Monday, April 2, 2012

Broccoli: Our Cross to Bear

As I was heading into work today, I read a little factoid saying broccoli has been found to boost the immune system.  Having a stuffy nose and being all-around a curious kitten, I decided to dive into some research on the subject. 

According to Science Daily, the chemical responsible for this immune boost is sulforaphane.  Sulforaphane is an organosulfur (an organic compound containing sulfur) compound found in all cruciferous vegetables.  It is produced upon damage (chewing or chopping) as a defense mechanism of the plant through the hydrolysis of glucosinolates, namely glucoraphanine.  This is called the myrosinase-glucosinolate defense system. 

How is this a defense?

This enzymatic process is what produces the bitter aftertaste associated with most cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, and brussel sprouts.  The plant is telling you not to eat it.  Most animals would taste the bitterness and move on to friendlier plants.  But not us!  Slap some garlic and butter on that puppy and we're good to go!     

What does Sulforaphane do?

In our popcorn post, we talked a bit about free radicals.  

"Free radicals play an important role in a number of biological processes. Some of 
these are necessary for life, such as the intracellular killing of bacteria by phagocytic cells such as 
granulocytes and macrophages. Researchers have also implicated free 
radicals in certain cell signalling processes. This is dubbed redox signalling."

We need free radicals for our cells to function properly, but, as is always the case, there must be a balance.  Scientists argue that free radicals, especially Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) like superoxide (O2), eventually lead to cell injury and death.  This cellular slaughter contributes to the development of diseases such as cancer, stroke, diabetes, Parkinson's, senility, Alzheimer's, hemochromatosis, and other major medical problems. 

Antioxidants neutralize these free radicals-- and it just so happens that sulforaphane is pretty good at releasing these bad boys.

"...the UCLA group confirmed that sulforaphane interacts with a protein called Nrf2, 
which serves as a master regulator of the body's overall antioxidant response and is 
capable of switching on hundreds of antioxidant and rejuvenating genes and enzymes."
-Science Daily
So your cells are safe with a little help from your cruciferous veggies, but be careful when preparing them.  The chemical reactions don't fare well with too much heat, so cooking (and easily overcooking) your vegetables will only release the foul smell of sulfur with no health benefits.  These guys are best served raw -- and well washed!

Click here for a list of other cruciferous vegetables. 

Further Reading: Science Daily, Natural News, WebMD, 
                          Myrosinase Wiki, Radicals Wiki, Sulforaphane Wiki

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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