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What Is Sulforaphane?

Broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are examples of cruciferous vegetables.
Kale contains sulforaphane.
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  • Written By: Ray Hawk
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 08 August 2014
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Sulforaphane is a rather simple organic compound that is found in the largest concentrations in the cruciferous or mustard family of plants, including broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. It is a phytochemical, which means it is biologically-activated when the human body breaks its chemical components free of the sugar molecule glucosinolate that it is bound to in plants. There are a range of health benefits that the compound brings to the human diet, but chief among them is its ability to act as an antioxidant and bind to free radical oxygen molecules that can cause cellular damage. Because of this activity, it is a natural cancer preventative and has been indicated specifically as being capable of reducing the risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer.

Another key aspect of sulforaphane as a health promoter in the diet is its ability to stimulate the production of detoxifying enzymes. Research at the UK College of London in 2010 showed that it activated a heart-protecting protein known as Nrf2 which naturally becomes inactive in blood vessels when they exhibit plaque build-up. This can lead to the prevention of heart disease. Additional research at the US University of California at Los Angeles has shown that sulforaphane promotes immune system function in dendritic cells, which process antigens to protect the body from infection, by preventing the reproduction of bacteria and viruses.

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Both natural forms of the compound or sulforaphane extract that is made into a sulforaphane supplement have been shown in laboratory testing to have a wide variety of health benefits. The antioxidant value of sulforaphane has been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels if only 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of broccoli are consumed per week. Sulforaphane cancer research has also shown that the chemical prevents the production of benzo-a-pyrene which can lead to stomach tumor growth. It is also able to act as an inhibitor for a particularly robust type of antibiotic resistant bacteria known as Heliobacter pylori.

Broccoli sprouts are known to have the highest concentration of sulforaphane, but it can also be found in many other plants in the cruciferous family such as kale, radishes, and turnips. If broccoli sprouts are harvested before the plant is allowed to mature, the concentration of sulforaphane is 30 to 50 times higher than in the mature plants. To reduce cancer risk in humans to half of the statistical average, this would require consuming an ounce of broccoli sprouts per week (28 grams) as opposed to an equivalent two pounds (907 grams) of mature broccoli.

Among the other beneficial effects of sulforaphane content in the diet include evidence that it can be used to prevent and treat arthritis, and to protect against respiratory ailments such as asthma, rhinitis, and lung disease. Drinking broccoli juice itself has also been shown to stimulate skin production of an enzyme called glutathione S-transferase, which neutralizes compounds that damage DNA while undergoing exposure to ultraviolet light from sunshine. Since the compound has beneficial effects against the most common health threats to the human population, including cancer and heart disease, it remains a subject of concentrated and repeated study by medical science.

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