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Broccoli and friends - unlikely heroes creating super health

Cruciferous vegetables: Cauliflower, broccoli, romanesco broccoli, red cabbage, kohlrabi Image credit: Nicole Cullinan @wellnessplaceint
Cruciferous vegetables. Image credit: Nicole Cullinan @wellnessplaceint

Arugula, Brussels sprouts, Bok choy, Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, Collard greens, Daikon radish, Horseradish, Kale, Kohlrabi, Maca, Mustard greens, Radish, Swede, Swiss chard, Turnips, Wasabi, Watercress ...what do they all have in common?

This is a list (although not exhaustive) of common veggies that nutrition fundi's and farmers call Cruciferous Vegetables.

Most of them belong to the Brassicaceae plant family which are native to Europe, the Mediterranean and the temperate regions of Asia. These vegetables are now cultivated around the world due to their popularity as good sources of a variety of nutrients and phytochemicals that contribute to health promotion and disease prevention. Cruciferous vegetables are low in calories and packed with folate, vitamins C, E, and K, minerals, fibre and sulphur-containing compounds called glucosinolates.

The problem of palatability

Due to the presence of organic sulphur in glucosinolates, they are not the most palatable of foods. This makes broccoli and friends unlikely heroes for super health.

I suppose this is one reason why broccoli is not generally given as a starter food for babies of weaning age. But at some stage, we are all introduced to crucifers and either acquire a taste for them or steadfastly avoid them. In my family of fussy eaters, I have needed to apply many culinary disguise tricks and some motivational pressure to get these veggies from fork to mouth and down ;)

I think Brussel's sprouts must rank as one of the worlds hated foods but there is a scientific reason for its lack of popularity. The bitter, sulphurous taste of the oft avoided brussel's sprouts and rest of the crucifer family, appears to be both a unique plant defence mechanism against attack from pathogens, insects, and herbivores AND medicinally active agent. They are indeed unsung hero vegetables that know how to look after themselves AND have the ability to help us heal. However, the strong sulphuric bite at first repulsive can become addictive... take for example mustard, horseradish and wasabi. Whether you love them or hate them, their pungent tastes add unquestionable interest to many meals.

Sounds like Sulphur... Sulforaphane is an important, bioactive metabolite in cruciferous vegetables. It is activated only when the plant is damaged such as when these vegetables are chopped or chewed. Phytochemicals such as Sulforaphane change the way toxins, metabolites and even oestrogen are metabolized or broken down in the body. This is one of the mechanisms whereby eating cruciferous vegetables is proposed to reduce the risk of cancers including hormone or oestrogen related cancers such as breast, uterine and prostate.

In a world of sweet tastes, I have learnt that most eaters need real motivation to try bitter foods let alone include them in a daily menu and food repertoire. It has helped me to know WHY I should eat these vegetables and HOW they promote hormonal health via synergistic interplay variety of nutrients and phytochemicals. And for those family members who won't listen to the 'why,' there is always culinary deception and the art of hiding these ingredients in delicious meals. Shhh! (recipes included at the end of this blog)

Infographic showing Glutathione S-transferase M1 (GSTM1) deletion. Credit Nicole Cullinan
Infographic showing Glutathione S-transferase M1 (GSTM1) deletion. Credit: Nicole Cullinan

Epigenetics 101

Epigenetics is the study of how genes interact with our environment which includes diet and lifestyle inputs and environmental exposures. This exciting field explains how genes can be influenced and manipulated for gains in health and disease risk reduction. In this regard, the results of my Epigenetic test panel (shown above) and using the Functional medicine model motivated me to adopt and sustain a clean lifestyle and a plant based diet of antioxidant-rich wholefoods including broccoli and friends.

Epigenetic influences

It was through an Epigenetic test panel that I did eight years ago that I discovered how challenged I was with regards to my body's ability to detoxify. Many people have this genetic variation, a Glutathione S-transferase M1 (GSTM1) deletion. This was a turning point in my health... I learned therefore of my hidden struggle with the toxic load from our environment, diet & lifestyle, medications and it also put my family history of cancer into perspective. But I am not alone in this health challenge, many men and women have this same genetic susceptibility, making 'us' a whole lot more sensitive to develop illness when living in polluted environments and eating a diet of processed foods.

Canaries in a coalmine

Toxic load increases over time and the longer we live in our modern world where chemicals are ubiquitous. This epigenetic challenge indicates to me that some of us were clearly designed for living in a pristine natural environment of preindustrial times when the air was clean and food chain unadulterated by chemicals (sigh...!) We are the canaries in a coalmine, our ill health giving the early warning signal for impending trouble ahead for the health of the rest of humanity and possibly our planet.

Detox helpers

Crucifers to the rescue! A deletion such as in the infographic leads to reduced capacity for detox and increased risk of chemical sensitivities and various cancers. Crucifers behave like detox helpers in the phase ll liver detoxification process. Their active ingredients induce the expression and activity of other Glutathione S-transferase (GSTs) enzymes to pick up the detox slack. These helper enzymes do the job of the missing GSTM1's who were responsible for the removal of carcinogens, xenobiotics, and other metabolites of oxidative stress.

