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Cruciferous Vegetables Lessen Lupus Severity

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), commonly called lupus, predominantly strikes women during the years when they are menstruating, which is when their estrogen levels are highest. Estrogen metabolism in women with SLE is known to be shifted towards higher production of an estrogen metabolite called 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone. 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone is a very powerful estrogenic compound that, research suggests, fuels disease activity.

Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, contain a compound called indole-3-carbinol (I3C). I3C increases the activity of a detoxifying enzyme in the liver called Cytochrome P450 1A1. This enzyme shifts estrogen metabolism so that a much weaker estrogenic compound, 2-hydroxyestrone, is produced, thus lessening disease risk. For this reason, a group of researchers, supported by grants from the U.S. Public Health Service and the Lupus Foundation of America, recently studied whether I3C could be useful in treating the chronic autoimmune disorder, lupus.

Researchers began by evaluating whether I3C can help shift estrogen metabolism so that weaker estrogenic compounds would be produced in women with lupus. To do so, they conducted a small trial on seventeen premenopausal women who were being treated for the disease at Boston University Medical Center. During the trial, which lasted for three months, each woman received a 125 mg capsule of I3C, three times a day. To monitor the impact of supplementation on the women’s estrogen metabolism, researchers repeatedly measured the ratio of two important estrogen metabolites in urine, 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone (16-alpha-OHE1) and 2-hydroxyestrone (2-OHE1).

These estrogen metabolites are the products of two competing metabolic pathways in a woman’s body. One pathway, called 16-alpha-hydroxylation, produces 16-alpha-OHE1, a powerful metabolite with strong estrogenic effects. The other pathway, 2-hydroxylation, creates a much less potent estrogen metabolite, 2-OHE1. A growing body of research suggests that when too much of the stronger estrogen metabolite 16-alpha-OHE1 is produced relative to the amount of the weaker metabolite, 2-OHE1, this increases a woman’s risk for diseases influenced by estrogen activity, such as breast cancer and osteoporosis, as well as—as this study suggests—SLE.

After just one week of I3C therapy, urinary testing revealed that the 2:16 alpha-hydroxyestrone ratio in the women with lupus had increased, on average, over 70%, a change mostly due to increased production of 2-OHE1. After three months of I3C therapy, researchers noted a "modest" decrease in SLE disease activity as well as a "modest" drop in the use of prednisone, an anti-inflammatory drug prescribed for symptomatic relief of lupus. The authors concluded that "I3C does exert metabolic influences on estrogen metabolism in women with SLE which could benefit women with this disorder."

A cup of raw broccoli contains approximately 115-165mg of I3C. Approximately the same amount, about 125-150 mg, is contained in 1/4 medium-sized head of raw green cabbage.

Besides I3C, which is found in cruciferous vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown in studies to improve the ratio of 2 to 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone. The highest amounts of omega-3s are found in in two other members of the World’s Healthiest Foods: flaxseed meal and wild caught cold water fish such as salmon and tuna.

For suggestions as to how to enjoy cruciferous vegetables, truly some of the World's Healthiest Foods, more often, click on the Recipe Assistant, select any of crucifers on the healthy foods list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all the World's Healthiest Foods' recipes containing the crucifer chosen will appear immediately below.


McAlindon TE, Gulin J, Chen T, Klug T, Lahita R, Nuite M. Indole-3-carbinol in women with SLE: effect on estrogen metabolism and disease activity. Lupus 2001;10:779-783.

Incledon T, Nutrition Science News, April 2001, Vol 6, No 4, p130-132.

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