Packed within our food are nuggets of good health that can transform a healthy food into a superfood. Many of these compounds have become well known – vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids.
But every now and then, an exciting new compound is discovered that promises to do wondrous things for our health. One of the most exciting is sulfurophane
Research has shown very promising indications that sulfurophane can be a good anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent that can be beneficial for mental health, hair growth, muscle recovery and even severe illnesses like cancer.
In this article, we’ll provide you with the essential information you need to know about sulfurophane – what it is, how it helps you and the many ways you can include it in your diet.
Before We Get Started
- 1 Before We Get Started
- 2 What Is Sulforaphane?
- 3 How Is It Good for You?
- 4 Adverse Effects Of Sulfurophane
- 5 The Many Ways To Consume It
It’s important to note that healthy compounds are good to incorporate in our diets, but we still need to take care of our overall diet and exercise regimen for overall improved health.
For example, just because we consume food compounds that improve cardiovascular health, doesn’t mean that we can just binge on ice cream and high-fat foods and see the same effects (let alone any effects).
It’s advised that you up your intake of sulforaphane while also generally taking care of your general health through diet and exercise.
What Is Sulforaphane?
Sulforaphane is one among many “isothiocyanate” molecules that are usually associated with unique health benefits. It’s usually obtained from cruciferous veggies, such as broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, bok choy etc. It’s actually found in the form of glucoraphanin in these veggies, and is only turned into sulforaphane when in contact with an enzyme called myrosinase.These plants actually do contain this enzyme, but it only comes in contact with glucoraphanin when the veggies are chopped or chewed.
The compound has been tested for its health benefits at relatively higher concentrations than is found in most plant forms. To get the most out of this compound, here’s a list of foods with the highest sulforaphane precursor concentrations:
|Foods (raw)||Serving size||Total Glucosinolates (mg)|
|Broccoli sprouts||1 ounce (28g)||281|
|Brussel sprouts||½ cup (44g)||104|
|Garden cress||½ cup (25g)||98|
|Mustard greens||½ cup, chopped (28g)||79|
|Turnips||½ cup, cubes (65g)||60|
|Savoy cabbage||½ cup, chopped (45g)||35|
|Kale||½ cup, chopped (67g)||67|
|Watercress||½ cup, chopped (34g)||32|
|Kohlrabi||½ cup, chopped (67g)||31|
|Red cabbage||½ cup, chopped (45g)||29|
|Broccoli||½ cup, chopped (44g)||27|
|Horseradish||1 tablespoon (15g)||24|
|Cauliflower||½ cup, chopped (50g)||22|
|Bok Choy (pak choi)||½ cup, chopped (35g)||19|
Broccoli sprouts are by far the richest source of glucosinolates- over 100 times more than regular raw broccoli!
Unfortunately, only about 20% of the glucoraphanin in the foods that we eat end up as sulfurophane in our body, so it’s important that your foods are very high in the superfood to begin with.
How Is It Good for You?
Sulforaphane has been shown to be incredibly good for our health, and the main way it could do this is because of its ability to interact with our DNA. It helps turn off bad genes, and turn on good genes that end up helping with DNA repair, inflammation reduction and more. We’ve outlined all the different ways this benefits us below:
Good For Brain & Mental Health
Sulforaphane is one of the few compounds that can cross the blood-brain barrier- a barrier that most pharmaceutical companies need to figure out how to get their medicine past.
One of the main ways it improves mental health is through its potent anti-inflammatory effects. It’s a potent activator of a protein called NRF2- the body’s strongest defense against “oxidative stress.” Oxidative stress triggers inflammation, which happens to be part of the etiology of several mental illnesses, such as depression, schizophrenia and even autism.
Sulforaphane appears to help with all of those, as well as traumatic brain injuries and neurogenerative diseases like Alzheimers, Parkinson’s and Huntingtons disease!
|Mental Illness||Dose of Sulforaphane|
(or precursor) per day
|Equivalent dose in broccoli sprouts (g)||Improvements|
|Autism||9-25mg||65||-Improved autistic behavior checklist scores by 34%!|
-Significantly improved social interaction, abnormal behavior and verbal communication
|Schizophrenia||30mg glucoraphanin||2||-Improved cognitive scores|
The schizophrenia study was a very small group of medicated schizophrenic patients. This does show hope with regards to sulforaphane for schizophrenia, but further studies with larger sample sizes are needed for proof.
In animal studies:
|Depression||Alleviated stress-induced depression and anxiety symptoms as well as Prozac in mice.|
|Neurodegenerative diseases||Activates heat shock response against aggregated proteins found in neurodegenerative diseases.|
|Alzheimer's disease||Reduces tremors in mice with lab-induced Parkinson’s disease|
|Huntington’s disease||Clears aggregates in brains of mice genetically engineered to have Huntington’s disease.|
Depression has also been proven to be triggered or worsened by the same inflammatory chemicals that sulforaphane helps decrease in humans.
