The first President Bush declared his War on Broccoli in 1990.
Two years later, in a public relations counterattack, Dr. Paul Talalay announced that he had isolated the phytochemical Sulforaphane from the embattled cruciferous vegetable. It may not have seemed like much at the time, but over a quarter-century later, we’re still discovering new powers of this multifaceted compound.
Although humans have been dealing with the pollution of urban environments for just a few generations, our need to detoxify the air and water pollutants goes back a long, long way. It’s a need that pre-dates humans by a few hundred million years. The push to develop biochemical detox mechanisms reaches back to the emergence of land plants 700 million years ago. Plants synthesize complicated molecules, many of them meant to thwart their primary predators (insects). Oftentimes these same compounds, dosed properly, can prove a boon to the health of larger animals, spurring processes of detoxification and immune system vigilance.
Dr. Jed Fahey, a nutritional biochemist and Associate Professor at John Hopkins University, has devoted years of research to studying biochemical detoxification mechanisms and their relation to the plants we eat. (And inevitably, the plants rodents eat, too; not all studies are human-appropriate.) Much of his work examines underexploited food sources and the impact that these foods can have in the prevention of chronic disease.
Dr. Fahey also runs the Cullman Chemoprotection Center, where he and a team of researchers work to develop plant-based chemoprotective agents. (See the links at the bottom of this post for more about Dr. Fahey and his research work.)
“Finish your vegetables!”
I can hear my mother’s voice when I call to mind all the times she heckled me to clean my plate of vegetables. You may have experienced the same while growing up, and/or heard yourself saying something similar to your own kids. As cliche as the practice may be — and unpersuasive to 10-year-olds — Dr. Fahey’s research has given this time-honored wisdom additional scientific heft.
The study of the plant compounds called “phytochemicals” is at the core of phytonutrient research. Sulforaphane is a phytochemical present in cruciferous vegetables — especially broccoli, and even more especially, broccoli sprouts. Dr. Fahey has conducted extensive research on this highly reactive (and highly promising) compound.
Glucoraphanin is the water-soluble precursor of sulforaphane found in broccoli sprouts. This precursor is converted into sulforaphane by an endogenous enzyme called myrosinase, which is produced by microbes contained in the broccoli itself. When we eat broccoli sprouts, chewing the sprouts causes their cells to rupture and for the hydrolysis (breakdown by water) of glucoraphanin to occur. Myrosinase is released and glucoraphanin is synthesized into sulforaphane.
Sulforaphane is of medical interest because of the cytoprotective (“cell-protecting”) functions that it encourages. As of now, it is among the most potent naturally-occurring inducers of cytoprotective enzymes known to science. A great deal of research is aimed at learning the mechanisms by which seems able to protect the body against chronic disease.
While Sulforaphane offers tantalizing hints that it may be not just “healthy,” but an actual therapeutic tool, its status as a naturally-occurring compound is something of a double-edged sword. The astronomical cost of running human trials to validate its therapeutic usefulness against specific diseases is a major disincentive for an un-patentable compound, existing in the public domain as the extract of a common plant.
In Episode 190, Dr. Fahey walks us through not just the biochemical promise, but the bureaucratic brambles of how we can best make use of broccoli’s “secret ingredient.”
Episode Introduction: Sulforaphane with Dr. Jed Fahey
This Week in Neuroscience: Chewing Is Good For The Brain
Smarts Drug Smarts News + Updates
Dr. Jed Fahey + Broccoli + Sulforaphane
Cruciferous Plants and Sulforaphane
Sulforaphane Isn't Formed By Precursor until... Mastication
What Makes Sulforaphane Beneficial?
Effects of Sulforaphane
NRF2 Pathway: Cellular Protection Pathway
Sulforaphane In The Brain
Sulforaphane & Inflammation
Other Benefits of Sulforaphane
Sulforaphane & Diabetes
The Future of Sulforaphane
Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: Specific Genes for Insomnia