Cancer fighters/Cruciferous Veggies

Research on Cruciferous Vegetables and Cancer is Extensive  

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For all types of cancer and all types of cruciferous vegetables, the total number of high-quality research studies is fast approaching 600 studies. The chart below shows the number of studies identified in the U.S. Library of Medicine's PubMed database when the terms "cruciferous vegetables" and "cancer" (or a specific cruciferous vegetable, like "broccoli," and a specific cancer (like "bladder cancer") are used as search terms:

Cancer TypeAll Cruciferous VegetablesBroccoliCabbageKale
All Cancers590551489530
Bladder Cancers24101213
Breast Cancers95837066
Colon Cancers91847061
Ovarian Cancers1313410
Prostate Cancer80492831

Prior to 1996, about two-thirds of all research studies showed protective effects for cruciferous vegetables in prevention of certain cancer types. This proportion has increased over the past 10 years, with researchers becoming more and more precise about the mechanisms of cancer prevention provided by intake of cruciferous vegetables.

Among all cancer-preventive mechanisms studied by nutritional researchers, none have been as far-reaching as the mechanisms involving one unique family of phytonutrients — the glucosinolates — found in no other food group to the same extent that they are found in cruciferous vegetables.

Cancer Prevention By Cruciferous Vegetables Often Depends upon Glucosinolates

Nutritionists don't always study nutrients in cruciferous vegetables called glucosinolates — but they should! From a chemistry point of view, glucosinolates are sugar-based molecules that contain a modified form of sugar (glucose) together with sulfur and nitrogen. Glucosinolates aren't found exclusively in cruciferous vegetables, but they are overwhelmingly absent from most other food groups. Over 100 different glucosinolates have been identified in cruciferous vegetables, and all of the glucosinolates studied to date have been shown to have anti-cancer properties.

What is it about glucosinolates that makes them such prominent anti-cancer compounds? In and of themselves, nothing at all! It takes the work of an enzyme called myrosinase to convert glucosinolates into anti-cancer compounds. All plants in the cruciferous vegetable family that contain glucosinolates also contain myrosinase enzymes. When the plants are alive, their myrosinase enzymes are also active and functioning. In freshly harvested plants, myrosinase enzymes continue to function, but this function decreases over time. Cooking for more than 10 minutes will typically end all myrosinase function in cruciferous vegetables. Between 1-10 minutes, loss of myrosinase activity will become greater and greater with each additional minute of heating and with each increase in cooking temperature.

Freshly harvested cruciferous vegetables eaten in raw form will typically have a significant percentage of their glucosinolates converted into isothiocyanates by still active myrosinase enzymes and these isothiocyanates will become available in the upper digestive tract (small intestine) for absorption into the bloodstream. Freshly harvested cruciferous vegetables not consumed in raw form, but chopped and allowed to sit for several minutes prior to cooking will typically have some of their glucosinolates converted into isothiocyanates by still active myrosinase enzymes, and these isothiocyanates will also be available for absorption in the upper digestive tract. Other glucosinolates remain intact all the way through the cooking process, and through most of digestion as well. Freshly harvested cruciferous vegetables that are not chopped and left to sit but immediately cooked will typically provide few isothiocyanates for early absorption in the upper digestive tract and more glucosinolates left to travel the full length of the digestive tract all the way down to the colon. When glucosinolates from cruciferous vegetables reach the lower intestine (colon) intact, colonic bacteria often proceed to convert the glucosinolates into other compounds, including isothiocyanates.