Sulforaphane even seems to be a very promising potential treatment for traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). In mice, having sulforaphane after brain injury showed remarkable benefits:
- Improved blood-brain barrier function (to allow good compounds past, and keep bad ones out)
- Reduced cerebral edema (a main cause of brain swelling)
- Enhanced learning and memory
- Reduced volume of dead tissue (caused by lack of oxygen in the brain following injury)
Improves Muscle Recovery
Sulforaphane has also been shown to repress the production of myostatin, a protein known to inhibit muscle cell growth. By repressing this molecule, our muscles are better able to recover and grow, which can be great for people trying to gain muscle or improve athletic performance.
This quality has even been shown to improve symptoms of muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease that so far has neither a cure nor very effective treatments. In mice, it increased muscle mass, muscle strength (by 30%), and running distance (by 20%)!
So far, this has only been tested on animals, so we still don’t know if this is completely applicable to humans. However, feel free to try including sulforaphane meals or shakes after your workouts and see how your muscles feel.
Promotes Hair Growth
Sulforaphane can apparently help fight against a very specific type of hair loss called androgenic alopecia. It’s the most common type of hair loss in both men and women, and tends to get worse with age too.
Androgenic alopecia is hair loss caused by increased DHT production- a compound which decreases the production of new hair and slows down the “growth phase” of existing hairs. One study shows that sulforaphane accelerate the breakdown of DHT and stimulated 50% hair regrowth in mice with experimentally induced androgenic alopecia!
There are no studies that have tested this on humans so far, but this is still pretty impressive for an animal study.
Whenever we hear about a food having anti-cancer properties, it’s often a very vague link between the food and decreased cancer risk that still needs more research for a definitive causal link.
Even though experimental human studies are lacking, there’s such an abundance of strong observational studies and animal experiments that show a promising future for sulfurophane in cancer treatments!
Associations between two things don’t prove that one causes the other, but the amount of associations found by separate studies between cruciferous veggies and death rates is astonishing.
Here are some interesting associations research has found:
For years, studies have shown that people who consistently ate more veggies had lower instances of non-accidental deaths (16% less). When just talking about cruciferous veggies, the instances were even lower (22%).
In a follow-up study, when rats were given a bladder cancer-inducing chemical, only 38% went on to develop cancer when they were fed isothiocyanates (including sulfurophane). The tumors were also smaller than the control group.
In another study, men with prostate cancer were given 60mg of sulfurophane per day showed an 86% drop in tumor size doubling rate. When this was replicated in another study but with 35mg instead of 60, the doubling rate dropped by only 57%, which shows that sulfurophane is clearly the anti-cancer factor.
Another study found that when women with breast cancer were given 37mg of sulforaphane, it was actually detected in the breast tissue. It also increased the activation of a tumor suppressor protein that’s usually malfunctioning in cancer cells.
How Can It Battle Cancer?
There are a couple of qualities sulforaphane has that could explain how it can battle cancer:
- It deactivates “phase I biotransformative enzymes,” which convert potentially carcinogenic compounds into full-blown carcinogens.
This prevents the formation of something called “DNA adducts,” a type of DNA damage that happens from some carcinogens found in tobacco smoke.
DNA damage is one of the earliest signs of cancer formation.
- It activates “phase II detoxification enzymes,” which induces anti-oxidation and flushes out carcinogens.
Studies found drastically increased amounts of carcinogen remnants such as benzene, crotonaldehyde and acrolene when consuming brussel sprouts.
There are other health benefits sulforaphane provides us, including blood sugar improved cardiovascular health and anti-aging effects, both of which seem to be mediated by its anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
“Shorter telomeres-” the caps at the end of our chromosomes, and the biological indication of age, or diminished longevity, have long been associated with chronic inflammation. One study fed broccoli extract to red flower beetles and found that their lifespan increased by 15%.
Several studies have also shown that sulforaphane both relaxes the smooth muscle cells in blood vessel walls, ultimately reducing blood pressure, and suppresses blood vessel inflammation which usually leads to cardiovascular problems.
Adverse Effects Of Sulfurophane
Be Careful Around Higher Doses
Higher doses of sulforaphane need further study to assess their potential harms. If you’re going to purchase a supplement with relatively higher doses of sulforaphane or sulforaphane precursors, be sure to stay in touch with your physician incase of any unexpected side effects.
However, many of the studies that have been assessing the health benefits of sulforaphane have been using higher doses than are found in foods, so it’s unlikely that it would be very risky, and may actually show you better results.
Cruciferous Veggies May Cause Digestive Discomfort
The cruciferous vegetables in which we find sulforaphane have high amounts of fiber that could cause adverse effects like gas, or bowel irritation in some people. You may want to keep an eye open if you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Be Careful If You’re Pregnant Or Lactating
There also isn’t enough information about the potential effects of sulforaphane during pregnancy or lactation, so it may be best to avoid consuming it in larger quantities than usual during those times.