As a consequence, I started prioritising a diet rich in antioxidants and glutathione (as in the infographic below) and minimising exposure to toxins. I did this to increase the activity of my other GST enzymes to improve my inherent ability to detoxify. When this biochemical pathway functions more efficiently many benefits are possible... from improved immune function, hormonal health... in fact I also experienced overall health optimisation and peace of mind because in finding out this weakness, it gave me answers to the many questions I had, and helped personalise my selfcare regime with a focus on detox.

Infographic about Glutathione, foods containing and complemetary foods. Image: Nicole Cullinan
Glutathione rich - and complementary foods. Image: Nicole Cullinan

Hormonal health

Because the majority of my patients are female I wanted to include a section on female hormonal health. However, the information regarding the liver function and oestrogen excess can be just as relevant to men and boys who are concerned about their hormonal health including healthy male puberty, fertility and prostate cancer risks.

Puberty, Pregnancy and Menopause

There are three phases in a woman's hormonal life where things have more potential to awry: Puberty, Pregnancy and Menopause. I have come to understand through my patients and studies, it is as a result of hormonal flux as the dynamic backdrop, that health issues can appear. Some examples, headaches and painful periods in teens, high blood pressure and blood clots during pregnancy and uterine fibroids, cardiovascular disease or breast cancer during menopause. These can occur when there are imbalances in our female hormones. The situation is often (but not always) because Oestrogen is in excess or relative excess. Let me explain...

Oestrogen dominance

Oestrogen is an essential female hormone that needs to be metabolised and recycled by our body along with toxins and other biochemical agents. We make oestrogen, we take oestrogen in the form of contraception and hormone replacement therapy but we are also exposed to substances in our environment which mimic it and add to the bodies load. This increasing load puts stress on oestrogen metabolism and is often where unwanted symptoms of oestrogen dominance arise including some of the conditions mentioned above.

Be aware of Xenoestrogens

One group of oestrogen mimics that cause problems in female hormonal health are called Xenoestrogens. They are a range of synthetic and natural chemicals that are not widely known or generally regarded as environmental hazards, but they can and do disrupt hormones in both wildlife, humans and sensitive ecosystems. We all have the potential to be exposed to them or avoid them where possible (especially if you share my epigenetic detox challenge). They act by mimicing oestrogen action, affecting oestrogen levels, and/or bind to oestrogen receptors.

Where can these chemicals be found?

cigarette smoke, automobile exhaust, chemical industry pollutants, grilled meat, volcano dust, forest fire smoke, milk, feedlot meat, water, and cosmetic products

Examples of xenoestrogen chemicals:

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), dichloro diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), some drugs (e.g., antiepileptic drugs), fungicides, phytoestrogens, mycotoxins, bisphenol A (plasticisers), phthalates, and metalloestrogens.

I already mentioned how crucifers have a special role to play in supporting hormonal health behaving like detox helpers in the liver and how eating them can help reduce oestrogen dominance. But it is also valuable to do some research and take stock of all the synthetic oestrogen sources and xenoestrogens to which you are exposed daily. This is important in the assessment of your toxic load and hormonal disease risks.

Crucifers and Thyroid health

Some experts caution against eating crucifers if you have a thyroid condition because they can act as goitrogens (which are chemical substances that cause goitres). However, it is also important to know that there are many other substances (including medication, environmental toxins and food) to which we are exposed are, toxic to the thyroid gland. Further to that, different research has shown that when Iodine levels are low, sensitive people are more susceptible to all goitrogens, including crucifers.

Cavolo Nero Kale Image credit: Nicole Cullinan @wellnessplacein
Cavolo Nero Kale Image credit: Nicole Cullinan @wellnessplacein

If you have a thyroid condition, should you completely avoid eating crucifers?

For most healthy people, based on emerging evidence and a balanced, informed perspective, the answer is no. Consuming crucifers as part of a colourful, diverse plant-based diet appears to be beneficial. If you are concerned, cooking and fermenting cruciferous vegetables reduces the levels of goitrogenic compounds. Adding iodine where it is lacking may also reduce the impact of these compounds on thyroid health. If in doubt always discuss this with your doctor.

Because of their potential health benefits, I have dedicated myself to creative and delicious ways to prepare and serve cruciferous vegetables. Out with the stinky kitchens and unpalatable boiled versions, and in with colourful diverse meals and creative healthy seasoning. Their profound nutritional makeup and transformative impact on female hormonal health (and more) inspire me to regularly cook with cruciferous vegetables and share with you some tried and tested plant-based recipes that are palatable for even fussy eaters. Enjoy :)

Here are some of my tried and tested recipes using Cruciferous Vegetables:

Long stem Broccoli with flowers. Image credit: Nicole Cullinan @wellnessplacein
Long stem Broccoli with flowers. Image credit: Nicole Cullinan @wellnessplacein

If you would like to find out whether I can help you with your hormones, you can schedule a free 15 min discovery call by clicking on the link below.

If you would like to find out about ordering the tests mentioned in the blog, send me a message with your query and I will get back to you.

If you liked what you read, take a browse through my Wellness Blog for more articles like this one and topics relating to Health and Wellness.


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