Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What Is It About Brassicas?

I lead a discussion on nutrition at the Commonweal cancer retreats every few months, along with the renowned chef and author, Rebecca Katz. We have a handout of general suggestions for healthy meals, and then give each person individual guidance. One of our first guidelines is to eat a brassica vegetable every day. These vegetables include broccoli, arugula, kale, collards, mustard greens, bok choy, Brussels sprouts and turnips. The reasons these vegetables are important for people with cancer, and people who want to prevent cancer, have been studied at Johns Hopkins University’s Brassica Chemoprotection Laboratory. They have focused on broccoli, which contains a compound known as sulforaphane. It is a potent natural inducer of what are called phase2 detoxification enzymes. These enzymes break down free radicals and environmental toxins, enabling the body to excrete them in urine, bile or stool. The Johns Hopkins researchers found that these detoxifying enzymes were boosted in function by the sulforaphane in brassicas, and that broccoli contains high levels. Broccoli sprouts contain the highest amounts of sulforaphane, up to 50 times more than mature broccoli. Recent studies at Baylor College of Medicine have shown that a concentrated form of sulforaphane is active against lymphoblastic leukemia cells in the laboratory. Other researchers at the University of Arizona are looking into topical sulforaphane to prevent skin cancer. Preventive effects on breast, prostate and colon cancer are also under study.

It is important not to overcook broccoli, as this will destroy its ability to release anti-inflammatory and cancer protective compounds. Steam lightly for a few minutes. Since broccoli sprouts are such a potent source of sulforaphane, you should know that it is easy to make your own. You can call 800-695-2241 and order organic broccoli sprouting seed. If you are new to sprouting, consult He has an almost overwhelming number of ideas and devices to help you sprout.

At the cancer retreats, we also suggest that people consider drinking the green tea or black tea with broccoli seed extract, formulated at the Johns Hopkins Brassica Chemoprotection Laboratory. The tea is high in sulforaphane and related compounds. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of these teas will go to further Hopkins’ research on vegetables. Regular and decaffeinated teas are available. If you don’t have time for sprouting right now, just go for the tea. Call the Baltimore Tea and Coffee Company at 800-823-1408 to order. The teas do not taste like broccoli!

Sulforaphane is also found in kale, cabbage and all the other brassica (cruciferous) vegetables. If you don’t like broccoli, you can still get the benefits of sulforaphane in these foods.

At the last cancer retreat, one of the participants was a patient at Johns Hopkins. She said that her oncologist had never mentioned the Brassica lab, and it seemed strange that she would come to California to find out about it. Yeah, California!

At the Commonweal cancer retreats, Rebecca Katz has come up with a good way to help people drink fluids, even when they are not feeling well. She suggests a special pitcher for water, in which you place orange and lemons slices, with the peel (organic is best), chunks of cucumber, and a sprig of thyme, mint or rosemary. Rebecca calls this ‘spa in a glass’. It will be easier to drink than plain cold water, and will have beneficial qualities.

Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH

You can find a copy of my novel, Changing the Rules, at Pt. Reyes Books, the Grand Hotel, Uniquities, or at

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