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What are the benefits of the sulfur compounds found in cruciferous vegetables?

Broccoli, and the other members of the cruciferous family of vegetables, pack a powerful punch when it comes to cancer prevention. The cancer protective properties of crucifers such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale are attributed to the fact that these foods contain substantial quantities of the phytonutrients called isothiocyanates, specifically two isothiocyanates called sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol. Research indicates that sulforaphane has the ability to increase the capacity of the liver to detoxify harmful, cancer-causing compounds. Specifically, sulforaphane increases the activity of the liver's Phase 2 detoxification enzymes. These enzymes (which include glutathione transferases, NAD(P)H: quinone reductase, and glucuronosyltransferases) are well known for their ability to clear a wide variety of toxic compounds from the body including not only many carcinogens, but also many reactive oxygen species, a particularly nasty type of free radical. By jump starting these important detoxification enzymes, compounds in crucifers provide protection against cell mutations, cancer and numerous other harmful effects that would otherwise be caused by these toxins. Research on indole-3-carbinol shows this compound helps deactivate a potent estrogen metabolite (2-hydroxyestrone)that promotes tumor growth, especially in estrogen-sensitive breast cells. Indole-3-carbinol has been shown to suppress not only breast tumor cell growth, but also cancer cell metastasis (the movement of cancerous cells to other parts of the body).

A study published in the August 2003 issue of the International Journal of Cancer suggests that eating lots of cruciferous vegetables may provide a significant survival advantage for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer. One of the most aggressive cancers, ovarian cancer claims the lives of 14,000 American women each year.

For about 7 years, a team of Australian researchers at Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane followed a group of 609 women newly diagnosed with ovarian cancer when the study began. Those who had eaten the most vegetables and vitamin E-containing foods during the year before they were diagnosed were most likely to survive for at least five years after diagnosis. While the overall five-year survival rate among study subjects was 45%, women who ate more than 5 servings a day of all types of vegetables had a better prognosis: 50% were alive five years after diagnosis.

Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli, were especially beneficial: 49% of those who ate nearly a serving a day were still alive after five years compared to 42% who ate half a serving.

Researchers theorize that crucifers' protective effects are due to their high content of isothiocyanates, specifically indole-3-carbinol and sulforaphane. These compounds not only increase the excretion of the form of estrogen (2-hydroxyestrone) linked to breast cancer, but dramatically improve the body's ability to eliminate numerous carcinogens. While being slim also conferred a slight survival advantage in this study, only eating lots of vegetables, particularly cruciferous vegetables was helpful; taking supplements had no effect. (Nagle CM, Purdie DM, Webb PM, Green A, Harvey PW, Bain CJ. Dietary influences on survival after ovarian cancer Int J Cancer. 2003 Aug 20;106(2):264-9. September 30, 2003)

In addition to helping your body protect itself from cancer, cruciferous vegetables are also believed to help prevent cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, two debilitating diseases that can lead to vision impairment and blindness. These vegetables also contain a vast array of the vitamins and minerals that are necessary for optimal health.

Taking advantage of the health benefits that the cruciferous vegetables have to offer is easy: Simply eat at least one serving from this versatile and varied family of vegetables every day. If you need help getting started, try the following suggestions:

1. All of the crucifers are wonderful when lightly steamed. For a little extra pizzaz, sprinkle steamed broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, or kale with lemon.

2. Steamed broccoli, cauliflower, and kale make a delicious addition to marinara (tomato) sauce. Or for a tomato-free pasta meal, toss pasta with olive oil, pine nuts and healthy sautéed broccoli florets.

3. Purée cooked broccoli and cauliflower, then combine with seasonings of your choice to make a simple, yet delicious, soup.

4. These vegetables can also be enjoyed raw. When you prepare a vegetable tray, be sure to include broccoli, cauliflower, and chopped sections of red cabbage.

5. Sauté cauliflower with garlic, minced ginger and tamari. For cauliflower with a vivid yellow color, boil it briefly with a spoonful of turmeric or generous pinch of saffron.

6. Cabbage leaves are a great way to reinspire leftovers. Spoon some leftovers such as rice salad or a vegetable mixture onto the center of a cabbage leaf and roll into a neat little package. Bake in medium heat oven until hot. Enjoy your easy and healthy version of stuffed cabbage, a traditional eastern European dish.

7. To make a unique coleslaw combine shredded red and white cabbage with soy mayonnaise.

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