Cruciferous Vegetables: Powerful Detoxification Medicine

detoxification, cruciferous vegetables, healing foods, energizing foods, functional medicine, nutritional healing

The cruciferous family of vegetables–your favorites like cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli–are so special in their deliciousness, but also possess magical chemistry that supports many key dimensions of our health, like detoxification, antioxidant protection, and control of inflammation. Through their detoxification attributes, they help us neutralize and eliminate toxins from our bodies, providing us with greater energy, improved health, and the power to heal and reduce our risk of serious illness–like cancers, autoimmunity, and neurodegenerative disorders.

What’s the deal with detoxification?

For those of you who’ve heard me speak about this (and I do–frequently and passionately!), detox is a 24/7 proposition. It’s not something you can accomplish successfully with the occasional juice fast or annual cleanse. That’s not how this works. Detoxification is a central aspect of our internal biology that is designed to function continuously to keep us safe from the toxins we are exposed to from our environments, as well as those that we make internally as a normal part of our metabolism. This internal cleansing requires tremendous energy and nutrient resources to keep it running smoothly at all times–to keep us healthy and help us heal. Detox needs our constant attention and support.

We must feed our detoxification

While it’s important to avoid unnecessary exposure to toxins in our daily lives, we can’t live in a bubble, and there’s always internal clean-up needing our attention. The most powerful way to keep detoxification humming along, keeping us healthy, is to eat foods that support it. Few food families are as powerful as crucifers, packed with nutrients specifically designed to run the business of detoxification.

Detoxification 101

Detoxification is a foundational function in all of our cells, but is most concentrated in the liver. The chemistry of detoxification is separated into two phases: phase 1 and phase 2, working together in concert. In phase 1 detoxification, toxins are made “sticky” by an oxidative process that makes them highly electrically charged. This is important for what happens next, though they are temporarily rendered more toxic than the original compound. In phase 2 detoxification, the “sticky” molecules from phase 1 are attached to one of many water-soluble compounds, making them more amenable to flow into body fluids–bile, blood, sweat, and urine–which will usher them safely out of the body via the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, or sweat glands.

Crucifers are unique among all plant foods in their capacity to balance phase 1 detoxification via changes in genetic expression, and to support phase 2 detoxification, by virtue of their ability to activate enzymes that lead to increases in the stage 2 workhorses–molecules that stick to the toxins, rendering them water soluble, leading to successful neutralization and elimination from the body.

Crucifers are Powerful Detoxification Medicine

Members of the cruciferous family contain many nutrients, including key vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fatty acids. In addition to these conventional nutrients, they contain powerful compounds called glucocinolates, which are potent detoxifiers. Glucocinolates, a family of compounds, are broken down into isothiocyanates (ITCs) by a specialized enzyme called myrosinase, which is most active when the plants are fresh and after being cut open. ITCs are unique within the plant community as being capable of supporting both phases of detoxification. They serve to balance phase 1, protecting us from excesses of those potentially volatile “sticky” compounds created there, and power up phase 2, by up-regulating the enzymes that attach the water-soluble molecules onto the “sticky” toxins.

Because crucifers are multi-taskers–in addition to supporting both phases of detoxification, they also contain potent antioxidants and reduce inflammation–they are uniquely poised to play a key role in supporting energy production, preventing cancer, and reducing the risk for autoimmune disease (inflammatory diseases and disorders, such as heart disease, arthritis, thyroid disease, and many others, and the number one cause of illness in the US).

Your Cruciferous Family Choices:

  • arugula
  • bok choy
  • broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • cabbage (both red and green)
  • cauliflower
  • Chinese cabbage
  • kale
  • daikon radish
  • collard greens
  • horseradish
  • kohlrabi
  • land cress
  • mustard greens
  • radish
  • rutabaga
  • shepherd’s purse
  • turnips
  • watercress

How to prepare crucifers:

It is ideal to use them when they are as fresh as possible, when they have the highest content of the enzyme, myrosinase, which converts the glycosinolates into the detoxifying ITCs. You can activate the myrosinase by cutting your crucifers and letting them sit for several minutes before cooking. The best way to cook crucifers is to lightly steam or saute them for just 3-4 minutes. By letting them rest after cutting and cooking lightly, you minimize the deactivation of myrosinase, leading to higher levels of the detoxification nutrition.

Crucifer Detox Salad Recipe

You will need:

  • 1 small head cauliflower cut into small pieces
  • 1 small head red cabbage cut into small pieces
  • 10-15 Brussels sprouts shaved or sliced in food processor
  • 5-6 large kale leaves, deveined, and cut into small pieces
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/4 cup of dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup lightly toasted almond slivers (I toast them in a dry heated cast-iron pan)
  • 1/2 cup fresh-pressed virgin olive oil
  • salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Mix ingredients well. Massage the olive oil into the veggies by hand to get them thoroughly coated and softened. Feel free to use more or less of anything to suit your taste.

Sauteed Brussels Sprouts in Olive Oil and Bacon

  • 15-20 Brussels sprouts, cut in halves
  • 1/2 cup fresh pressed virgin olive oil
  • 3 slices of uncured bacon, cut into small pieces
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2-3 tablespoons pomegranate balsamic vinegar (or flavor of choice)

Heat olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Saute bacon until cooked and slightly crisp. Add Brussels sprouts and saute for 3-5 minutes, until they reach desired degree of firmness. Salt and pepper to taste. Add vinegar and turn off heat, stirring to incorporate into still steaming veggies. After 30 seconds, take the pan off of the heat and serve.

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Nourish: Eat for Vitality

Karyn Shanks MD

About the Author

Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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