Sprouts and Cancer – Sulfur, Stress, and Fighting Cancer with Food

I have been growing my own sprouts for the past several years for a couple reasons. As I’ll explain below, they are a healthy cancer-fighting plant that trains our immune system to battle foreign invaders. Secondly, they are quite possibly the easiest plant to grow, anytime of the year, with minimal supplies, and less than five minutes of effort per day. The link between sprouts and cancer is backed by much data and efforts are underway to use sprout-derived agents to help prevent cancer.

Sprouts and Cancer – The How

Sprouts are incredible easy to grow. All you need is:

  1. Several mason jars (in constant rotation, depending on how many sprouts you are growing)
  2. Screen or mesh
  3. High-quality water
  4. Sprouts (I like these non-GMO broccoli sprouts or this organic, non-GMP broccoli, radish, clover, and alfalfa mix)
  5. Less than five minutes per day

Step One – Preparing Your Gear

  • Get several mason jars
  • Cut squares of screen or mesh to fit under the jar lid
  • Remove center circular insert

Sprouts and Cancer 2

Step Two – Preparing the Seeds

  • Place 1 teaspoon of seeds into each mason jar
  • Add water to fill a third or so of the jar to saturate all the seeds with some extra room (I use this reverse osmosis counter-top filter in my apartment)
  • Place the mesh lid on the jars
  • Let sit for 8 hours

Sprouts and Cancer 3

Step Three – Watching the Sprouts Grow

  • After 8 hours dump the water from the mason jar (through the screen)
  • Thoroughly rinse the seeds through through the screen by filling with a cup of water
  • Dump all water out through screen
  • Turn jar continuously while dumping water out to coat sides with seeds
  • Place upside-down at angle for 8 hours to drain excess water (see below)
  • Repeat about every 8 hours until seeds are sprouted (typically within 3 days)

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Step Four – Remove Sprouts and Repeat

  • Keep replacing sprout jars with new seeds for constant supply
  • Eat sprouts by themselves, add to eggs in the morning (my favorite), or make a salad with the sprouts
  • WARNING: Do not overload on sprouts and make sure you do not eat a lot of unsprouted seeds or you will spend the next day in the bathroom
  • Seeds have evolved to upset our GI tract so they can end up undigested in a pile of fertilizer
  • *As a side note, I will often remove the seeds after Step 2, and place them in a tray lined with unbleached paper towels to allow them to grow. Keep the towels damp throughout the day, and they will act as less messy soil. Either way works well.

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My Favorite Ten-Minute Sprout Recipe:sprouts and cancer eggs kimchi

  1. 4 Pastured Eggs with Salt and Pepper
  2. Sprouts
  3. Avocado
  4. Kimchi
  5. Stir all together in a bowl

Sprouts and Cancer – The Why

With cancer, the best form of cure is prevention. So far, the medical world’s batting average has not been too hot when it comes to prevention. Though, in all fairness, it is difficult when we are battling big business and attempts like the tobacco and sugar industry to suppress data showing health detriment. Recently, however, enthusiasm and efforts have picked up tremendous speed within the world of chemoprevention. While chemotherapy is a traditional treatment of cancer, chemoprevention is the ability of an agent to prevent cancer, often by activating innate cellular pathways that help to stop cancer before it occurs or aid the body in its daily fight against cancer.

Chemoprevention: The use of natural, synthetic, or biologic chemical agents to reverse, suppress, or prevent carcinogenic progression to invasive cancer.1

For those of us that truly believe that we can fight cancer with food, naturally occurring chemopreventative sources have immense potential to safely and effectively help in this battle. One recent natural agent that has shown promise in chemoprevention is sulforaphane. Without digging too deep, sulforaphane is an isothiocyanate derived from cruciferous vegetables that activates our cellular immune system drill sergeant, nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2 (Nrf2).2 Nrf2, with its officer role, triggers a handful of cancer-fighting genes and pathways, that act like corporals to defend and regulate the body’s response to oxidative stress. Nrf2 is so vital that it protects our pancreatic cells from oxidative damage circumventing their dysfunction and eventual diabetes.3 Nrf1 and 2 activate what is known as the human antioxidant response pathway to activate NAD(P)H and other cellular responses to detoxify potentially damaging elements within our cells.4 Nrf2 is only the trigger of our body’s innate detoxification system.

