Health Dangers of Cruciferous Vegetables

Health Dangers of Cruciferous Vegetables

Health Dangers of Cruciferous Vegetables

Health Dangers of Cruciferous VegetablesIn our look at the Health Dangers of a Plant-based Diet we turn to the cruciferous vegetables. You might be surprised to learn that broccoli and brussel sprouts have a dark side. I mean these are the vegetables that kill cancer, right? How can there possibly be health dangers of cruciferous vegetables?

Well just like other plants, these vegetables place a high priority on survival. And this means protecting themselves with phytochemicals. The cruciferous vegetables use a special chemical called glucosinolate to deter pests. [r, r] Here we’ll look at glucosinolates and their role in the health dangers of cruciferous vegetables.

Health Dangers of Cruciferous Vegetables – What are they?

Last week as I was walking to perimeter of the grocery store (headed to the butcher) I realized how many vegetables are from the cruciferous family. It’s not just broccoli and brussel sprouts. But it also includes cabbage and cauliflower, kale and collards, radishes and arugula, mustard greens and mustard seeds, and the list goes on.

They are known for their pungent smell. It’s the sulfur. And it’s a part of their defense.

Health Dangers of Cruciferous Vegetables – “Broccoli Bomb”

sulforaphaneThe crucifers like broccoli have this chemical called glucosinolate. I like to think of this chemical as the main ingredient of the “bomb.” They also have another chemical called myrosinase. I think of this as the “matchstick” that lights the bomb.

While growing out in a field the bomb and the matchstick sit in separate compartments so that the broccoli doesn’t blow itself up.

But when a little hungry animal comes looking for a snack and bites into the broccoli the bomb gets lit by the match. The explosion that results are bioactive chemicals call isothiocyanates. [r, r] One of the most well-studied isothiocyanate is call sulforaphane.

Sulforaphane

Sulforaphane is a pungent molecule (perhaps you’ve cooked broccoli and smelled it…) that can deter and kill insects, bacteria, and fungi. It causes cellular apoptosis (cell death). This happens in the cells of these small predators as well as human cells.

If you eat broccoli about 75% of the sulforaphane will be absorbed into the bloodstream and taken up by cells.

Once inside sulforaphane can damage important intracellular structures like mitochondria and enzymes.

The damage increases reactive oxygen species (ROS). And in an attempt to limit the damage, glutathione, our powerful endogenous antioxidant, binds with sulforaphane to get rid of it as quickly as possible (~2-3 hours after eating it). [r] This depletes our glutathione (our most potent human antioxidant) leaving cells vulnerable to further oxidative damage.

Sulforaphane can even disrupt epithelial barriers providing yet another plant chemical that can contribute to “leaky gut.” [rr]

Sulforaphane and Cancer

It’s not surprising that this cell killer has been recognized as an anticancer chemical. It kills cells. Cancer cells and healthy cells. [r, r, r]

Isothiocyanates like sulforaphane trigger the activation of Phase II enzymes. [r] This is like turning up the dial on the human immune system.

For some reason, research paints this in a positive light. Sulforaphane is a hero. Isothiocyanates increase our natural antioxidants. They say it’s a hormetic response. [r] If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.

I see it through another lense though.

When the body encounters something that is damaging, it wants to get rid of it. To do this it will upregulate an army to fight it. Some of these troops are antioxidants like our friend glutathione. While this is good in the context of fighting a cancerous cell or ridding the body of sulforaphane, I don’t think sending the troops to battle on a constant basis should be seen as a good thing.

The fact that the body puts such a vast importance on getting rid of sulforaphane as quickly as possible suggest to me that it’s more of a danger than a cancer-killing sidekick.

For me, a helpful analogy is to relate to chemotherapy treatment. It is very effective at killing cells. And while the intent is to kill cancerous cells, there is often a significant amount of “friendly fire” and the death of healthy cells as well.

Most people don’t take low dose chemotherapy as a cancer prevention strategy. There’s a reason for this.

Health Dangers of Cruciferous Vegetables – Thyroid Health

goiterThe isothiocyanates created by chewing up broccoli can have potent antithyroid effects and interfere with thyroid hormone production. They compete with iodine and thereby block its uptake by the thyroid. With inadequate iodine there is decreased production of thyroxine and potential for hypothyroidism. [r]

The abnormal absorption of iodine also provokes hypertrophy of the thyroid and goiter. [r]

And it’s not just humans, but animals too.

Oil meals, like rapeseed meal for example, are important protein supplements for livestock. And they are high in glucosinolates. Animals can tolerate up to 5-10% rapeseed meal in their diets before suffering from goiters, depressed growth, gastrointestinal irritation, anemia, perosis, poor egg production, and liver and kidney lesions. [rr]

The high sulfur diet can result in trace mineral deficiencies and polioencephalomalacia, a neurologic disease in ruminants.

Health Dangers of Cruciferous Vegetables – What to do

If you decide to eat cruciferous vegetables, it’s a good idea to take some protective measures.

  • Adding extra iodine to counteract the thiocyanates is helpful. However, additional iodine consumption cannot counteract other glucosinolate byproducts like oxazolidine-2-thiones which also blocks iodine preventing thyroxine production. [r]
  • Avoid sprouts and seeds as they can have orders of magnitude more glucosinolate than matured plants. Plants protect their babies. Eat them with caution.
  • Freezing as well as boiling them can help reduce the glucosinolate concentration (~50%).

Heat actually destroys the myrosinase (the matchstick that lights the bomb); however, the bacteria in our gut can act as the lighter, so sulforaphane will still be produced. [r]

As with other plant chemicals, the poison is in the dose, and an individual’s ability (or lack thereof) to disarm the plant poisons.

An elimination diet (like “Level 3” in the “30 Day Guide to Going Full Carnivore“) is a very effective way to determine your ability to handle certain plant foods, which (if any…) are ok, and in what quantity.

2 Replies to “Health Dangers of Cruciferous Vegetables”

  1. Very interesting. I’ve been religiously eating cruciferous vegetables for decades, but I have some autoimmune issues. Perhaps this has been part of the cause.

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