The superfood that scientists say both protects your gut and staves off disease

Findings suggest broccoli can potentially help reshape the gut’s metabolic repertoire

Vishwam Sankaran
Monday 10 April 2023 12:15 BST

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Scientists have found that a molecule in broccoli interacts with the small intestine’s lining and prevents disease progression, an advance that sheds more light on how the widely recognised “superfood” improves gut health.

Previous studies have demonstrated the health benefits of eating broccoli, including in reducing the risk of diseases like different types of cancers and type two diabetes.

The new research, published recently in the journal Laboratory Investigation, has revealed that broccoli contains specific molecules that attach to a gut receptor in mice, safeguarding the small intestine lining.

“Our research is helping to uncover the mechanisms for how broccoli and other foods benefit health in mice and likely humans, as well. It provides strong evidence that cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts should be part of a normal healthy diet,” Gary Perdew, a co-author of the study from Penn State University in the US, said.

The small intestine’s walls are known to allow beneficial substances like water and nutrients to pass into the body while preventing the entry of food particles and bacteria that could cause harm.

Special cells in the intestine – such as the enterocytes that absorb water and nutrients, goblet cells, which secrete a protective layer of mucus, and Paneth cells which lead to digestive enzyme sectetion – help maintain this healthy balance.

The new research found that molecules in broccoli called aryl hydrocarbon receptor ligands bind to a type of protein called AHR, leading to activities that affect the functions of intestinal cells.

In the study, scientists fed an experimental group of mice a diet containing 15 per cent broccoli – equivalent to about 3.5 cups per day for humans – and fed a control group of mice a typical lab diet without broccoli.

When researchers analysed the animals’ tissues found that mice that were not fed broccoli lacked AHR activity, resulting in altered intestinal barrier function.

It led to a reduced transit time of food in the small intestine, a decreased number of goblet cells and protective mucus, decreased Paneth cells, and decreased number of enterocyte cells.

“The gut health of the mice that were not fed broccoli was compromised in a variety of ways that are known to be associated with disease,” Dr Perdew said.

“Our research suggests that broccoli and likely other foods can be used as natural sources of AHR ligands, and that diets rich in these ligands contribute to the resilience of the small intestine,” he added.

The new findings suggest that the dietary cues relayed via the activity of AHR can potentially reshape the gut’s metabolic repertoire, scientists say.

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