Sprouts and Cancer – Fighting Breast Cancer with Broccoli

Cruciferous vegetables – like broccoli and Brussels sprouts – contain significant amounts of glucosinolates. These compounds provide cabbage and mustard plants their pungency, and both are considered potent sources of sulfur-containing glucosides.5 These plants also contain the enzyme myrosinase, and when chopped prior to cooking or chewed during consumption, myrosinase releases isothiocyanates. This is one reason why it is beneficial to chop Brussels sprouts ahead of time.

These cancer-fighting enzymes can stop cancer cell replication and chip in during apoptosis, which is the controlled death of cancer cells. The bacteria within our gastrointestinal tract also break down glucosinolates to isocythianates,6 which contain the beneficial and cancer-fighting sulforaphane.

The glucosinolate precursor of sulforaphane, glucophanin, blocks the formation and progression of breast cancer in animal studies.7 When women are given a concoction containing broccoli sprout extract prior to breast reduction surgery, levels of sulforahane significantly increase in their urine and blood. However most impressively, when the breast tissue of these women is inspected, the presence of sulforaphanes within the tissue rises significantly.8 Animal studies have shown similar findings, and also reveal that several protective cellular pathways are upregulated that serve to protect our cells from cancer, free radical damage, and DNA mutations.9

Sprouts and Cancer – Is Broccoli Toxic?

Some fascinating research points to the counter-intuitive benefit of vegetables as slightly toxic to our cells, which results in a form of hormesis to upregulate anti-cancer defense pathways. I dedicated the last chapter of the second edition of Misguided Medicine to a discussion of hormesis, but generally speaking, it is the process where a potential stress or threat actually makes us stronger.

Sulforaphane is an oxidant, albeit a gentle one, that activates Nrf2 and several antioxidant pathways within our cells since we perceive it as a danger. Much like exercise, resistance training, and intense muscle contraction, this “pseudo-danger” stresses our body to make it stronger over the long term. Similar stresses can upregulate the mitochondria, an organelle that is important in the fight against cancer.10 Along these lines, similar benefits are seen from exercise, which creates free radicals that rouse our mitochondria to produce antioxidants to offset the potential damage.11 Even cancer cells have caught on and they often have overactive levels of some of these pathways, potentially further stressing their importance for survival.9

Sprouts and Cancer – The Power of Food

The potential chemopreventative properties of food and food compounds further illustrates the power of food – and in this case – green, cruciferous vegetables. Sprouts from cruciferous vegetables may provide greater chemoprevention than mature vegetables, and this is great news for us all because they are simple to grow.12 Also, cooking cruciferous vegetables and broccoli significantly reduces the amount of isocyothianate,13 so eating raw sprouts may be one way to avoid the heat damage.

When it comes to optimal health, the power of food cannot be ignored. Dedicate less than five minutes per day to increase your arsenal in the fight against cancer – go grow some sprouts.

Sprouts and Cancer – References:

