Sulforaphane: The Magic compound in Broccoli Sprouts & Cruciferous vegetables

Sulforaphane – found in Broccoli sprouts & other cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower & Kale – is a modern day super compound! A particular favorite of biochemist Dr. Rhonda Patrick, sulforaphane has been shown in studies to reduce gut & brain inflammation, possibly prevent cancer cell growth, and even detoxify the body of air pollutants common in metropolitan cities. Here, we delve deep on sulforaphane and find out how to best make the compound a part of your diet.

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Guide to Sulforaphane - the supercharged compound that can be found in broccoli (specifically broccoli sprouts) amd most cruciferous vegetables

If you’re like most people, sprouting broccoli seeds is probably not on the top of your to-do list. You might not even know what broccoli seeds look like. Or maybe you’ve seen sprouts before when a chef used microgreens to decorate your dish at a fancy restaurant.

However, broccoli sprouts can do a whole lot more than just making your dish look pretty. They have hidden superpowers. Broccoli sprouts are nutrient-packed, turbocharged mini versions of a fully grown broccoli. And according to research, one key plant compound known as sulforaphane might play a significant role in many of the benefits of broccoli sprouts, and cruciferous vegetables in general.

Here, we’ll learn more about broccoli sprouts, sulforaphane, and we’ll look at the various potential benefits of sulforaphane. We’ll also discuss the best ways to incorporate sulforaphane in your diet, either through sprouting broccoli seeds or through sulforaphane supplements.

What’s so great about cruciferous vegetables?

Before we can dive deeper into broccoli sprouts and sulforaphane, let’s take a step back and talk about cruciferous vegetables.

We all know that fruits and vegetables are essential elements of a well-balanced diet. However, according to research, eating cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, bok choy, arugula, and brussel sprouts, seems to have an even more significant effect than fruits and veggies in general.

Cruciferous vegetables are associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality

According to an article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, diets rich in cruciferous vegetables are associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality. For the period the study was conducted, people in the top twentieth percentile of vegetable consumption were 22 percent less likely to die from all non-accident causes of death within their age group [1]. This was regardless of other lifestyle factors like exercise, sleep, etc.

Cruciferous vegetables effects on cancer?

One of the most vital benefits of eating cruciferous vegetables could be its potential role in reducing the risk of various cancers.

There is some evidence to suggest that men who ate more than three servings of cruciferous vegetables per week had a 41 percent reduced risk of prostate cancer in comparison to men who ate less than one serving [2].

Another study has shown that men who eat more than two servings of broccoli per week had their risk of bladder cancer lowered by 44 percent, compared to those who ate less than one serving every week [3].

Another 2012 study by the Vanderbilt University Medical Center found that women whose diets were high in cruciferous vegetables had a lower risk of breast cancer-related mortality, as well as lower rates of breast cancer recurrence [4].

These are some significant claims when it comes to the potential benefits of cruciferous vegetables. In the section below, we’ll discuss the possible mechanism that is responsible behind the benefits of these vegetables.

Sulforaphane: The magic behind cruciferous vegetables?

What makes cruciferous vegetables potentially so powerful? The most likely answer is a phytochemical known as isothiocyanates.

Isothiocyanates are formed from plant compounds known as glucosinolates.

Glucosinolates are transformed into isothiocyanates through enzymes. These enzymes are known as myrosinase.

Myrosinase is activated when cruciferous plants are chopped, crushed, or chewed [7].

That means, when you chew your broccoli, kale, or cauliflower, you’re activating the myrosinase enzymes, which then transform glucosinolates into isothiocyanates.

Sulforaphane is a potent isothiocyanate that has been heavily researched and linked with the various benefits of cruciferous vegetables [5].

Sulforaphane is formed from the glucosinolate known as glucoraphanin.

Broccoli sprouts are the single best source of this glucoraphanin, containing almost 100 times more than mature broccoli.

So, once again, when you chew broccoli sprouts, you’re activating the myrosinase enzyme.

