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Brussels Sprouts: A Superfood with Cancer-Fighting Potential

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Posted Tuesday, Apr. 22nd, 2014

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For decades, the world of nutrition has been divided on many things. But there’s one principle of eating that health professionals of all stripes and colors have always been united on: Vegetables are good.

Okay, no argument there. But while all vegetables are good, some vegetables are even more good. And for my money, the undisputed king of vegetable royalty—the top of the food chain in vegetable-land—is the Brassica family of veggies, also known as cruciferous vegetables. The category also includes kale, collard greens, cabbage, kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower, broccoli rabe and bok choy.

Brussels sprouts are also a member of that category of vegetables and are not really sprouts at all. They look like tiny little miniature cabbages, growing tightly packed together on a tall thick stalk. They were first widely cultivated in 16th-century Belgium, which accounts for their name (Brussels is the capital of Belgium).

Now cruciferous vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, are best known for being associated with lowered risk of cancer, a darn good reason right there to consume them.

Detoxification and Cancer…

The key to the cancer-fighting ability of Brussels sprouts are sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates. From glucosinates, the body makes other compounds called isothiocyanates, which in turn activate enzyme systems in our cells vital to fighting cancer.

These enzyme systems are needed to detoxify cancer-causing substances. The glucosinolates-to-isothiocyanates pathway produces “switches” that fire up these cancer-fighting systems. And it starts with the glucosinolates that Brussels sprouts provide.

Pretty neat, right?

According to the not-for-profit George Mateljan Foundation, Brussels sprouts now top the list of commonly eaten cruciferous vegetables for total glucosinolate content. Their glucosinate content has been shown to be greater than the amount found in cabbage, kale, cauliflower, or even broccoli.1

And remember, sulfur is detoxifying and Brussels sprouts are loaded with the stuff. This makes them even an even more powerful cancer-fighting ally.

Sulfur is needed by the body’s detox system, specifically phase-2 liver detoxification. Think about all those tourists who trek to the sulfur baths at expensive spa destinations, hoping to enjoy their well-known detoxification benefits. Well, they could have just stayed home and eaten Brussels sprouts instead.

Brussels Sprouts May Ward off Colon Cancer…

Brussels sprouts also contain a chemical called sinigrin which suppresses the development of pre-cancerous cells. The breakdown product of sinigrin (allyl isothiocyanate), is the active ingredient, and is responsible for their less than pleasant odor, often known affectionately as “eau d’ New Jersey”. Luckily the smell has nothing to do with their taste!

Allyl isothiocyanate works by persuading the pre-cancerous cells to commit suicide — a natural process called apoptosis. The effect is so powerful that it’s entirely possible the regular inclusion of Brussels sprouts in your diet could help to reduce your risk of colon cancer.2

Isothiocyanates are also known to help fight cancer by inhibiting cell proliferation, neutralizing carcinogens and helping to detoxify nasty environmental toxins.

An Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory Powerhouse…

But it’s not just the sulfur-containing compounds in Brussels sprout that make them a superfood, they also reduce oxidation and inflammation.

Brussels sprouts are a source of many antioxidant vitamins including vitamin C. But besides the well-known antioxidants this superfood contains, Brussels sprouts also contain a host of flavonoid antioxidants, with long unpronounceable names like isorhamnetin and kaempferol, not to mention caffeic and ferulic acids.

Some of these antioxidants are pretty rare in foods, and they may well contribute to the overall health benefits of complex foods like Brussels sprouts where so many nutrients are working synergistically.

The glucosinolates in Brussels sprouts that help with detoxification and offer cancer-protective benefits actually do double duty: they also help regulate the body’s inflammatory/anti-inflammatory system.

And remember, chronic oxidative stress and inflammation are the twin towers of metabolic damage. Inflammation is present in every major degenerative disease we know of—it’s a primary promoter of heart disease.

Packed with Vitamins, Minerals, and Fiber…

Because Brussels sprouts provide 2 grams of fiber per ½ cup serving, they can also help support digestive health. Brussels sprouts also supply good amounts of folate (folic acid), potassium, bone building vitamin K, and a small amount of beta-carotene.

All for a measly 28 calories per ½ cup.

Now that’s what I call a “nutrient dense” food.

References

1 http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=10

2 Geng F, et al. Allyl isothiocyanate arrests cancer cells in mitosis, and mitotic arrest in turn leads to apoptosis via Bcl-2 protein phosphorylation. J Biol Chem 2011; 286(37):32259-67

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