With how widespread breast cancer has become, it can be easy for women to feel fearful about the future and helpless against such a potentially devastating disease. We hear a lot in mainstream media about finding a cure, but not as much about prevention. And while finding a cure would be amazing, we should look to prevention with just as much enthusiasm, if not more – especially since some promising information on preventative measures has already been discovered!
In light of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we want to highlight one of these interesting findings and how this information can be put into practice to decrease your risk of developing breast cancer or having a recurrence.
The Estrogen-Breast Cancer Link
You may have heard that family history plays a role in breast cancer risk. This is because genes influence how an individual metabolizes the sex hormone, estrogen. There are two pathways through which estrogen is broken down – one pathway results in the end product 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone (16-OH-estrone) and the other results in 2-hydroxyestrone (2-OH-estrone). Since 16-OH-estrone has been found to be carcinogenic in excess, those with the predisposition to metabolize more heavily through that pathway have an increased risk of breast cancer. Diet and other lifestyle factors can also influence these pathways.
Indole-3-Carbinol: Harnessing the Power of Broccoli
When mom told you growing up to “eat your broccoli,” she probably had no idea that broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables would become a major target in cancer prevention research. She just knew it was good for you! During WWII, it was discovered that European women whose diets were rich in these vegetables had drastically reduced breast cancer rates and researchers took notice. Soon, indole-3-carbinol, the compound made from the hydrolysis of glucobrassicin, was identified as the main compound responsible for steering estrogen metabolism away from the 16-OH-estrone pathway. Recent research on the effect of this compound on cancer cells – not just breast cancer cells, but also on cervical, endometrial, and prostate – are quite impressive. Indole-3-carbinol was shown to both halt and destroy roughly 50-60% of cancer cells.
Supplementation vs. Whole Foods
To get a strong therapeutic effect from this compound, one would have to eat very large quantities of cruciferous vegetables. This presents a challenge logistically and may also cause digestive distress for some individuals. That’s why indole-3-carbinol has been isolated into dietary supplement form. Studies have shown maximum benefit from 300-400 mg per day. However, talk to your healthcare practitioner to discuss proper dosing for you. He or she may want to test your 16-OH-estrone/2-OH-estrone ratio to better assess your risk. This can be done via a simple urine test.
Don’t give up on eating your veggies just yet, though. Even if supplementation is needed for you to get maximum benefit from indole-3-carbinol, cruciferous vegetables in their whole food form also have generous amounts of fiber, folate, vitamin k, carotenoids, and other phytonutrients. Many of these nutrients have been shown to have their own cancer-fighting capabilities. These foods include broccoli, cabbage, kale, turnips, rutabagas, mustard greens, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and bok choy, just to name a few. Although some of these foods can taste bitter, topping them with lemon juice or adding some to a smoothie are a few easy ways to make them palatable. Moral of the story: keep eating your greens and other cruciferous vegetables and talk to your healthcare provider about whether supplementation with indole-3-carbinol is a good fit for you, depending on your individual risk factors for breast cancer.