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Everywhere you look nowadays, you’re likely to find someone extolling the many health benefits of the “green superfood” kale.
Nutritionists call it one of the healthiest and most nutrient-dense plant foods on Earth – and yes, it is rich in vitamins and minerals such as manganese, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Kale is also chock-full of health-giving, anti-aging antioxidants, including vitamin C, quercetin, kaempferol, and beta-carotene.
Further, kale contains substances known as bile acid sequestrants, which can bind to bile acids in our gut and prevent them from being reabsorbed, thereby reducing the total amount of cholesterol in our system and potentially lowering our heart disease risk.
Most exciting of all, though, kale and its other cruciferous relatives – including broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, turnips, kohlrabi, bok choy, and radishes – also contain natural compounds with protective effects against cancer.
One of these is sulforaphane, which has been shown to help fight the very genesis of cancer in laboratory experiments, including in animals.
Another is indole-3-carbinol (I3C), which has also been experimentally shown to help prevent cancer.
I3C is made in our gut when cruciferous vegetables including kale and broccoli are digested – and a recent laboratory study published in the scientific journal Immunity shows that I3C reduces gut inflammation, helping to lower our risk of developing colon cancer.
In a recent study, genetically modified mice were fed a diet rich in I3C, which has been shown to activate a protein known as aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR). AHR acts to lower inflammation and lowers the risk of developing colon cancer.
The mice used in this study had been genetically engineered so that they were unable to make or activate AHR by themselves in their guts. Naturally, they readily developed gut inflammation which progressed to colon cancer. However, when study researchers fed the very same mice a diet enriched with I3C – which triggered AHR formation and activation in their guts – then they did not develop either inflammation or cancer.
Not only that, when mice with already developing tumors were switched to the I3C-enriched diet, they ended up with significantly fewer tumors, which were also more benign and less dangerous.
In other words, our diet has a profound effect on the level of inflammation in our gut and on our chances of getting colon cancer. While environmental and genetic factors may also play a role in the likelihood of our developing cancer, what this study shows is that eating locally sourced, non-irradiated and non-GMO plant-based foods such as kale, broccoli, and other cruciferous vegetables can be a very effective form of prevention.
Unfortunately, we can’t change the genes we’ve inherited from our parents that might predispose us to various diseases, including cancer. However, we know that based upon the science of epigenetics, we can change the expression of those genes and greatly reduce our risk by regularly consuming a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, which has been previously shown to lower the likelihood of multiple cancers, especially those affecting our digestive tract.
Editor’s Note: This article was initially published in September 2018 and was updated in July 2021.