Everyone knows eating veggies helps enhance health. But let's face it, a plate of broccoli has nothing on a bowl of pasta. But before you brush those little tree tops aside, science has found yet another reason why consuming vegetables is good for us. The information is compelling enough that some people might want to add more green to their plates to help protect their guts.

It's no secret that cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and brussels sprouts are good for your health. Broccoli, for instance, has been shown to have cancer-fighting powers as well as the potential to slash blood glucose levels to help diabetics. (And brussels sprouts have been used to power up a Christmas tree, but we digress.)

But if you find it hard to get down these nutrient powerhouses, you might want to pay attention to a new study from Pennsylvania State University – especially if you suffer from digestive issues.

By working with mice, researchers there have figured out that when the rodents ate broccoli, they could better tolerate digestive issues that presented like leaky gut and colitis than mice who weren't fed the veg.

"There are a lot of reasons we want to explore helping with gastrointestinal health and one reason is if you have problems, like a leaky gut, and start to suffer inflammation, that may then lead to other conditions, like arthritis and heart disease," said Gary Perdew, professor of agricultural sciences at Penn State. "Keeping your gut healthy and making sure you have good barrier functions so you're not getting this leaky effect would be really big."

Perdew and his team believe the reason the broccoli was effective is thanks to the way certain compounds it contains bind to gut receptors known as Aryl hydrocarbon receptors, or AHRs. When broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables break down in the stomach, one of the resulting compounds is known as indolocarbazole, or ICZ.

And ICZ binds to AHR.

"When ICZ binds to and activates the Aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) in the intestinal lining, it aids in maintaining a healthy balance in the gut flora and immune surveillance, and enhances host barrier function," Penn State says the researchers assert. "This may help prevent diseases, such as various cancers and Crohn's Disease, caused by inflammation in the lining of the gut."

In their study, the researchers worked with two genetically different lines of mice. One had a hampered ability to bind ICZ to AHR, while the other had an enhanced ability to do so. Mice from both groups were put on a diet that either contained 15 percent broccoli, or contained no broccoli. When the mice were given substances that cause digestive difficulties, only the mice with the higher ability to bind ICZ to AHR who were also eating broccoli escaped the symptoms.

To eat the equivalent amount of broccoli used in the study, humans would have to eat 3.5 cups of the vegetable a day which could definitely be a lot for some people. But Perdew says there could be other ways to get the ICZ-to-AHR binding benefits.

"Now, three and a half cups is a lot, but it's not a huge amount, really," he said. "We used a cultivar — or variety — with about half the amount of this chemical in it, and there are cultivars with twice as much. Also, brussels sprouts have three times as much, which would mean a cup of brussels sprouts could get us to the same level."

Perdew and his team will also look at ways to deliver the health benefits of the cruciferous vegetables to people who need to avoid high fiber in their diets to avoid digestive distress.

The work has been published in the Journal of Functional Foods.

Source: Penn State via EurekAlert