There’s evidence that sulforaphane may decrease the speed at which the liver breaks down some medications, so be sure to visit with your physician before upping your intake of the superfood.
Some medications that rely on the liver for its breakdown include:
The Many Ways To Consume It
Now it’s time for the fun part- the many ways you can include it in your diet. You can do that with supplementation or through your foods and drinks.
So far, there is no recommended average dose of sulforaphane, or sulforaphane precursors, but since there aren’t any known serious adverse effects, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to consume a lot of it per day.
This is theoretically the most efficient way you can ensure a good dose of sulforaphane. Pills usually give you a more concentrated form of whatever it is you’re looking for to help you get the best results. However, because sulforaphane is still a relatively new superfood, its products are still in their early stages as well.
Most sulforaphane supplements on the market contain “sulforaphane glucosinolates,” or glucoraphanin. This is just the precursor for sulforaphane without the myrosinase needed to break it down into actual sulforaphane.
Many of us do have gut bacteria that produce myrosinase, so the supplement may be useful. However, there’s such a large range in efficiencies from individual to individual- from 1 to 40% of the dose making it to our bloodstream as sulforaphane.
To override this drawback, make sure you consume your supplement along with raw cruciferous veggies that contain myrosinase! One study found that eating broccoli with such supplement, caused sulforaphane absorption to double.
Crushed mustard seeds caused five times the absorption!
Otherwise, make sure to find supplements either with both glucoraphanin and myrosinase, or just the active compounds of sulforaphane itself.
Foods & Drinks
Even though food sources of sulforaphane precursors are at relatively lower doses, this is the most fun way to incorporate it in your diet. Supplements are easy to forget, but when you incorporate a food into your lifestyle, you can develop a healthier attachment to it and you’re more likely to stick to it!
There are a couple of things you should be aware of when it comes to this method of incorporating sulforaphane:
1. Cooking will decrease its bioavailability.
Studies show that heat significantly decreases the amount of sulforaphane that makes it to your bloodstream. This is because myrosinase gets deactivated with heat, therefore making you unable to convert most of the glucoraphanin in the food.
For most of these veggies, it’s therefore better to eat them raw, rather than cooked.
For broccoli, the recommended way to consume it is through 3 to 4 minutes of steaming. Steaming doesn’t give enough heat to deactivate myrosinase, but enough heat to deactivate epithiospecifier protein, a protein that usually stops sulforaphane from forming. This actually increases the sulforaphane in broccoli by 3.5 fold!
You can also have any of these cruciferous veggies cooked along with a myrosinase source like mustard seed powder.
However, you have to make sure your mustard seed powder still has its pungent “kick,” otherwise odds are it’s been on the shelf for too long and the myrosinase has been deactivated.
2. Breaking the plant tissues allows more sulforaphane to form.
If you’re eating the foods raw, the way you get the glucoraphanin and myrosinase to interact is by breaking the plant tissues. The longer you leave the chopped, the more sulforaphane has the chance to form.
The best way to make sure this happens is by freezing your cruciferous veggies before you eat them. Freezing and defrosting allows the plant’s tissues to expand and break, so you’ll have more sulforaphane available for absorption. Blending them or chopping them up a good half hour before eating them helps too.
Here are some delicious recipes for a good boost of sulforaphane intake:
Cooked Broccoli Sprinkled With Mustard Seed Powder
You can find your favorite cooked broccoli recipe and sprinkle some mustard seed powder to reap the most out of its sulforaphane benefits! Just make sure your broccoli has cooled down significantly before adding the powder so you don’t accidentally denature the myrosinase in it.
- 2 cups broccoli sprouts (packed)
- 2 cups baby spinach (packed)
- 1 medium carrot
- 1 celery stalk
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 tbsp ginger root
- ¼ cup goji berries
- 2 tbsp matcha green tea powder
- ½ red onion
- ½ cup sugar snap peas
Sauce & toppings:
- 1 tbsp honey
- 2 tsp tamari
- 3 tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 2 tbsp black sesame seeds
- ¼ cup toasted cashews
Steam the broccoli sprouts in this recipe for 3-4 minutes and add mustard seed powder for maximum sulforaphane content!
- 8 kale leaves
- 3 cups flax milk
- 4 rainbow chard leaves
- 3 cups spinach
- 1 medium tomato
- 2 carrots
- 1 apple
- 1 large avocado
- 1 cup blueberries
- 1 banana
- 1 shot glass of flaxseed (optional)
Useful smoothie tricks:
* Add ½ cup of oats or nuts for a more filling smoothie
* Add 1 egg white for more protein
- ½ (packed) cup broccoli sprouts
- ½ cup cucumber (with skin)
- ½ lemon
- 1 orange
- ¼ avocado
- 10 shakes turmeric powder
- 1/8 tsp Himalayan salt
- 2 scoops protein powder of choice
- Coconut water
- 2 cups ice