Strength athletes may build up more muscle tissue by eating Brassica vegetables like broccoli, sprouts or cabbage daily. We base this wild speculation on a study by molecular biologists at the Second University of Naples, soon to be published in Age. According to this research, members of the cabbage family stimulate the development of mesenchymal stem cells.
Muscle tissue grows in two ways as a result of strength training: 1. the existing cells in the muscle fibres grow and 2. the number of muscle cells in the muscle fibres grows. The latter is called hyperplasia: training induces stem cells in the muscle fibres to develop into fully grown muscle cells. Hormones like IGF-1, and also supplements like NO-donors, enhance this process.
Part of the stem cells in muscle tissue comes from other tissues, for example stem cells intended for making new blood vessels, but also mesenchymal stem cells. These are the stem cells found in bone marrow.
While doctors look for ways to patch up irreparably damaged organs by injecting stem cells, supplements manufacturers are concocting mixtures that stimulate stem cells to rejuvenate tissues. One such supplement is StemEnhance. This contains an extract of the blue algae Aphanizomenon flos-aquae, which disengages stem cells from the bone marrow so they circulate through the body. Olimpiq StemXCell contains the same extract.
Some scientists are not convinced about using Aphanizomenon flos-aquae in this way. They fear that the extract stimulates metastases. The makers of Olimpiq StemXCell seem to be taking this worry seriously: they have added nutritional cancer inhibitors to their product.
But an alternative to stem cell supplements may be lying in the vegetables at your local supermarket. All fresh Brassica vegetables – white, green, red and Chinese cabbage, sprouts, cress, broccoli and cauliflower – contain glucosinolates like glucoraphanin. Myrosinase is an enzyme that is released when you cut the vegetables, cook them lightly or chew them, and this converts the glucosinolates into sulforaphane.
A diet containing a small amount of sulforaphane activates the production of the detoxifying enzyme glutathione [GSH] and therefore offers protection against some kinds of cancer, such as intestinal cancer. This is because sulforphane attaches itself to glutathione and thus stimulates cells to produce more glutathione. Too much sulforaphane, however, robs the body of its detoxifying capacity.
The researchers discovered that low concentrations of sulforaphane [SFN], of 1 and 0.25 micromole – that’s about the amount you find in the body of someone who has eaten cabbage – stimulate the development of mesenchymal stem cells. The graph below shows how much tetrazolium salt the stem cells convert into formazan. Cells make more of this enzyme when they increase in number.