenopausal women. Epidemiology. 2000 Nov;11(6):635–40.
- Wong GY, et al. Dose-ranging study of indole-3-carbinol for breast cancer prevention. J Cell Biochem Suppl. 1997;28-29:111–6.
- Elaine M. (2007, April 19). The Super-Veggies: Cruciferous Vegetables. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/foodrecipes/super-veggies-cruciferous-vegetables?page=1.
- Clarke JD, Dashwood RH, Ho E. Multi-targeted prevention of cancer by sulforaphane. Cancer Letters. 2008 Oct 8;269(2):291-304. doi: 10.1016/j.canlet.2008.04.018. Epub 2008 May 27.
- Fuhrman J. Anti-Cancer Foods: Cruciferous Vegetables. Retrieved from https://www.drfuhrman.com/library/anticancer-foods-cruciferous-vegetables.aspx