Approximately 39.5 percent of women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, and around 13 percent of women will be specifically diagnosed with breast cancer. So, this begs the question: what can you do to help prevent cancer? There are ways to decrease this risk, including engaging in physical activity, eating nourishing and nutrient-dense foods, being aware of the early signs of cancer, and receiving regular screenings as appropriate.
Following a diet rich in whole foods that includes a lot of color and diversity is definitely a factor you can control—and getting plenty of nutrients is crucial to cancer prevention and your overall health. This post will focus on one specific phytonutrient known as sulforaphane that has been found to minimize cancer risk although we know there are thousands of phytonutrients with many that impact cancer prevention.
Sulforaphane Health Benefits
Sulforaphane is a phytochemical found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussels sprouts. Health benefits of sulforaphane include antioxidant properties and it can reduce inflammation, support detoxification, and protect DNA. Research indicates that this compound has the potential to help support the prevention of some of the most common cancers affecting women in the United States, including breast cancer, endometrial cancer, cervical cancer, and ovarian cancer.
The mechanisms by which this cancer prevention occurs are complex and involve the following.
- Sulforaphane enhances chemosensitization (i.e., may help chemotherapy work better, but always talk with your healthcare team first!):
- Combined with other cancer drugs, sulforaphane could provide more effective treatment against certain cancers.
- A 2019 study published in the journal ACS Nano found that a specific type of chemotherapy, combined with the addition of sulforaphane in the diet, had a more powerful effect on fighting breast cancer tumors than the chemotherapy alone.
- Sulforaphane inhibits and slows tumor growth:
- Sulforaphane was found to slow the growth of cervical cancer cells by causing cell death and reducing inflammation in the body.
- Sulforaphane has been found to specifically offer protection against tumor development during the “post-initiation” phase of cancer cell development, which includes stopping the cell from growing early on in its life and therefore leading to cell death.
So how does stopping tumor growth work? Here are insights; sulforaphane
- produces species of reactive oxygen; these compounds are toxic to cancer cells and can cause death of those cells
- is an antioxidant that activates specific enzymes, which are compounds that aid in chemical reactions in the body and are involved in preventing DNA damage and inhibiting tumor formation
- aids in cell communication, specifically between cells that inhibit tumor progression
- inhibits the formation of new blood vessels that supply nutrients to tumors
Plus, sulforaphane impacts epigenetics.
Now let’s unpack that last sentence. First, sulforaphane was found to reactivate genes known as tumor suppressor genes, which can be “turned on” to prevent the growth of cancer cells. This is an epigenetic event, meaning that an environmental or lifestyle factor—in this case, eating foods that contain sulforaphane—actually changes DNA. Better yet, types of epigenetic events related to lessening tumor growth can even occur in the later stages of tumor development.
Sulforaphane also modulates cancer stem cells, targeting and preventing growth of cancer cells that have stem cell properties. This is particularly important because cancer stem cells can turn into multiple types of cancer cells and are therefore more dangerous. Interestingly enough, some medical treatments can’t target cancer stem cells and therefore mostly focus on highly dividing cells, so using sulforaphane as an aid in cancer treatment may be an as-of-yet untapped resource.
Mechanisms described relate to cancer in general, but studies have also been done relating to female-specific cancers:
- A study published in Cancer Prevention Research investigated the effect of sulforaphane on mice with breast cancer and found that tumor volume decreased by 29 percent in the treatment group. This indicates the power of sulforaphane as a potential treatment of breast cancer in humans as well.
- A study published in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics found that sulforaphane inhibited cell growth in breast cancer due to complex cellular mechanisms that lead to inhibited growth and even cell death.
- A study published in Cancer Epidemiology found that sulforaphane has anti-carcinogenic effects on human cervical cancer cells.
- A study published in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics found that sulforaphane can protect women against the growth of ovarian cancer.
So, how can you incorporate more of this cancer-fighting phytonutrient into your diet?
Fortunately, it's simple! Cruciferous vegetables are very versatile and can be incorporated into many meals and snacks. Here are some ideas for sulforaphane foods:
- Roast brussels sprouts with something sweet (like maple syrup) and something savory (like parmesan cheese).
- Make a kale salad, perhaps adding roasted carrots or diced apple.
- Toss kale into your morning smoothie.
- Use arugula to make a pesto or top your homemade pizza with it.
- Pickle cauliflower to eat as a snack.
- Dip your cauliflower in hummus.
- Experiment with different sauces! Maybe you like to add sauce to roasted veggies or just toss some on raw ones for a quick snack.
- Add cruciferous veggies to a soup.
- Add spices to your veggies for a flavor kick: turmeric, black pepper, rosemary, red pepper flakes, or garlic.
One important thing to note: the preparation of cruciferous vegetables can impact their nutritional benefit. Sulforaphane exists in a different, inactive form when vegetables are raw. This form is called glucoraphanin and the enzyme that breaks it down is called myrosinase. Myrosinase becomes active when a plant is cut, chewed, chopped, or treated similarly. Because of this, make sure to chop these types of vegetables forty-five to sixty minutes before cooking to maximize the sulforaphane content. Another way to activate sulforaphane is to add mustard powder or a marinade containing mustard when cooking. Mustard contains myrosinase, which is the enzyme that activates sulforaphane.
So, it’s obvious that the benefits of sulforaphane are plentiful; however, is there a potential for overconsumption of sulforaphane?
Ingesting too much of anything, including phytonutrients, can potentially have negative health effects. If you are eating a modest amount of cruciferous vegetables in their whole food form, it is likely that you won’t have any issues with overconsuming sulforaphane.
However, there has been mixed evidence that the overconsumption of sulforaphane can negatively impact thyroid function. Some studies indicate that the activity of the DNA protein that sulforaphane impacts can lead to thyroid dysfunction or thyroid autoimmune disease. However, the research is very unclear, and other research indicates that long term exposure to sulforaphane does not significantly affect thyroid function.
If you have issues with thyroid function, you may want to consider talking with your healthcare provider first before consuming large amounts of cruciferous vegetables. However, the health benefits of cruciferous vegetables are numerous, so consuming them regularly is important for overall health if your risk for thyroid disorders is low.
Sulforaphane is a very powerful compound, and incorporating it into your diet more often may reduce the risk of cancer and may improve overall health. I guess our parents were right when they said “eat your broccoli” at the dinner table all those years ago!
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- N;, J. (2019, November 26). Sulforaphane halts breast cancer cell growth. Drug discovery today. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15501721/
- Sharma, C., Sadrieh, L., Priyani, A., Ahmed, M., Hassan, A.H., Hussain, A.. (2011, June). Anti-carcinogenic effects of sulforaphane in association with its apoptosis-inducing and anti-inflammatory properties in human cervical cancer cells. Cancer epidemiology. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20956097/
- Soundararajan, P., & Kim, J. S. (2018, November 15). Anti-carcinogenic glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables and their antagonistic effects on prevention of cancers. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6278308/