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Not a fan of broccoli or brussels sprouts? Well, they might be too important to skip – even if they’re not your favorite. A study from Penn State found that mice given a broccoli-rich diet were better able to digest foods, leading to better gut health.

Broccoli Offers Promising Health Benefits

The mice in the study had symptoms similar to those in humans who struggle with leaky gut and colitis. A diet that included broccoli aided in reducing the symptoms. The mice that weren’t given broccoli weren’t so lucky. Gary Perdew, one of the study’s co-authors and a professor in agricultural sciences at Penn State, said the associated health risks of an unhealthy gut are a motivating factor for the research.

“There are a lot of reasons we want to explore helping with gastrointestinal health and one reason is if you have problems, like a leaky gut, and start to suffer inflammation, that then may lead to other conditions, like arthritis and heart disease,” he said in a press release. “Keeping your gut healthy and making sure you have good barrier functions so you’re not getting this leaky effect would be really big.”

The Science Behind Broccoli’s Health Benefits

broccoli study health benefits | Gundry MD

The researchers found that a diet rich in broccoli activates a receptor within the gut called Aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) that helps in reactions to contaminants and toxins. It activates the receptor through a chemical compound that veggies like broccoli, brussel sprouts and cabbage contain known as indolocarbozole (ICZ) that binds with the AHR.

When AHR and ICZ bind together within the gut, the team is able to promote a healthy gut by strengthening the immune system and host barrier function, the researchers said. Veggies like broccoli play an important role by naturally activating the receptor, since hyper-activating the AHR can cause toxicity within the gut.

“Dioxin, for example, activates this receptor, and if you hyper-activate it with dioxin, it will cause toxicity,” Perdew said. “What we were interested in is this: Could you locally activate the receptor naturally at a level that would cause modest AHR activation in the gut, but not cause systemic activation, which could possibly lead to negative effects?”

The researchers were able to use two different kinds of genetic lines within the mice during the study. One group had a line with a low ability of binding AHR with the ICZ, while the other had a line with a high ability to do so.

The mice diets were then adjusted via the broccoli intake – 15 percent broccoli was added to both groups as well as a disruptor of the digestive system. Those with the high ability to bind the receptor and the compound were protected from the disruptor, and those with the low ability were not.

Results from the Study

The group with the heightened ability to bind the receptor and compound was able to decrease negative microbial activity that lead to health issues. Perdew said the human equivalent to achieve the same effects would equal to around three and a half cups of broccoli per day.

“Now, three and a half cups is a lot, but it’s not a huge amount, really,” Perdew said. “We used a cultivar — or variety — with about half the amount of chemicals in it, and there are cultivars with twice as much. Also, brussel sprouts have three times as much, which would mean a cup of brussel sprouts could get us to the same level.”

Although individuals with digestive health issues are advised to avoid roughage like broccoli and brussel sprouts, future research would be able to more fully understand the vegetables’ effects in relation to gut health, the researchers said.

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