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The liver is often an over looked part of hormonal metabolism. All steroid hormones (cortisol, estrogen etc.) are converted and metabolized into different forms by the liver. One of the most confusing parts of hormonal health is that many hormones exist in the body in various forms. For example estrogens exist in the body in 3 different primary forms, estrone (E1), 17β-estradiol (E2), and 16α-estriol (E3). The liver’s job is to now further convert these primary forms into secondary compounds, which can also have powerful effects on cancer risk and hormone imbalance.  From a dietary perspective, cruciferous vegetables have shown the most powerful impact on hormones. Theses vegetables contain a group of natural compounds called glucosinolates that support liver detoxification and hormone elimination pathways. One of the most promising glucosinolates with potential hormonal balancing activity is sulforaphane.

Sulforaphane is a compound with a unique ability to stimulate the phase 2 liver detoxification system (Fahey and Talalay 1999). The phase 2 pathway is very important since it is the final stage for the removal of harmful compounds, detoxification products and excess estrogens. It is so important because it’s actually quite easy to stimulate phase 1 detoxification (done by many herbs and B-vitamins) but much it is more difficult to activate the very important phase 2 pathway. This pathway is essential for the elimination of excess hormones (i.e. estrogen) which cause symptoms of hormonal imbalance (i.e. menopause, acne etc.). Sulforaphane has an impressive range of anti-cancer activity in addition to stimulating phase 2 detoxification including stimulation of cell suicide, preventing replication, reduction of tumor spread and the inhibition of blood supply to cancer cells (Clarke et al 2008). Perhaps the most exciting, recently discovered action is that it may actually inhibit breast cancer stem cells, which are responsible for continued tumor growth and disease relapse (Li et al.  2010). Another promising anti-cancer effect is the ability of sulforaphane to reduce inflammation right at the genetic level by stimulating a control protein called nuclear factor 2 (Nrf2). (Sulforaphane Glucosinolate Monograph 2012).

From a practical perspective, cruciferous vegetables contain high amounts of glucoraphanin (also referred to as sulforaphane glucosinolate), which is then converted to biologically active sulforaphane by an enzyme called myrosinase. Myrosinase is released when the plant is chewed or processed or produced in the gut by bacteria. Unfortunately, cooking partially destroys this enzyme limiting sulforaphane production. Glucoraphanin is abundant in broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale with the highest concentration found in broccoli and broccoli sprouts. Studies show that just 1 cup (or 200 µmol of sulforaphane) of raw broccoli sprouts contains enough sulforaphane to penetrate breast tissue and stop cancer growth (Cornblatt et al 2007). Supplementing is also a good way to get the benefit of this molecule. Overall, sulforaphane is a potent tool for improving liver function, to reduce cancer and to balance your hormones.


Fahey and Talalay. Antioxidant functions of sulforaphane: a potent inducer of phase II detoxifi- cation enzymes. Food Chem Toxicol 1999;37:973-97

Brooks et al. Potent Induction of Phase II enzymes in human prostate cells by Sulforaphane. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers and Prev, 2001;10:949-954

Sulforaphane Glucosinolate Monograph. Altern Med Rev 2012;15(4): 352-360.

Clarke et al. Multi-targeted prevention of cancer by sulforaphane. Cancer Lett. 2008 Oct 8;269(2):291-304.

Li et al.  Sulforaphane, a dietary component of broccoli/broccoli sprouts, inhibits breast cancer stem cells. Clin Cancer Res. 2010 May 1;16(9):2580-90.

Cornblatt B, Ye L, Dinkova-Kostova AT, et al. Preclinical and clinical evaluation of sulforaphane for chemoprevention in the breast. Carcinogenesis 2007;28:1485-1490.

Dr. Paul Hrkal

About The Author

Dr. Paul Hrkal is a board-certified Naturopathic doctor with a passion to apply innovative and evidence-based nutritional, biological, and supplemental interventions to address underlying metabolic, endocrine and immunological dysfunctions. He is strong advocate of integrative medical education frequently writing and lecturing to both healthcare practitioners and public audiences. He also is the medical director for Advanced Orthomolecular Research, a leading Canadian natural health product company, and maintains a clinical practice in the Toronto area.

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