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I3C &amp; DIM

January 2006

By Dale Kiefer

Cancer-Fighting Watercress and Broccoli

An often overlooked member of the cruciferous vegetable family, watercress is an “exceptionally rich source”59 of potent cancer-fighting isothiocyanates, including a much-studied compound known as phenethyl isothiocyanate, or PEITC.

Recently published research indicates that an extract of the cruciferous vegetables watercress and broccoli suppresses an enzyme closely associated with the invasive potential of breast cancer.60 Scientists working with breast cancer cell cultures observed that a broccoli-watercress extract effectively lowers the expression of metalloproteinase-9, an enzyme associated with breast cancer’s invasiveness. The same team simultaneously published research indicating that isothiocyanate compounds in watercress suppress production of pro-inflammatory compounds in laboratory models of cellular activity. “Overproduction of both nitric oxide (NO) and prostaglandins (PGE) has been associated with numerous pathological conditions, including chronic inflammation and cancer,” the researchers noted. They speculated that this effect may contribute to the anti-cancer activity of cruciferous vegetables.61

For men, PEITC has particular value in preventing prostate cancer. Noting that epidemiological evidence shows a strong association between greater intake of cruciferous vegetables and reduced risk of prostate cancer, scientists in New York sought to identify the specific compounds responsible for cancer prevention. They found that a conjugate of PEITC, which is abundant in watercress, inhibited proliferation and tumorigenesis of prostate cancer cells growing in culture.62

Oncology researchers and physicians are becoming interested in watercress’s potential use against deadly lung cancer.63 Research shows that watercress-derived PEITC is a protective agent against lung cancer in laboratory rodents.64,65 Subsequent research continues to confirm and expand on these findings.66,67

Remarkably, research shows that even after isothiocyanates such as PEITC are modified for efficient removal from the body in urine, they remain active against cancer. Urine containing conjugated isothiocyanates, which are stored in the bladder while awaiting removal, acts on the tissue lining the bladder to prevent carcinoma. This is precisely the site where most bladder tumors arise. “Development of effective preventive strategies for bladder cancer is of critical importance,” one research team recently noted, concluding that isothiocyanates such as those in watercress “may be especially useful for the prevention of bladder cancer.”68

Adding another piece to the puzzle, scientists at the University of Arizona determined in 2003 that PEITC inhibits cancer cell proliferation with surprising rapidity. This is significant, they noted, because PEITC and other dietary isothiocyanates from cruciferous vegetables tend to be cleared from the body through urinary excretion. Working with human leukemia cells, they discovered that isothiocyanates, including PEITC, were able to limit cancer cell proliferation.69 After only three hours of exposure to PEITC and other cruciferous isothiocyanates, the cancer cells experienced the full spectrum of PEITC’s anti-cancer effects.

French scientists recently discovered that compounds in watercress are adept at inducing both phase I and phase II enzymes, an effect that may explain its ability to inhibit chemically induced DNA damage from a wide variety of compounds. DNA damage can lead to carcinogenesis.70


Breast cancer is the most common cancer, and the second leading cause of cancer-related death, in women. Many factors such as age, genetics, alcohol intake, and level of physical activity influence breast cancer risk.55

Hormones also play a crucial role in influencing breast cancer risk. After noting that women who experience early menarche (onset of menstruation) or late menopause have an increased risk of breast cancer, scientists have proposed that a woman’s cumulative lifetime exposure to hormones helps determine her risk of developing breast cancer. Furthermore, the long-term use of hormone replacement therapy with conjugated equine estrogens combined with synthetic progestins is also known to increase breast cancer risk.55

One of the most important applications of I3C and DIM may be in protecting against hormone-induced breast cancer. Epidemiological, laboratory, and animal studies indicate that dietary intake of I3C prevents the development of estrogen-enhanced cancers, including breast, endometrial, and cervical cancers. While estrogen increases the growth and survival of tumors, I3C has been found to cause growth arrest and increased apoptosis (programmed cell death).56

Both I3C and DIM help promote healthy metabolism of estrogen by influencing the ratio of beneficial 2-hydroxyestrone to unfavorable 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone.48,50 An increased ratio of these estrogen metabolites is associated with a decreased risk of breast and other cancers.39,47-53 A placebo-controlled, double-blind study of women at increased risk for breast cancer found that four weeks of supplementation with I3C promoted favorable changes in the urinary estrogen metabolite ratio of 2-hydroxy-estrone to 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone.50

A recent pilot study examined DIM’s effects on estrogen metabolites in postmenopausal women with a history of early-stage breast cancer. After one month of supplementation with DIM, the participants demonstrated a significant increase in levels of beneficial 2-hydroxyestrone and an insignificant increase in the ratio of 2-hydroxyestrone to 16-alpha-hydroxy-estrone. These results suggest that DIM may play a role in preventing breast cancer reoccurrence by promoting healthy estrogen metabolism.48

A clinical trial assessing I3C’s role in preventing cancer in healthy individuals is currently under way.57 Several clinical trials investigating DIM’s cancer-preventive and therapeutic potential are also in progress.58

Carnosic Acid and Vitamin D

Cancer researchers have been paying a lot of attention to vitamin D. Scientists know that vitamin D functions as a hormone, affecting immune response and acting in various ways to protect against cancer.71-74 Vitamin D is available in foods and supplements, as well as through its naturally occurring activation in the skin following exposure to ultraviolet light (sunlight). Vitamin D thus appears to be very important to the body’s innate ability to fight cancer.75,76

To complement vitamin’s D anti-cancer role, a compound derived from the culinary herb rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) acts to enhance vitamin D’s biochemical activity. Carnosic acid and carnosol, found in rosemary, are antioxidant polyphenols that have been shown to aid vitamin D’s efforts to thwart cancer. Rather than killing cancer cells outright as many chemotherapeutic agents do, vitamin D halts cancer by forcing precancerous cells to differentiate or become, in essence, more mature cells.77,78 Because cancer is characterized by less mature cells, a process that compels these cells to become more mature is beneficial to fighting cancer. Scientists therefore are keenly interested in using supplemental vitamin D for differentiation therapy to prevent and possibly treat cancer.

Beyond this promising partnership with natural vitamin D, researchers have identified other mechanisms by which carnosic acid and carnosol work to protect and enhance the immune system.79 These powerful natural antioxidants exhibit antibacterial activity, even against problematic bacteria that have developed resistance to standard antibiotics.80 Carnosol has demonstrated activity against the HIV virus, at concentrations that were not harmful to healthy cells.81 Much like I3C and DIM, rosemary compounds have also been shown to reduce the carcinogenic potential of natural estrogens by enhancing their metabolism in the liver. When treated with a diet containing 2% rosemary for three weeks, female mice increased their beneficial 2-hydroxylation of estrogens by approximately 150% while inhibiting the detrimental 16-alpha-hydroxylation of estradiol by approximately 50%.82

Glucosinolates and their derivatives from cruciferous vegetables, along with the powerful cancer-fighting compound carnosic acid from rosemary, have thus been shown to be powerful weapons in the battle against cancer.


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