WHAT THE HELL IS AN ISOTHIOCYANATE & WHY YOU SHOULD CARE?

We all know vegetables are good for us. Rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and many other phytochemicals. Only some of these are fully identified. They are a crucial dietary component as whole foods in an anti-inflammatory diet. That is, an eating plan which helps minimize those symptoms we associate with aging and promotes healthspan.  I was turned on to a recently identified family of phytochemicals by one of my favorite scientists in this field, Dr Rhonda Patrick.

An isothiocyanate is an incredible protective agent we can access by eating certain plants. It is created when we chew (or blend) the raw plant and cause a reaction between a precursor called a glucosinolate and an enzyme both otherwise found separately in the plant. They actually exist as pesticides to deter insects, but this mild toxicity in humans seems to cause a hormetic response resulting in some amazing health benefits.

The most research on these benefits has been on the isothiocyanate, sulforaphane. It is yielded by eating any raw cruciferous vegetables when glucoraphanin (precursor) combines with myrosinase (enzyme). So anytime we eat raw kale, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, wasabi (who knew??), or any of the dozens of vegetables in this family (aka brassicas), we get a small dose of sulforaphane. 

Note cooking renders the myrosinase inert. However, the enzyme can be found in grated daikon or ground mustard seed. So adding either as a topping to your cooked brassicas can make the dish more nutritious and delicious. Also, this study found the intake of cooked brussels sprouts daily for 3 weeks significantly reduced DNA damage – so still beneficial when cooked. 🙂

Sulforaphane is highest in common broccoli, but broccoli sprouts yield 100X that of an adult plant. So most research on possible benefits of sulforaphane in protection from diseases of inflammation has been done using sulforaphane extract from broccoli sprouts. Research data from clinical trials has shown significant phytoprotection from sulforaphane for cardiovascular disease (1, 2, 3, 4), lung cancer, other cancers (1, 2), neuropsychiatric disorders & brain aging (1, 2, 3), autism, depression, and h-pylori GI infection (1, 2). It is also known to induce rapid and sustainable secretion of inflammatory airborne pollutants (like benzene and acrolein) found in air pollution and cigarette smoke. So it seems as though its health benefits are extreme and quite far-reaching.

To get the equivalent clinical dosage of sulforaphane to those used in these studies, one would need to consume 70-150g/day of broccoli sprouts. This can be done (I have done it). However, sprouts can easily go bad or become contaminated without optimal storage conditions or if left too long. Many people do their own sprouting, but I was concerned about getting the timing just right for regular intake. So, I opened an account with an organic wholesaler and started buying sprouts by the case (12X 60g containers each) from a local source and freezing them. I would blend 60-120g per day with water and quickly ingest a very fibrous bitter shake. This worked pretty well, but it was getting expensive even at wholesale prices.

All isothiocyanates have a tail in their molecular structure with nitrogen double bonded to carbon which is double bonded to sulfur. This N=C=S key seems to be connected to its mechanism causing a cytoplasmic reaction in cells and an upregulation of the NRF2 genetic pathway. This is the master controller of more than 200 genes responsible for reducing inflammation. This upregulation also leads to a significant increase in our most potent endogenous antioxidant, glutathione.

Given my difficulty maintaining sulforaphane supplementation, I looked to an alternative isothiocyanate source. Dried leaf powder of the tropical moringa oleifera tree is much easier to use as a whole food supplement (purchase yours here). Like crucifers, these leaves have tremendous micronutrient density. They are also very high in protein. Given its propensity to grow in tropical climates, there is tremendous potential as part of a solution in countries where epidemic starvation exists. 

Given moringa also has a glucosinolate, moringinin, and myrosinase, we can also access an isothiocyanate from it. Moringin is that compound and it has the same N=C=S key as sulforaphane, albeit a somewhat bulkier molecular structure otherwise. We know moringin acts similarly in assays, however, there is not nearly the same amount of research and data on its merit for protection from disease.  In this detailed 2017 review, published by Dr. Jed Fahey of Johns Hopkins University, he writes about this and the potential benefits of this plant both nutritionally and pharmacologically. Though optimistic, Dr. Fahey also cautions about product sourcing and disregarding claims of benefits for which there is no evidence specific to moringa.

Personally, I have reduced my frozen broccoli sprout shake intake to 1-2X/week and gone with moringa oleifera leaf powder (1-2 Tbsp shaken in water) 2-3X/week. I have learned anti-inflammatory benefits of an isothiocyanate don’t necessarily require daily consumption. The upregulation doesn’t disappear after 24 hours. Also, I am willing to extrapolate benefits from moringin even though I know they may not be the same as those from sulforaphane.

I have talked about the bitter taste of broccoli sprout shakes. Moringa shakes are no different this way. That’s because it’s the isothiocyanate which gives it the bad taste. In fact, the longer you let your shake sit and react, the more you are tasting moringin or sulforaphane. Fortunately, this reaction can also occur in your gut. So you don’t have to tolerate the grossest possible tasting mixture to get what you want. My point is, don’t add these to a shake you want to enjoy for taste. They are more of a “mix and chug” beverage.

This is my organic moringa oleifera source from a local supplier I trust and you can find in our shop. Again, the brand of broccoli sprouts I use is also local and can be found at most local grocers. Their regular consumption has become an important part of my anti-aging strategy and optimal recovery protocols.