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Can isothiocyanates (ITCs) help prevent cancer?

Joel H. Fuhrman, MD
Family Medicine
Compounds called isothiocyanates are derived from cruciferous vegetables such as kale, cabbage, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, and turnips. Because different ITCs can work in different locations in the cell and on different molecules, they can have combined additive effects, working synergistically to remove carcinogens and kill cancer cells. Also some ITCs have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, or even immunologic effects. ITCs can inhibit angiogenesis, the process by which a tumor establishes a blood supply, by promoting blood vessel growth to feed the multiplying and growing cancer cells with nourishment. Cancer-prone and malignant cells secrete factors that stimulate new blood vessel growth, thus promoting their own survival and spread. A fundamental step in the transition to cancer is the successful promotion of blood vessels, so foods that inhibit angiogenesis have been recognized to powerfully fight cancer.

Certain ITCs detoxify and/or remove carcinogenic compounds, especially the green cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts, which are rich sources of the ITC sulforaphane. Sulforaphane also prevents carcinogens from binding to the DNA and being able to initiate cancerous changes in the cell and it activates enzymes that protect cells from any DNA damage that has occurred. ITCs give each cell its own protective shield that isolates destructive toxins and neutralizes or compartmentalizes them so they cannot do damage. But if DNA does indeed become damaged, the growth of the damaged cell can be stopped to allow for DNA repair, or the cell can be programmed for cell death (apoptosis). These processes that protect the inside of cells from damage can only be fueled by these compounds in green vegetables. Several ITCs, including sulforaphane, indole-3-carbinol (I3C), and diindolylmethane (DIM) have been studied to stop growth or induce death in cancer cells such as breast and colon cancer.

Some ITCs with strong anti-cancer activity
  • Sulforaphane
  • Phenylethylisothiocyanate (PEITC)
  • Allyl isothiocyanate (AITC)
  • Indole-3-carbinol (I3C)
  • 3.3-diindolylmethane (DIM)
Super Immunity: The Essential Nutrition Guide for Boosting Your Body's Defenses to Live Longer, Stronger, and Disease Free

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Super Immunity: The Essential Nutrition Guide for Boosting Your Body's Defenses to Live Longer, Stronger, and Disease Free

In Super Immunity, world-renowned health expert and New York Times bestselling author of Eat to Live Dr. Joel Fuhrman offers a nutritional guide to help you live longer, stronger, and disease...

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.