Finish Your Broccoli, Breathe A Little Easier

Mom always told us to eat our vegetables, and often, we tried our best to ignore her.  Now, as adults, we know there was wisdom in her nagging.  Vegetables have a lot of good, nutritious stuff in them – though some of us really do have to convince ourselves to eat them.  Research continues to show that a diet rich in the colorful stuff decreases the risk of a variety of chronic diseases from cancer to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Big Broccoli, credit: aquatone282 (flickr)

Big Broccoli, credit: aquatone282 (flickr)

If you’re not eating 4-5 cups of vegetables a day now, you should start – especially if you have bad allergies or asthma.  Beyond being good for everyone, research is now showing that greens might be particularly good for those who suffer from inflammatory diseases like asthma and allergies. That’s because a compound found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, and horseradish can ramp up the body’s natural way of suppressing those kinds of diseases when eaten.

A Study in the Real World

Many studies show how good certain compounds are at turning on or off certain genetic pathways but these use isolated cells or tissues to show how protein levels change.  While it’s a great method to show how things work, it does not tell you how to get the same positive effects in your own body.  It’s not as easy as we might think to get nutrients to the cells that need them.

Our stomachs are miraculously efficient at breaking things down – a fact which medicine has to gone to great lengths to overcome.  It’s why some drugs have to be injected or inhaled instead of simply eaten; they can’t get past our stomachs’ digestive enzymes.

What’s so great about this study is that it did use real people.  Researchers from UCLA had the subjects drink a broccoli-sprout shake for three days then measured the change in enzyme activity in their nasal cells.

SODs (pictured) keep ROSs in check - got it, right?

SODs (pictured) keep ROSs in check - got it, right?

They were looking for activation of Phase II enzymes, which are responsible for protecting our cells from reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS are signals released by cells that are stressed and trigger inflammation.  Some people’s systems overreact to little things, causing diseases like allergies and asthma. Ramping up the Phase II enzymes would help prevent the body’s overreaction, and is starting to be looked at as a new target for treatment.

One compound which has been found to turn on Phase II is Sulforaphane (SFN).  SFN occurs naturally in vegetables like broccoli. While studies have found SFN to work great in terms of triggering Phase II response, they have all been in non-human models.  No one had yet shown that simply eating veggies could do the trick.

That is, not until now.

The UCLA study of 65 people found that drinking a broccoli-sprout shake significantly increased the activity of Phase II enzymes as compared to an alfalfa-sprout one. Alfalfa doesn’t contain SFN like broccoli does, so it served as a control drink.  The more broccoli the subjects drank, the better the effect – up to twice the control level of Phase II activity – so the more you eat, the better.

Broccoli, The Miracle Food

If you suffer from asthma or allergies, you might want to consider upping your veggies. Sulforaphane is found in high concentrations in broccoli (particularly sprouts), kale, radishes, turnips, cauliflower and the other cruciferous vegetables.  Upping Phase II activity might help reduce your symptoms.

Brussel Sprouts, another cruciferous veggie with SFN

Brussel Sprouts, another cruciferous veggie with SFN

Even if you don’t have asthma or allergies, you should know that SFN is also implicated as an anti-cancer, anti-diabetic and anti-microbial compound, so it’s a good idea for everyone to have a few extra servings.

The only caution is that if you’re taking prescription drugs for long-term problems you should talk to your doctor before gorging yourself on broccoli.  Sulforaphane has also been shown to increase the uptake and breakdown of some drugs.

For most of us, though, we should not only listen to Mom, we should have another helping.  Those veggies that we despised as kids are really important for good health.  And don’t let your youngsters get away with skimping on the broccoli, either.  If they don’t seem to be interested in their 5 to 9 servings a day, try giving the foods engaging names like “X-Ray Vision Carrots” - a recent study found that preschoolers eat more vegetables when they sounded fun (similar results have been found with adults, if you’re husband or wife doesn’t love their greens, either).  In the end, they’ll thank you!

Reference: Riedl, M., Saxon, A., & Diaz-Sanchez, D. (2009). Oral sulforaphane increases Phase II antioxidant enzymes in the human upper airway☆ Clinical Immunology, 130 (3), 244-251 DOI: 10.1016/j.clim.2008.10.007