By Lindsay Christensen
Nutritionist @ The Pratt Clinics
We all know that we need to “eat our vegetables” to stay healthy. Leafy greens, beets, carrots, peppers, onions, and garlic all have health benefits, but there is one vegetable that rises above all the rest regarding its health-promoting properties: Broccoli sprouts! Read on to learn about the numerous health benefits of broccoli sprouts and how to grow your own organic broccoli sprouts at home.
What are broccoli sprouts?
Broccoli sprouts are young (typically three-to-four-day old) broccoli plants that look like alfalfa sprouts but have the sharp taste of radishes. They are a rich source of glucoraphanin, a precursor to the powerful phytochemical sulforaphane. While glucoraphanin is found to a degree in all cruciferous vegetables, it is most abundant in broccoli sprouts. In fact, three-day-old broccoli sprouts contain 10-100 times more glucoraphanin than full-grown broccoli! Glucoraphanin is converted into sulforaphane by the enzyme myrosinase, which is released when broccoli sprouts are “injured,” usually by chopping, blending, or chewing. Broccoli sprout supplements containing glucoraphanin typically contain myrosinase as well to ensure that the ingested glucoraphanin is converted into sulforaphane.
While broccoli sprouts contain many other beneficial compounds besides sulforaphane, my focus in this blog series will be on sulforaphane because it has been intensely studied and offers numerous health benefits.
The health benefits of broccoli sprouts and sulforaphane
Reduces autism symptoms
Sulforaphane readily crosses the blood-brain barrier, the semipermeable border that separates circulating blood from the brain and accumulates in the central nervous system. Once in the brain, sulforaphane induces the activity of enzymes that have neuroprotective effects. (3) In fact, several studies indicate that it improves symptoms of autism, an increasingly prevalent neurodevelopmental disorder.
A small clinical trial found that supplementation with sulforaphane-rich broccoli sprout extract improved social interaction, abnormal behavior, and verbal communication in young men with moderate- to severe autism. (4) Broccoli sprout extract improves these characteristics of autism because it reverses biochemical abnormalities that underlie the disease process, including oxidative stress, decreased antioxidant levels, depressed glutathione synthesis, reduced mitochondrial function, increased lipid peroxidation, and neuroinflammation. A similar study found that broccoli seed extract significantly improved social responsiveness in autistic children and improved urinary metabolites associated with the autism disease process. (5) Together, these findings suggest that broccoli sprouts may be a useful natural treatment for individuals on the autism spectrum.
Promotes the healing of TBI
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a form of brain dysfunction caused by an outside force such as a violent blow to the head. The damage causes oxidative stress, depletion of antioxidants, and brain inflammation. Sulforaphane, with its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, promotes healing of TBI by upregulating antioxidant pathways and preventing neurotoxicity.
Should kids and athletes involved in contact sports eat broccoli sprouts prophylactically? Based on this research, probably!
Inhibits neurodegenerative disease
The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease is rapidly rising in the U.S. Unfortunately, conventional treatment options for these diseases do little to address the underlying causes and often have serious adverse effects. Fortunately, studies suggest that sulforaphane may be a useful intervention for these neurodegenerative diseases because it corrects underlying aspects of the diseases process, rather than merely alleviating symptoms. In an animal model of Parkinson’s disease, sulforaphane has been found to inhibit the loss of dopaminergic neurons; dopaminergic neuron death is a crucial feature of Parkinson’s disease that promotes devastating motor and non-motor symptoms. Sulforaphane also protects against amyloid-beta-induced neuronal death in Alzheimer’s disease, thus helping to preserve brain function.
Alleviates depression and anxiety
The beneficial effects of sulforaphane on the brain are not limited to autism, TBI, and neurodegenerative diseases; sulforaphane also improves depression and anxiety! Sulforaphane exerts antidepressant effects by inducing the anti-inflammatory Nrf2 pathway, by inhibiting the body’s stress response, and by reducing stress-provoked inflammation.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3, in which I’ll discuss many more unique health benefits of broccoli sprouts and sulforaphane and share how you can grow your own broccoli sprouts at home!