  1. Tsao AS, Kim ES, Hong WK. Chemoprevention of cancer. CA Cancer J Clin. 54(3):150-180. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15195789. Accessed April 23, 2015.
  2. Houghton CA, Fassett RG, Coombes JS. Sulforaphane: translational research from laboratory bench to clinic. Nutr Rev. 2013;71(11):709-726. doi:10.1111/nure.12060.
  3. Fu J, Zheng H, Wang H, et al. Protective Role of Nuclear Factor E2-Related Factor 2 against Acute Oxidative Stress-Induced Pancreatic β -Cell Damage. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2015;2015:639191. doi:10.1155/2015/639191.
  4. Venugopal R, Jaiswal AK. Nrf1 and Nrf2 positively and c-Fos and Fra1 negatively regulate the human antioxidant response element-mediated expression of NAD(P)H:quinone oxidoreductase1 gene. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1996;93(25):14960-14965. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=26245&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract. Accessed May 8, 2015.
  5. Johnson IT. Glucosinolates: bioavailability and importance to health. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2002;72(1):26-31. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11887749. Accessed May 5, 2015.
  6. Li F, Hullar MAJ, Schwarz Y, Lampe JW. Human gut bacterial communities are altered by addition of cruciferous vegetables to a controlled fruit- and vegetable-free diet. J Nutr. 2009;139(9):1685-1691. doi:10.3945/jn.109.108191.
  7. Zhang Y, Kensler TW, Cho CG, Posner GH, Talalay P. Anticarcinogenic activities of sulforaphane and structurally related synthetic norbornyl isothiocyanates. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 1994;91(8):3147-3150. doi:10.1073/pnas.91.8.3147.
  8. Cornblatt BS, Ye L, Dinkova-Kostova AT, et al. Preclinical and clinical evaluation of sulforaphane for chemoprevention in the breast. Carcinogenesis. 2007;28(7):1485-1490. doi:10.1093/carcin/bgm049.
  9. Belinsky M, Jaiswal AK. NAD(P)H:quinone oxidoreductase1 (DT-diaphorase) expression in normal and tumor tissues. Cancer Metastasis Rev. 1993;12(2):103-117. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8375015. Accessed May 8, 2015.
  10. Schulz TJ, Thierbach R, Voigt A, et al. Induction of Oxidative Metabolism by Mitochondrial Frataxin Inhibits Cancer Growth: OTTO WARBURG REVISITED. J Biol Chem. 2006;281(2):977-981. doi:10.1074/jbc.M511064200.
  11. Ristow M, Zarse K, Oberbach A, et al. Antioxidants prevent health-promoting effects of physical exercise in humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009;106(21):8665-8670. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903485106.
  12. Fahey JW, Zhang Y, Talalay P. Broccoli sprouts: An exceptionally rich source of inducers of enzymes that protect against chemical carcinogens. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 1997;94(19):10367-10372. doi:10.1073/pnas.94.19.10367.
  13. Conaway CC, Getahun SM, Liebes LL, et al. Disposition of glucosinolates and sulforaphane in humans after ingestion of steamed and fresh broccoli. Nutr Cancer. 2000;38(2):168-178. doi:10.1207/S15327914NC382_5.

© 2017 CDR Health and Nutrition, LLC. All Rights Reserved.


  1. metronome1523

    These foods have isothiocyanates and they are weak electrophiles in biochemistry. Akin to the reactions of carbon dioxide, nucleophiles attack at carbon. This means that these compounds when added to a lipid raft moiety become excellent at delocalizing electrons and fostering non linear optical signaling. To take advantage of this compounds need large electronic dipole moments, and they do. The other key way they work in a lipid raft with DHA is the electron donor and acceptor part oof the raft have to be far away from one another…….and with DHA this occurs because of the 22 Carbons and alternating bonds. amines methylene are donors and cyano’s halogens, and nitro’s are acceptors (DeMartino 1988) When they bind to DHA they also make the DHA planar which also helps the electronic effect……..DHA facilitates the transmission because of the pi electron cloud…….its giant wire of electrons. People need to gear up on 3D atomic chemistry to get why these foods work in cancer. Cancer = low DC electric current = poor electronic flow across the Cell Membrane. Isothiocyanates exert anticancer effects by promoting ubiquitination.

  2. Mike

    Hi Dr. Champ, since you compare consuming broccoli sprouts to other hormetic stressors like exercise, I’m wondering how much I should eat and how often? Things like sprints and deadlifts are pretty easy to regulate due to fatigue, but I could eat tons of broccoli sprouts at every meal if I wanted to! What do you recommend?

    1. colinchamp (Post author)

      Hi Mike. It’s a good question and the answer is we just don’t know. I generally eat as much as reasonably possible with each meal, as there are multiple other benefits in these foods like minerals, vitamins, and feeding our bowel bacteria. They are pretty tough to overeat, but I guess it’s possible!

  3. Colin, This is Teri Swanson I was the former KetoPet project coordinator. I started the project in Texas, they are now moving to California. I met you at the first Metabolic conference in Tampa. I was going to try and touch base with you last month at the 2017 conference, but you were covered up.( just a question). Can you point me to a resource on the nutritional changes of dehydrated cruciferous vegetables. Can the sprouts be dehydrated and maintain their nutritional
    benefits? I seem to be able to get our Hyperbaric Oxygen Patients(four legged) to eat more Veggies if they are dehydrated.

    thank so much

    1. colinchamp (Post author)

      Hi Teri, While the rumor is that drying or producing an extract eliminates the health benefit, I am not so sure the data supports this: http://www.pnas.org/content/94/19/10367.short The real source is probably best, but extracts are likely better than nothing…

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