“Eat your greens,” though trite, is solid advice worth heeding. Their powerhouse trifecta of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals is just the beginning of their promising health benefits. Between kale, spinach, broccoli, and green powders, you get it: greens are good for you. But do you actually know why? Well, a little-known nutrient called sulforaphane is found specifically in cruciferous vegetables (think: some dark leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage).
With its long list of superfood-like benefits, you’ve got yourself the next best thing to a cure-all. The next time you need a helping hand to detox after a vacation or relieve some digestive drama, consider noshing on some sulforaphane-rich veggies (food is medicine, folks!). To learn more about the super nutrient, I asked experts to give us the lowdown on sulforaphane, how it benefits our health, and how we can get the most out of it in our diets.
What is Sulforaphane?
“Sulforaphane is a natural compound that belongs to a class of chemicals called isothiocyanates, which are derived from glucosinolates found in certain cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower,” explained Mary Sabat, MS, RDN, LD, a nutritionist, and ACE-certified trainer. “Sulforaphane is formed when these vegetables are chopped, chewed, or otherwise damaged, which triggers an enzymatic reaction that converts glucoraphanin (a glucosinolate) into sulforaphane.” While all cruciferous vegetables contain glucosinolates, broccoli sprouts are one of the richest sources; in fact, they pack in 10-100 times higher levels of glucoraphanin than their counterparts (stay tuned for how to incorporate the mighty plant into your diet).
Health Benefits of Sulforaphane
Lowers oxidative stress
“Sulforaphane acts as an indirect antioxidant by promoting the body’s own antioxidant defense mechanisms,” said Sam Schleiger, MS, RDN, CD, CLT, IFNCP, a functional medicine registered dietitian, and Owner of Simply Nourished Functional Nutrition. “It stimulates the production of a family of enzymes that play a crucial role in neutralizing and eliminating harmful molecules, such as reactive oxygen species (ROS) and other toxins, that can cause oxidative stress.” Schleiger cited that by promoting the activity of these enzymes, sulforaphane helps protect cells and tissues from damage associated with chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disorders.
Improves gut health
While there are countless supplements for gut health at our fingertips, nothing beats getting the nutrients your body needs from whole foods. Research shows that sulforaphane found in many cruciferous vegetables normalizes the composition of gut microbiota and repairs the physiological destruction of the gut barrier. Moreover, because sulforaphane’s antioxidant effects are believed to help your intestinal cells function normally, they may help ease constipation and improve bowel movements.
Chronic inflammation might as well be called the root of all evil thanks to its implication in various diseases and symptoms. The silver lining is that sulforaphane has been shown to inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory molecules. “By reducing the activity of these molecules, sulforaphane can help modulate the inflammatory response and potentially alleviate inflammation-related symptoms and risks,” Schleiger conveyed.
Your digestive tract, liver, kidneys, and skin all work together to make the body well-equipped to “detox” daily. Schleiger pointed out that sulforaphane has a hand in the body’s natural detox system and process by activating phase 2 detoxification enzymes and enhancing detoxification pathways. “These enzymes aid in metabolizing and eliminating harmful substances, including environmental toxins and carcinogens,” she said. In other words, sulforaphane helps reduce the body’s burden of potentially harmful compounds.
Promotes brain health
These days gut health gets all the glory, but brain health is just as critical when it comes to your overall health. In a nutshell, it affects your ability to communicate, make decisions, and problem-solve. Enter sulforaphane and its lauded neuroprotective properties. “It can influence the expression of genes related to neuronal function, promote the activation of antioxidant enzymes, and reduce inflammation in the brain,” Schleiger expressed. “These actions collectively contribute to maintaining brain health and protecting against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”
How to Get More Sulforaphane
While there are sulforaphane supplements like this available (Schleiger advised exercising caution and consulting a healthcare professional before taking any supplements as their quality and effectiveness can vary), the best way to load up on the nutrient is through your diet. I repeat: Broccoli sprouts are one of the most potent sources of sulforaphane. So don’t sleep on upgrading your salads, sandwiches, or smoothies with broccoli sprouts to get your daily dose of sulforaphane, and if you want to be extra and maximize your sulforaphane intake (cause why not?), pair them with broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, or kale which also contain the nutrient.
Sabat recommended eating them raw or lightly steamed since cooking can reduce their overall sulforaphane content. Whether you go for broccoli sprouts or another sulforaphane-dense vegetable (such as Brussel sprouts, mustard greens, or cabbage), consider eating them with sources of vitamin C like citrus fruits, which can enhance the body’s ability to absorb and utilize sulforaphane.
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