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How Vegetable Extracts Protect Against Cancer

January 2017

By Rita Haven

Apigenin is a polyphenol found in vegetables such as parsley and celery. It is receiving increased attention as a low-cost nutrient to protect against common cancers.

What makes apigenin so fascinating is how it functions to starve cancer cells, promote cancer cell destruction, and protect cellular DNA against environmental toxins (that can result in future malignancies).

Compounds such as indole-3-carbinol (I3C) are found in cruciferous vegetables. These cruciferous compounds have been shown to work in complementary ways with apigenin (non-cruciferous) to combat cancer and other age-related diseases.

According to a study published in the International Journal of Oncology:

“Cancer prevention through diet may be largely achievable by increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. Considerable attention has been devoted to identifying plant-derived dietary agents which could be developed as promising chemopreventives. One such agent is apigenin.”1

Apigenin Protects Cells from Cancer


Apigenin fights oxidative stress and inflammation—two factors that play a role in cancer development.2-9 Oxidative stress and inflammation generate DNA damage that can lead to uncontrolled proliferation of nonfunctioning cells, i.e., cancer.10,11 But that’s just one aspect of how apigenin functions.

Unique mechanisms of apigenin have led researchers to intensely evaluate it.12 What they’ve discovered is that apigenin has a host of other anticancer properties:

1. Apigenin Stops Cancer Cells from Replicating

Apigenin attacks cancer at a variety of stages and in different ways. At every step, apigenin seems to aggressively stop cancer’s various pathways. Apigenin has the ability to stop cancer cells from replicating, to reduce their invasiveness, and to slow their growth. Scientists believe this is largely related to its ability to shut down nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB).13,14 When activated, NF-kB leads to a flood of proinflammatory molecules that can promote tumor growth and the spread of cancer.15,16

In an animal study of nonmelanoma skin cancer, apigenin inhibited the production of inflammatory signaling molecules known to promote tumor proliferation.17

2. Apigenin Causes Cancer Cells to Die Off

In a cell study of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (a common malignancy in older adults), apigenin prevented the DNA mutations tied to cancer, while promoting the naturally-occurring cell death (apoptosis) that cancer cells otherwise evade.18

Apigenin may promote apoptosis by reactivating an important cancer-suppressor gene called p53.19 Inactivation of p53 is a common feature of cancer cells, which results in the cell’s loss of control over when to replicate and when to die naturally.20 By restoring p53 activity, apigenin essentially allows cancer cells to die a natural death.21

3. Apigenin Cuts off Cancer Cells’ Ability to Grow

In addition to causing cancer cells to die off naturally, studies have also shown that apigenin modulates a host of factors that can give cancer a promotional boost once it gets started.

Apigenin has repeatedly been shown to regulate the insulin-like growth factor signaling pathway known to promote the growth of prostate cancer cells when deregulated. Under the influence of apigenin, those cells quit their explosive growth and proceed to kill themselves off by apoptosis.12

4. Apigenin Starves Cancer Cells

Finally, apigenin appears capable of literally starving cancer cells into submission through several unrelated, but complementary, mechanisms.

First, apigenin suppresses the expression of a protein essential for transporting glucose into cancer cells.22,23

Apigenin further promotes this “energy crisis” by going after cancer cells’ mitochondria, the tiny intracellular power plants that generate energy. When mitochondria from human liver cancer cells were treated with apigenin, their membranes became leaky to the extent that it destroyed affected cancer cells.24

Based on the mechanisms by which apigenin thwarts cancer at every turn, new human studies are needed to further explore this impressive cancer-destroying polyphenol. The underlying mechanisms discussed here have been found to be effective in animal models of leukemia and the following solid tumor malignancies:

  • Prostate14,25
  • Larynx (voice box)22
  • Leukemia18
  • Liver (hepatocellular carcinoma)26
  • Pancreatic9
  • Skin17
  • Breast27
What You Need to Know

Health Benefits of Vegetable Extracts

  • Vegetable extracts present in broccoli, celery, parsley, kale, Brussels sprouts, and many others—have long been revered for their health-promoting benefits.
  • It is now recognized that four compounds, apigenin, I3C, DIM, and BITC, are responsible for the majority of that protection, and in very specific and complementary ways.
  • All four have powerful cancer-protective effects, attacking and preventing malignancies through a multitude of overlapping mechanisms.
  • Apigenin also has exceptional cardiovascular, metabolic, and neuroprotective properties, while I3C/DIM promote cardiovascular and liver health.
  • Consumption of these plant compounds provides broad-spectrum protection against many of the most common symptoms of aging.

Apigenin Protects Brain Cells

Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are two common neurodegenerative diseases.28-30 Together, they cause untold misery for patients, their families, and their other caregivers. Numerous studies show apigenin’s ability to reduce some of the known contributors to neurodegeneration.

For example, apigenin fights excitotoxicity, the neuronal damage that occurs over a lifetime of intense brain cell stimulation.3,6 This is critical since excitotoxicity promotes brain cell death and dysfunction in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.31,32

Apigenin also was shown to protect dopamine-producing cells of deep brain centers affected by Parkinson’s disease. This important action reduces neuroinflammation and the activation of inflammatory cells in the brain.33,34

When applied to brain cells in culture, apigenin protected those cells from toxicity induced by beta amyloid, the toxic “junk” protein found in abundance in the Alzheimer’s brain.35

Finally, given the importance of elevated blood sugar in the development of Alzheimer’s (it has been called “Type III diabetes” by some researchers), it is interesting to note that apigenin attenuates the cognitive decline seen in adult diabetic rats.4 Animals treated with apigenin have demonstrated improved learning and memory retention in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease.36

Apigenin, I3C, DIM, and BITC are compounds found in vegetables that offer wide-ranging protection against the factors that damage our DNA.

