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Previous research has suggested that cruciferous vegetables aid gut health, but now we know why.

Zee Krstic
August 15, 2018

It is no secret—fresh, crunchy roughage like cabbage, kale, and broccoli are superfoods when it comes to your gut health. But new research might finally explain how these vegetables are so good at improving gut health—and lowering the risk of bowel cancer.

A team of scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London discovered that anti-cancer chemicals are actually produced by the body when digesting cruciferous vegetables. Their findings, published in the journal Immunity, were the result of closely studying the effects of phytochemicals from green vegetables on the digestive tracts of live mice and lab-grown bowel cells.

As you may already know, the interior surface of intestines—which is also fed by our gut microbiome and plays a role in digestion—is constantly regenerating and repairing itself in a cycle that takes upwards of five days to complete. Both good and bacteria can make their way into the gut based on what you eat, and the body's overall intestinal health can be damaged by foods and diets that have been shown to cause intestinal inflammation—these foods could possibly lead to cancer development.

But the chemicals found in cabbage and kale, among others, were vital to keeping holistic gut health in check: researchers noted that when these foods are eaten, higher levels of the phytochemical indole-3-carbinol or I3C, appear in digestive tracts. In the lower bowel, I3C can help foster a better environment for stem cell development, which helps regenerate the bowel surface faster. More I3C can also aid immune cells that stop widespread inflammation in the gut, BBC News reports.

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The new study included evidence that diets high in I3C helped protect mice from developing intestinal cancer—even for those who were at high-risk of developing the disease.

Professor Tim Key, a representative for non-profit research charity Cancer Research UK, told the BBC that these new developments are even more proof that home cooks should increase vegetable consumption—especially if they're battling poor gut health.

"This study in mice suggests that it's not just the fibre contained in vegetables like broccoli and cabbage that help reduce the risk of bowel cancer, but also molecules found in these vegetables too," Key told BBC News. "Further studies will help find out whether the molecules in these vegetables have the same effect in people, but in the meantime there are already plenty of good reasons to eat more vegetables."

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