The myrosinase then transforms glucoraphanin in broccoli sprouts into sulforaphane. Sulforaphane [6] is the potent plant compound that has been linked with the various health benefits of cruciferous vegetables.

Hopefully, you were able to grasp the mechanism behind how sulforaphane is formed. If you weren’t, don’t worry. All you need to remember is that broccoli sprouts are loaded with sulforaphane, which might be incredibly beneficial for your health.

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Below, we’ll further discuss some of the potential health benefits of broccoli sprouts and sulforaphane.

What are some potential health benefits of broccoli sprouts and sulforaphane?

In this section, we’ll look at some of what the research says about the possible benefits of eating broccoli sprouts, as well as some of the mechanisms behind them.

Sulforaphane may reduce risk of cancer

There is some evidence to suggest that sulforaphane may reduce the risk of cancer and that it may kill cancer cells. They do this by preventing procarcinogens from turning into carcinogens.

Procarcinogens vs. carcinogens

Carcinogens are substances that promote carcinogenesis, which is another term for the formation of cancer.

Procacinogens are substances that are transformed into carcinogens by the body. You can think of them as precursors to carcinogens.

For example, nitrites from cured and processed meats are not carcinogens themselves. However, when they are turned into nitrosamines in the body [8], they can become carcinogens.

The enzymes that are responsible for turning carcinogens into procarcinogens are known as phase I biotransformation enzymes. Sulforaphane might play a role in deactivating the phase I biotransformation enzymes.

By deactivating the enzymes that turn procarcinogens into carcinogens, sulforaphane might reduce the risk of cancer [10].

Reduced risk of lung cancer in smokers

Tobacco smoke is one of the sources of carcinogens that many people are regularly exposed to, increasing their risk of bladder and lung cancer. However, there is some research to suggest cruciferous vegetables reduce the risk of cancer in smokers.

A 2010 study published in the BMC Cancer Journal found that the risk of lung cancer was reduced by up to 55 percent in smokers who consumed high amounts of raw cruciferous vegetables [9].

This might be a result of the mechanism through which sulforaphane prevents the formation of carcinogens through the deactivation of phase I metabolic enzymes.

It is interesting to note that eating uncooked vegetables had a more significant beneficial effect. Prolonged cooking can destroy some of the sulforaphane in cruciferous veggies.

Sulforaphane may aid in detoxification

Not only is sulforaphane effective in deactivating enzymes that lead to the formation of carcinogens, but it might also work to get rid of carcinogens from your system altogether.

This process relies on another group of enzymes that isothiocyanates might activate, known as phase II detoxification enzymes.

Sulforaphane and the NRF2 pathway

The activation of phase II detox enzymes is brought about by something known as the NRF2 pathway [11].

NRF2 is a substance that regulates antioxidants that can protect you from oxidative damage caused by various factors such as harmful free radicals, inflammation, and more [12][13]. Additionally, NRF2 pathways also play a role in the expression of hundreds of genes, affecting various functions in the body [14].

Sulforaphane happens to the isothiocyanate that is one of the most potent natural inducers of the NRF2 pathway [15].

So, when you eat broccoli sprouts or other cruciferous veggies, the sulforaphane induces the NRF2 pathway, which mediates the activation of the phase II detox enzymes. These enzymes then work to get rid of carcinogens from your body.

Reducing DNA damage to fight aging and prevent cancer

One of the phase II detox enzymes is glutathione-S-transferase [16]. It can deactivate procarcinogens and transform them into compounds that are then able to be removed from the body through urine and bile [17].

This process also lowers DNA damage by reducing inflammation and by having an antioxidant effect [18]. Lowering DNA damage can be crucial when it comes to the aging process and the initiation of cancer.

Studies have shown that eating Brussel sprouts can increase the circulation of glutathione-S-transferase in the human body. Brussel sprouts, one of the members of the cruciferous vegetable family, which contains sulforaphane, has also been shown to reduce oxidative DNA-damage significantly [19]. As explained above, this can be an excellent thing.

