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Researchers at Oregon State, in the Linus Pauling Institute, have gained vital insight into why you should listen to mom and, “finish your broccoli.”

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Broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable, like cabbage, bok choy, cauliflower, and cress, this family of vegetables induces potent anti-proliferative effects in cancer cells. The team at the Linus Pauling Institute discovered why the “sulforaphane” compound in cruciferous vegetables is such a beneficial staple to battle cancer through the intricate field of epigenetics.

Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression or cellular phenotype, caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence—hence the name epi- (Greek: επί- over, above, outer) -genetics. This is a powerful tool in the search to understand everything from heart disease to cancer.

According to Science Daily, Sulforaphane was identified years ago as one of the most critical compounds that provide much of the health benefits in cruciferous vegetables, and scientists also knew that a mechanism involved was histone deacetylases, or HDACs. This family of enzymes can interfere with the normal function of genes that suppress tumors.

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HDAC inhibitors, such as sulforaphane, can help restore proper balance and prevent the development of cancer. This is one of the most promising areas of much cancer research. But the new OSU studies have found a second epigenetic mechanism, DNA methylation, which plays a similar role.

An associate professor in the Linus Pauling Institute, Emily Ho, had this to say about the role of DNA methylation in an interview, “It appears that DNA methylation and HDAC inhibition, both of which can be influenced by sulforaphane, work in concert with each other to maintain proper cell function, they sort of work as partners and talk to each other.”

DNA methylation, Ho said, is a normal process of turning off genes, and it helps control what DNA material gets read as part of genetic communication within cells. In cancer that process gets mixed up. And of considerable interest to researchers is that these same disrupted processes appear to play a role in other neurodegenerative diseases, including cardiovascular disease, immune function, neurodegenerative disease and even aging.

The researchers also found that while the sulforaphane in broccoli is powerful, broccoli sprouts have more than 50 times more sulforaphane than the matured plant.

If ever there was a time to pick up a heavy broccoli habit, now seems like that time. However, remember to only choose organic broccoli, as the dozens of carcinogenic pesticides found on the conventional type will likely decrease the benefits received from this wonderful super food.