Apigenin Promotes Cardiometabolic Health


Oxidative stress and inflammation are deadly to heart and blood vessel cells. Inflammation/oxidation can also induce the kind of damage in liver and fat tissues that can promote weight gain, diabetes, and other metabolic changes that raise cardiovascular disease risk. Apigenin can contribute substantially to protecting against all of these effects.

At the most fundamental level, apigenin has been shown to prevent new cholesterol molecules from being synthesized in liver cells, which can reduce the amount of cholesterol in circulation.37 In a similar fashion, animal studies show that apigenin lowers blood sugar levels by decreasing insulin resistance, decreasing elevated insulin levels, and decreasing the formation of new glucose in the liver.38,39

Studies in diabetic rats reveal that apigenin can improve the function of the endothelial cells that line arteries and directly control blood flow and pressure.39

Preclinical studies show that apigenin helps protect the heart muscle against ischemia/reperfusion injury, the serious damage that occurs in the minutes to hours following a heart attack or stroke, when oxygen-starved (ischemic) tissue is suddenly flooded with oxygen-rich blood as circulation is restored (reperfusion).40-42

I3C: Complementary Tissue Protection from Cruciferous Vegetables

I3C (indole-3-carbinol) is a major component found in cruciferous vegetables. While I3C has many overlapping activities with apigenin, it also adds a substantial number of unique functions.43 Many of these benefits are also produced by 3,3’-diindolylmethane (DIM), a condensation product of I3C molecules.44,45

Through these unique functions, I3C and DIM provide complementary protection against cancer, heart disease, and more. Let’s take a look.

I3C/DIM: Unique Protection against Cancer

The most promising of I3C’s cancer-fighting properties has to do with its impact on enzymes that metabolize the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone.46

For example, I3C and DIM have been found to reduce a carcinogenic form of estrogen called 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone while boosting beneficial 2-hydroxyestrone. A large study of over 10,000 women showed that those with highest amounts of 2-hydroxyestrone compared to 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone had a remarkable 42% lower risk of breast cancer.47 Since hormone-dependent cancers such as breast and ovarian tumors thrive on unhealthy hormone balances, this is an important step in cancer prevention.43,48-50

There’s also considerable evidence that I3C modifies the function and expression of estrogen receptors on cells. Studies show that I3C downregulates the expression of estrogen receptor alpha, which is known to cause cancer-promoting cellular changes when it is overexpressed.50-53 Turning down estrogen receptor alpha allows greater influence for the protective estrogen receptor beta, which further reduces estrogen-dependent cancer risk.50

I3C/DIM Promote Cardiometabolic Health

Cardiometabolic Health  

I3C and DIM have multiple antiobesity effects.

Obese mice treated with I3C showed decreased body weight, fat accumulation, fat-mediated release of inflammatory cytokines, and fat infiltration by inflammatory cells—all of which produce obesity-associated health risks.54-57

I3C and DIM also reduce blood sugar, insulin, and markers of sugar-induced protein damage in mice on high-fat diets. These are effects that contribute to reduced atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease risks.58,59

I3C/DIM Provide Wide-Ranging Liver Protection

I3C and DIM also have impressive liver-protective properties. These are partly due to their ability to suppress oxidative stress, in part through their activation of AMPK, and in part through their anti-inflammatory properties.60-62

These mechanisms of action protect the liver against fat accumulation, inflammatory changes, malignancies, and even fibrosis, the scarring and toughening that precedes liver failure.63

In fact, animal studies show that I3C and DIM can prevent fatty liver disease caused both by alcohol and a high-fat diet.60,61

BITC Offers Complementary Cancer Protection

Benzyl isothiocyanate (BITC) is another compound found in cruciferous vegetables that provides cancer protection that complements those of other cruciferous compounds.

One of its most startling properties is its ability to inhibit cancer stem cells. Many malignancies recur or fail to respond to treatment because of just a few cancer stem cells that can “hide out” and emerge after treatment is complete.

Both lab and animal studies show that BITC inhibits breast cancer stem cells, while also suppressing cell signaling molecules that contribute to the “stemness” of such cells.64-66 As a result, BITC has been found to be effective against numerous types of cancer.

For example, an animal study demonstrated that BITC reduced the number of prostate cancers in cancer-prone mice.67 BITC also prevents the stimulation of breast cancer growth induced by high-fat diets, prevents invasion and new blood vessel formation in brain and head and neck cancers, and induces cell death by apoptosis in lung cancers.68-71



Apigenin, I3C, DIM, and BITC are compounds found in vegetables that offer wide-ranging protection against the factors that damage our DNA.

These compounds work in a complementary way to protect our bodies against cancer, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, neurodegeneration, and even liver disease.

Together, these botanical compounds represent the virtues of consuming more healthy vegetables in ones’ everyday diet.

For those who cannot consistently eat large amounts of celery, parsley and other vegetables, apigenin is available in low-cost multinutrient formulas that provide a wide variety of beneficial plant extracts.

If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Wellness Specialist at 1-866-864-3027.


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