Detoxification of airborne pollutants

Sulforaphane can help excrete toxins that build up due to air pollution, perfect if you live in a metropolitan city with bad air quality!
Sulforaphane has been shown in clinical trials to help the body excrete air pollutants like benzene (a carcinogen heavily linked to cancer) from the body, potentially lowering the long term risk of cancer for those living in cities and areas with poor air quality due to vehicle & industrial pollution.

A 12-week randomized clinical trial with 291 participants in China demonstrated that sulforaphane can significantly increase the excretion of air pollutants like benzene from the body [20].

Participants drank a daily broccoli sprout beverage containing glucoraphanin (the thing that turns into sulforaphane when you consume it), and sulforaphane. They experienced an increase in the rate of excretion of benzene by more than 60 percent. And it happened on the first day they drank the broccoli sprouts beverage.

This is significant because benzene is a carcinogen that has been associated with cancer in both humans and animals. Major sources of benzene are air pollution caused by automobile exhaust and cigarette smoke (including secondhand smoke).

As we mentioned above, smokers who eat plenty of cruciferous veggies often have a reduced risk of cancer. Excretion of air pollutants like benzene could be one of the mechanisms responsible for the potential reduction of risk in smokers.

Sulforaphane increases antioxidant enzymes in the upper airways

Another UCLA study looked at the effects of sulforaphane on cellular oxidative stress, which is thought to be a contributing factor in respiratory ailments like asthma. Phase II enzymes remove oxidative stress.

In a placebo-controlled trial that investigated the effects of sulforaphane, there was an increase in phase II enzyme expression in the upper airways. The results were dose-dependent, meaning that the more broccoli sprouts the participants consumed, the more significant their results [21].

Researchers concluded that sulforaphane that naturally occurs in broccoli sprouts can have a detox effect by inducing a potent increase in antioxidant Phase II enzymes in upper airway cells. This might help prevent asthma and other conditions that occur due to oxidative stress.

Can broccoli sprouts and sulforaphane fight inflammation?

Inflammation is a critical function within your body. It’s how the immune system responds to injury and infection to begin the healing process. Inflammation also plays a role in protecting you against harmful foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses.

However, if the inflammation is chronic, things can get problematic. Your body being in a constant state of alert could have several adverse effects on your health. Several diseases such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases, and even some cancers have been linked with chronic inflammation [25].

There are various causes of chronic inflammation, but some of the major ones are thought to be untreated acute inflammation from an infection, long term exposure to irritants like air pollution, as well as lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity, stress, and excessive alcohol use [26].

There is even some evidence that links inflammation to longevity in bats [27].

With all of that in mind, it would make sense to explore ways to keep inflammation under control. Let’s look at what one study found when it comes to sulforaphane and inflammation.

A 2018 study published in Frontiers in Immunology Journal showed that sulforaphane derived from broccoli can induce a pro-oxidative state in human cells, which can suppress chronic inflammation and support people with inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis [28].

Another review of the clinical evidence by Monash University in Australia states that sulforaphane has been found to have beneficial effects both in test tubes and in animal studies through its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties [29].

Sulforaphane’s effects on the brain

Let’s look at how sulforaphane might have an effect on the brain, and what the research currently tells us.

We know that sulforaphane passes the blood-brain barrier (BBB) in mice [30]. We also know that sulforaphane has anti-inflammatory properties [31]. And inflammation has been shown to have the potential to harm the brain and behavior [32].

NRF2 pathways (the process that regulates antioxidants and is induced by sulforaphane) is the body’s primary defense against oxidative stress. So, sulforaphane might also play a role in conditions of the brain where oxidative stress is a factor.

Let’s see what some of the research has to say.

Sulforaphane and autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

In a study by the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and Harvard Medical School, sulforaphane seemed to have a positive effect on those suffering from autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

ASD is characterized by behavior issues and impaired social and communication skills. It is one of the ailments of the brain that is thought to have an oxidative stress component.

In the double-blind, placebo-controlled study, young men between the ages of 13 and 27 with varying levels of ASD received broccoli sprout extracts. Another group received a placebo.