For every specific glucosinolate, there are corresponding anti-cancer compounds produced following action of the myrosinase enzyme. The molecules formed from enzymatic activity on glucosinolates are called isothiocyanates (ITCs). While most cruciferous vegetables contain several dozen different glucosinolates in significantly health-supportive amounts, some glucosinolates have been better researched than others and/or appear to be more concentrated in commonly eaten foods. The chart below shows five very well-studied glucosinolates, the best cruciferous vegetables for obtaining them, and some key isothiocyanates that form after the glucosinolates have been acted upon by myrosinase enzymes:

Select Glucosinolates and Their Anti-Cancer Thiocyanates

Cruciferous VegetableGlucosinolateDerived IsothiocyanateIsothiocyanate Abbreviation
broccoli*, red cabbage*, kale*, collard greens*, Brussels sprouts, kohlabiGlucophaninSulforaphaneSFN
Brussels sprouts*, savoy cabbage*, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, Chinese cabbageGlucobrassicinIndole-3-carbinol**I3C
Brussels sprouts*, savoy cabbage*, white cabbage*, kale*, collard greens*, mustard greens*, cauliflowerSinigrinAllyl-isothiocyanateAITC
Turnip greens*, watercress*, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, broccoli, Brussels sproutGluconasturiianPhenethyl-isothiocyanatePEITC
Watercress*, garden cress*, collard greens*, kale, mustard greens, cabbageGlucotropaeolinBenzyl-iothiocyanateBITC

* especially concentrated source of the glucosinolate listed

** Indole-3-carbinol (I3C) is not an isothiocyanate. It's a benzopyrrole, and it is only formed when isothiocyanates made from glucobrassicin are further broken down into non-sulfur containing compounds.

Isothiocyanates (ITCs) formed from glucosinolates are known to help prevent cancer by several different mechanisms. Sometimes the ITCs deactivate potential cancer-causing substances before they can damage a cell's genetic material (DNA). At other times, they alter communications between cells in such a way that healthy cells are prevented from becoming cancerous. In the case of hormone-sensitive cancers, ITCs can modify the metabolism of hormones like estrogen in such a way that risk of cancer is decreased. ITCs can also increase detoxification of toxic substances that might otherwise increase cancer risk.

There is also evidence that ITCs may be able to help change the course of cancers in cells once those cancers have occurred. One in-depth series of studies in the cruciferous vegetable research has shown the ability of ITCs in cruciferous vegetables to "sensitize" cancer cells. Many cancer cell types are resistant to chemotherapy and cannot be treated using drugs because of their "chemoresistance." Because ITCs are able to help inactivate certain metabolic events in cancer cells (for example, Akt phosphorylation), they may be able to sensitize cancer cells and make them more responsive to chemotherapeutic drugs. In the case of one particular ITC in cruciferous vegetables (sulphoraphane), a cell cycle (the G1 cell cycle) normally participated in by ovarian cancer cells has been shown to be disrupted in the presence of this ITC. Many other cell cycle events have also been shown to be altered by ITCs. And in a fascinating finding of several studies, the impact of ITCs on healthy cells has been shown to be different than the impact of ITCs on cancerous cells.

Taken as a whole, we are not surprised by the hallmark impact on cancer prevention made by cruciferous vegetables, or the potential of this food group to modify activities in cells that have already become cancerous. What makes these cancer-directed impacts seem logical to us are the many findings about cruciferous vegetables and their support for three body systems that are so critical to the development or non-development of cancers. These three body systems are the detoxification system, the inflammatory system, and the antioxidant system. It's worth taking a little closer look at cruciferous vegetables and their support of these three body systems in order to understand how this food group helps keep us optimally healthy.

Anti-Cancer Foods: Cruciferous Vegetables- I use organic freeze dried powder!

Nutrition scientists have shown over and over that people who eat more natural plant foods – vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, etc. – are less likely to be diagnosed with cancer. But are all vegetables equally protective? To win the war on cancer, we must design an anti-cancer diet, which focuses on the foods with the most powerful anti-cancer effects – then we could eat plenty of these foods each day, flooding our bodies with the protective substances contained within them.

The cruciferous family of vegetables is full of super foods with powerful anti-cancer effects – we should eat vegetables from this family every day. This family includes green vegetables like kale and bok choy plus some non-green vegetables like cauliflower. For a full list of cruciferous vegetables.

