Protection as Prevention: Can Nutrition Boost Immunity?

broccoli sprouts and fleurets

And if so, what role do the superfood(s) broccoli, broccoli sprouts, and broccoli seeds play?

Wellness experts and healthcare providers know: the foods we eat and the nutritional supplements we take can boost immunity against a host of aggressors, including pollutants, viruses, and microbes.

Does nutrition support immunity?

Yes! Scientists have proven that the design of our immune system is complex and influenced positively by an ideal balance of many factors, including a diet consisting of a range of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, combined with lifestyle factors like adequate sleep and exercise, and stress management. Attention to all these inputs most effectively primes the body to fight infection and diseases.1

Many factors influence our innate immunity (composed of our skin, mucus, stomach acid, enzymes and immune system cells) as well as our adaptive immunity, as controlled by our cells and organs, including the spleen, thymus, bone marrow, and lymph nodes.

The presence of antigens and specific inflammatory responses can aid in building immunity, while autoimmune or immunodeficiency disorders can undermine or even disable immunity. And, of course, a host of conditions can depress our immunity, including older age, environmental toxins, excess weight, chronic diseases, stress, lack of sleep, and poor diet.

So, to what degree can a healthy diet and optimal nutritional supplementation boost our immune health? On the whole, scientists have noted that diets limited in variety and lower in nutrients, e.g.: ultra-processed foods, can negatively influence immunity by disturbing the healthy intestinal microorganisms (the microbiome), potentially resulting in chronic inflammation. Concurrently, diets that are primarily plant based, rich in fiber, filled with vitamins, antioxidants, flavonoids, and metabolites provide the basis for a healthy microbiome, the breeding ground for robust health.2

What role do broccoli, broccoli sprouts, and broccoli seeds play in the quest for immunity?

Broccoli possesses compounds that offer protection from a variety of aggressors and is a primary contributing factor to plant based “chemoprotection,” a field of study pioneered by renowned pharmacologist Dr. Paul Talalay, “the father of chemoprotection” —who conducted extensive research on the cancer prevention properties of broccoli sprouts.3

Talalay’s research has been lauded as “one of the top 100 scientific discoveries of the 20th century,”4 as it investigated and demonstrated the importance of the isothiocyanate sulforaphane, and its natural precursor, the glucosinolate glucoraphanin. Although many cruciferous vegetables are rich in glucosinolates, Talalay discovered that broccoli is the richest source of glucoraphanin, the precursor to the most potent of phase 2 detoxification enzymes, isothiocyanate sulforaphane. Since its identification in broccoli, the benefits of sulforaphane have since been validated and expanded upon in multiple global studies. Sulforaphane has been shown to confer remarkable health benefits, specifically to support the body’s propensity to protect cells.

Further research from a UCLA study in 2008 demonstrated the importance of the glucoraphanin in broccoli as a precursor to sulforaphane in maintaining protective cellular immunity.5 UCLA’s researchers describe the antioxidant power of broccoli like this: “A chemical in broccoli switches on a set of antioxidant genes and enzymes in specific immune cells, which then combat the injurious effects of molecules known as free radicals that can damage cells and lead to disease. Free radicals are byproducts of normal body processes, such as the metabolic conversion of food into energy, and can also enter the body through small particles present in polluted air.”6

Most of us are familiar with the important antioxidants in our diets, including vitamins E and C, but many do not realize that our bodies’ have the ability to produce our own antioxidants, too. We typically refer to these as intrinsic antioxidants, one of the best examples being glutathione, commonly referred to as GSH. One of the most exciting developments in the study of antioxidants’ ability to help defend the body is the elucidation of the Nrf2 pathway (Nuclear Factor Erythroid 2-Related Factor). Nrf2 behaves like a thermostat to protect our bodies from oxidative stress and the damage it causes by up-regulating, or increasing, the production of our intrinsic antioxidants like GSH.7

Nrf2 binds with our body’s DNA to spur the synthesis or production of specific molecules (antioxidants and antioxidant enzymes) that work in a synergistic manner to deactivate excessive free radicals before they cause harmful oxidative damage, and thereby minimize their detrimental effects.

Nrf2 can be activated by a variety of factors including cellular stress, exercise, oxidative stress, and notably, phytochemicals in the foods we eat. One of the key discoveries by Dr. Talalay and colleagues at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, is that the sulforaphane from broccoli, broccoli seeds and sprouts, is one of the most potent natural inducers of Nrf2. Of the three, broccoli seeds contain the highest concentration of the sulforaphane precursor, glucoraphanin.8 To date, nearly a thousand scientific papers have been published on sulforaphane and Nrf2.

How can we maximize broccoli’s nutritional powers?

Scientists, Physicians, Nutritionists, and Health Experts concur: Broccoli is supreme. Dr. Michael Greger, physician and NY Times bestselling author, notes that while broccoli may protect our brains and eyesight, boost our detoxification enzymes, and even aid in the prevention and treatment of chronic disease, the antioxidant benefit is highest when we eat our broccoli raw, as this allows the optimal conversion from glucoraphanin to sulforaphane to occur.

Yet it is extremely difficult for most of us to eat high amounts of fresh raw broccoli on a regular basis. Unfortunately, when we cook broccoli, according to Dr. Greger and others, the myrosinase enzyme that converts the glucoraphanin in broccoli to sulforaphane — is quickly destroyed.9 Short of nutritional hacks, like cooking broccoli and then adding prepared mustard or powdered mustard seeds before eating10, the antioxidant benefits of glucoraphanin and sulforaphane are diminished.

One of the most exciting answers to this problem is the availability of high-quality glucoraphanin in supplement and ingredient form. Thankfully, this alternative for obtaining glucoraphanin doesn’t require us to eat a pound of broccoli or find fresh sprouts every week (although every form of cruciferous vegetable, cooked or raw, provides valuable fiber as well). One of the easiest and most effective ways to obtain the antioxidant benefits of glucoraphanin is TrueBroc®, which is extracted in a natural, hot water process from broccoli seeds.

By understanding the far-reaching benefits of glucoraphanin, we can make better decisions about the foods and supplements we recommend and consume. And whether you love broccoli or you love to hate it, TrueBroc® makes it easier to consume these important antioxidants on a daily basis.

 

1The Nutrition Source: Nutrition and Immunity,” Harvard School of Public Health
2 “Towards a Food Pharmacy: Immunologic Modulation through Diet,”Molendijk I, van der Marel S, Maljaars PW. Nutrients. 2019 Jun;11(6):1239.
3Father of Chemoprotection,” Neil A. Grauer, Hopkins Medicine Class Notes, Fall, 2019.
4Father of Chemoprotection,” Neil A. Grauer, Hopkins Medicine Class Notes, Fall, 2019.
5Broccoli May Help Boost Aging Immune System,” University of California – Los Angeles, Science Daily, March, 2008.
6Broccoli May Help Boost Aging Immune System,” University of California – Los Angeles, Science Daily, March, 2008.
7Nrf2: The Master Regulator of Anti-Oxidative Responses” published Dec. 20, 2017 by the NCBI
8Father of Chemoprotection,” Neil A. Grauer, Hopkins Medicine Class Notes, Fall, 2019.
9How to Cook Broccoli,” Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, NutritionFacts.org, Feb. 9, 2016.
10The potential to intensify sulforaphane formation in cooked broccoli,” Sameer Khalil Ghawi, Lisa Methven, Keshavan Niranjan, NCBI, Nov. 2012.