After 18 weeks, the group receiving the placebo experienced very little change. However, the group receiving sulforaphane (broccoli sprout extracts) showed significant improvements in social interactions, behavior, and communication skills. Furthermore, when the broccoli sprout extract was discontinued, their behavior deteriorated back to previous levels [33].

Broccoli sprouts and schizophrenia

As with ASD, oxidative stress is believed to play a role in schizophrenia, which is characterized by cognitive impairment symptoms such as delusions, hallucinations, abnormal behavior, among others [35].

In an open study published in the Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience Journal, patients were given sulforaphane-rich broccoli sprout extract to see if it had any antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

Of the 7 patients that completed the trial, each experiences significant improvement in cognitive ability. Researchers concluded that sulforaphane might have the potential to benefit those suffering from schizophrenia [34].

Broccoli sprouts and depression

Depression is a widespread psychiatric illness in the United States and around the world. Many people who suffer from the condition rely on antidepressants, which can come with various unwanted side effects.

There is some recent evidence to suggest that what you eat can have an impact on your brain and mental health. Nutrition can regulate levels of neurotransmitters that affect mood. It can also play a role in inflammation, which can play a role in depression as well.

In a 2017 study in Japan, researchers looked at the effects of sulforaphane on inflammation-related depressive behavior in mice. They examined whether preventing the effects of sulforaphane increased symptoms.

The researchers found that the dietary intake of sulforaphane-rich broccoli sprouts had a preventative effect on depression symptoms. They concluded that the sulforaphane could be useful in preventing relapse in the remission state of depression by regulating inflammation [36].

Broccoli sprouts and sulforaphane may boost heart health

Consumption of cruciferous vegetables has been linked with a lower risk of mortality due to cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke.

An animal study conducted in 2012 found that sulforaphane from broccoli sprouts lowered blood pressure in the subjects. The sulforaphane stopped a DNA biochemical process that has been associated with high blood pressure [22].

Another 2016 from Shinshu University in Japan looked at the effects of powdered broccoli sprouts in rats with hypertension. Researchers found that sprouts from broccoli, buckwheat, and mung bean significantly reduced hypertension in the subjects. They also lowered excess blood lipid levels, which has been linked with the risk of cardiovascular disease [23].

Also, a 2014 study done at a Chinese University looked at the effects of sulforaphane extracted from broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and other cruciferous veggies on sustained cardiac hypertrophy (a contributing factor for heart failure). Researchers concluded that sulforaphane had a beneficial effect on harmful cardiac hypertrophy [24].

What is the best way to incorporate sulforaphane in my diet?

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Given all of the incredible potential benefits of sulforaphane, it makes sense that we should try to find ways to incorporate broccoli sprouts into our regular diets (since broccoli sprouts are one of the most potent sources of sulforaphane). The good news is that it is relatively cheap and easy to do so.

Here are the best ways to include broccoli sprouts in your diet.

Sprout your own broccoli seeds

Sprouted broccoli seeds are the most bioavailable sources of sulforaphane. That means that when you eat the sprouts, your body can most easily absorb the most sulforaphane. This is because when the sprouts are chewed or crushed, they release the myrosinase enzyme, which plays a critical role in the bioavailability of sulforaphane [37].

You can add the broccoli sprouts in a smoothie, or use them as a garnish on your meals. Whatever form you prefer to eat them in, just make sure that they get chewed, chopped, or crushed (like in a blender).

Todds seeds Broccoli sprouting seeds

You can buy broccoli seeds online (Todd’s seeds come highly recommended due to their high germination rate), as well as sprouting kits. There are also plenty of instructions online on how to sprout the seeds, and it is quite a simple process.

Kenley Broccoli seed sprouting jar kit

Dr. Rhonda Patrick, a leading nutrition scientist and a strong advocate of eating broccoli sprouts, has a video on the process she uses to increase sulforaphane in broccoli sprouts by more than three times!

Dr Rhonda Patrick explaining how to increase the bioavailability of sulforaphane by 3x-4x from your broccoli sprouts (hint: heat the broccoli sprouts for the right time and the right amount).