Cruciferous vegetables contain glucosinolates and in a different area of the cell, an enzyme called myrosinase. When we blend, chop or chew these vegetables, we break up the plant cells, allowing myrosinase to come into contact with glucosinolates, initiating a chemical reaction that produces isothiocyanates (ITCs) – powerful anti-cancer compounds. ITCs have been shown to detoxify and remove carcinogens, kill cancer cells, and prevent tumors from growing.1

Observational studies have shown that eating ITC-rich cruciferous vegetables protects against cancer – here are a few examples:

Twenty-eight servings of vegetables per week decreased prostate cancer risk by 33%, but just 3 servings of cruciferous vegetables per week decreased prostate cancer risk by 41%.2
One or more servings of cabbage per week reduced risk of pancreatic cancer by 38%.3
One serving per day of cruciferous vegetables reduced the risk of breast cancer by over 50%.4
Cruciferous vegetables and breast cancer
Cruciferous vegetables are especially helpful for preventing hormonal cancers, such as breast cancer, because some ITC, such as indole-3-carbinol (abundant in broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage), can even help the body excrete estrogen and other hormones.5 In fact, new research has shown additional anti-estrogenic effects of both indole-3-carbinol and sulforaphane (most abundant in broccoli); these ITCs blunt the growth-promoting effects of estrogen on breast and cervical cancer cells.5-7

Eating cruciferous vegetables produces measurable isothiocyanates in breast tissue8, and observational studies show that women who eat more cruciferous vegetables are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer: In a recent Chinese study, women who regularly ate one serving per day of cruciferous vegetables had a 50% reduced risk of breast cancer.4 A 17% decrease in breast cancer risk was found in a European study for consuming cruciferous vegetables at least once a week.9 Plus, breast cancer survivors who eat cruciferous vegetables regularly have lower risk of cancer recurrence – the more cruciferous vegetables they ate, the lower their risk.10

Within an overall nutrient-dense eating style, cruciferous vegetables can provide us with a profound level of protection against cancer. Don’t forget: chopping, chewing, blending, or juicing cruciferous vegetables is necessary to produce the anti-cancer ITCs. To learn more about cruciferous vegetables, read Healthy Times Newsletter #32.

1. Higdon J, Delage B, Williams D, et al. Cruciferous vegetables and human cancer risk: epidemiologic evidence and mechanistic basis. Pharmacol Res 2007;55:224-236.
2. Cohen JH, Kristal AR, Stanford JL. Fruit and vegetable intakes and prostate cancer risk. J Natl Cancer Inst 2000;92:61-68. 
3. Larsson SC, Hakansson N, Naslund I, et al. Fruit and vegetable consumption in relation to pancreatic cancer risk: a prospective study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2006;15:301-305.
4. Zhang CX, Ho SC, Chen YM, et al. Greater vegetable and fruit intake is associated with a lower risk of breast cancer among Chinese women. Int J Cancer 2009;125:181-188.
5. Yuan F, Chen DZ, Liu K, et al. Anti-estrogenic activities of indole-3-carbinol in cervical cells: implication for prevention of cervical cancer. Anticancer Res 1999;19:1673-1680. 
6. Meng Q, Yuan F, Goldberg ID, et al. Indole-3-carbinol is a negative regulator of estrogen receptor-alpha signaling in human tumor cells. J Nutr 2000;130:2927-2931. 
7. Ramirez MC, Singletary K. Regulation of estrogen receptor alpha expression in human breast cancer cells by sulforaphane. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry 2009;20:195-201. 
8. Cornblatt BS, Ye L, Dinkova-Kostova AT, et al. Preclinical and clinical evaluation of sulforaphane for chemoprevention in the breast. Carcinogenesis 2007;28:1485-1490.

9. Bosetti C, Filomeno M, Riso P, et al. Cruciferous vegetables and cancer risk in a network of case-control studies. Ann Oncol 2012. 

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