Powdered broccoli sprouts and sulforaphane supplements

If sprouting is not an option, you can take a broccoli sprout supplement. Supplements are available in both capsule and powdered forms.

Some of the leading broccoli sprouts supplements are Thorne Research Sulforaphane Glucosinolate (SGS), and Source Naturals Broccoli Sprouts.

If you want a powdered form, you can check out Micro Ingredients Organic Broccoli Extract Powder. Some of the research we mentioned above (like the one on cardiovascular health) used powdered broccoli sprouts.

However, supplements, in general, aren’t the same as the sprouted seeds when it comes to the bioavailability of sulforaphane. There is some evidence to suggest that taking a myrosinase supplement might increase the bioavailability of sulforaphane supplements [37]. Rhonda Patrick has stated in interviews that many sulforaphane supplements only contain precursors to sulforaphane without combining it with the enzyme necessary to turn the precursor into bio-available sulforaphane. Avmacol, Rhonda Patrick’s sulforaphane supplement of choice, contains both the precursor and the needed enzyme (myrosinase).

Can I just eat the broccoli and be done with it?

Eating fully grown broccoli will provide you with more fiber and higher amounts of most vitamins and minerals. However, if we are focusing specifically on sulforaphane and all of its benefits, you will get a much higher dosage from broccoli sprouts than mature broccoli.

Ideally, you would do both. You can eat the whole cruciferous vegetables as well as incorporate broccoli sprouts in your diet.

That being said, broccoli still remains one of the healthiest foods on the planet. So, if you’re only able to access whole broccoli, then definitely eat the broccoli. You will still get sulforaphane and plenty of other critical nutrients.

Tip: Hack your cooked broccoli for 4X more sulforaphane!

If you’re not able to access broccoli seeds, and you’re not thrilled about the idea of eating raw broccoli, there is still one way in which you can maximize sulforaphane in cooked broccoli (and other cruciferous vegetables).

According to a 2018 study, adding raw ground mustard seeds to cooked broccoli increased the bioavailability of sulforaphane by four times in humans [38].

Here’s why that happens:

Myrosinase, the enzyme responsible for transforming glucoraphanin in broccoli to sulforaphane, is heat-sensitive. So, when you cook the broccoli, you deactivate myrosinase, and it can no longer create sulforaphane, making it less bioavailable from the vegetable.

The good news is that glucoraphanin is not heat-sensitive. This is where mustard seeds come in. Mustard is also a part of the cruciferous family, and the seeds also contain the myrosinase enzyme.

So, when you add raw ground mustard seeds to cooked broccoli, the myrosinase from mustard seeds can interact with the glucoraphanin in broccoli to make the sulforaphane more bioavailable to you.

You can buy organic mustard seeds online. Put them in a grinder and add some to your next broccoli, kale, cabbage, or cauliflower dish.

Raw mustard seeds increase the bioavailability of sulforaphane in cooked broccoli by up to four times!

Otherwise, you can buy Avamcol’s Sulforaphane Production System supplement, which comes with broccoli sprout extract and active myrosinase from wasabi extract.

Final thoughts on broccoli sprouts and sulforaphane

There seems to be enough evidence to suggest that sulforaphane can be a potent nutrient. We’ve discussed the research that has shown sulforaphane to have positive effects on both people and animals when it comes to cancer risk, cardiovascular health, and inflammation-related brain health.

Even if you’re fortunate enough to be in good health, you must eat a diet that increases your odds of maintaining optimal health for years to come. Unfortunately, many of us are exposed to pollutants through things like air pollution, impurities in our food, and other sources. Not to mention stress, which also contributes to poor health in modern society.

If sulforaphane really does have the potential to rid your body of harmful carcinogens and regulate inflammation, it becomes a no-brainer to include in your diet. Order some broccoli seeds and a sprouting kit, and give it a shot. Worst case, you’ll make prettier salads, just like those chefs at the fancy restaurants.

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Agnit is the lead writer for uVitals. As an avid health and fitness enthusiast, he is passionate about writing content that helps people take control of their health to live happier, more productive lives. Someday, he plans to listen to his own advice and drink less coffee.

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