Disease Proof

Anti-cancer properties of watercress

Watercress is a super-duper food. Along with kale, collards, mustard greens, and turnip greens, watercress is one of the most nutrient-dense foods in the world. Most importantly, watercress is a specialist at preventing cancer.

Watercress belongs to the family of cruciferous vegetables, uniquely high in glucosinolates, which are precursors to cancer-fighting molecules called isothiocyanates (ITCs). Watercress is rich in a specific glucosinolate called gluconasturtiin, which is a precursor to the ITC phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC).[1] Epidemiologic associations between cruciferous vegetable intake and reduced cancer risk have sparked a surge in studies on the anti-cancer effects of specific cruciferous vegetables and their constituent isothiocyanates.

Anti-cancer properties of watercress had previously been established in cell culture experiments: In human breast cancer cells, watercress extract blocked the degradation of structural proteins, an early step in preparation for migration and subsequent invasion, which eventually leads to metastasis. [2] PEITC in watercress was also found to reduce tumor cell survival and decrease the action of hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF), which is a molecule that stimulates angiogenesis (blood vessel development), allowing a tumor to obtain a blood supply. [3]

A study investigated the effects of watercress on HIF activity in human subjects. Hypoxia (low oxygen levels) is a key stimulus for tumor growth – as a tumor grows, its oxygen and nutrient needs exceed those that it can receive by diffusion from adjacent healthy tissue. When tumor cells sense hypoxia, they send angiogenic signals to surrounding normal tissue in order to obtain a direct blood supply. HIF is an essential part of this process, activating the production of angiogenic proteins, consequently promoting tumor growth. [4]

Since the current study tested the effects of ingesting watercress on HIF activity in cells of human subjects, the data provided is more physiologically relevant, and strengthens the earlier cell culture results. Four breast cancer survivors ingested 80 grams of watercress (about 2 cups). Six and eight hours later, blood was drawn; PEITC levels were found to be elevated, and the effects of the watercress on white blood cells were measured. HIF activity was indeed reduced in these cells, confirming in humans the anti-cancer effects of watercress previously observed in cultured cells. [3, 5]

In short, PEITC from watercress prevents tumors from sending the signal to the body that requests a blood supply. Without a blood supply, the tumor cannot continue to grow. Watercress is a potent anti-cancer food!

For more information on the anti-cancer effects of cruciferous vegetables, read Newsletter #32.


1. Higdon, J., et al., Cruciferous vegetables and human cancer risk: epidemiologic evidence and mechanistic basis. Pharmacological Research, 2007. 55(3): p. 224-236.
2. Rose, P., et al., Broccoli and watercress suppress matrix metalloproteinase-9 activity and invasiveness of human MDA-MB-231 breast cancer cells. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol, 2005. 209(2): p. 105-13.
3. Syed Alwi, S.S., et al., In vivo modulation of 4E binding protein 1 (4E-BP1) phosphorylation by watercress: a pilot study. Br J Nutr, 2010: p. 1-9.
4. Chen, L., A. Endler, and F. Shibasaki, Hypoxia and angiogenesis: regulation of hypoxia-inducible factors via novel binding factors. Exp Mol Med, 2009. 41(12): p. 849-57.
5. Watercress may 'turn off' breast cancer signal. 9/14/2010 9/30/2010]; Available from: http://www.soton.ac.uk/mediacentre/news/2010/sep/10_94.shtml.


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Comments (10) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Michael - October 6, 2010 12:44 PM

Does anyone have some recipes for watercress? I tried it once but it was really strong and bitter tasting.

Marie Krieger - October 6, 2010 1:30 PM

Thank you for your excellent post on watercress. Isothiocyanate should become a household word. If more people understood how powerfully influential dietary choice is in controlling the defensive response of the immune system and preventing degenerative disease more people would make sounder dietary and lifestyle choices and the food industry would have to adjust to consumer demand.
It is very sad when people have to become so involved with the minutiae of experimental drugs and their delivery systems as they battle cancers that have metastasized and are unresponsive to conventional protocols. At that point people are very interested in terms like angiogenesis and apoptosis. All cancers may not be prevented by diet and lifestyle but whatever protection healthful dietary and lifestyle choices afford is a huge plus.
Your article is very insightful and helpful to the lay person in understanding the biochemistry of food as the best medicine.

Wilma Cashore - October 6, 2010 3:50 PM

This is the only way I can enjoy raw watercress:

Vegan Val's Watercress Wrap

2 oz watercress (about 1/2 bag or bunch)
2 oz avocado (1/2 medium sized avocado)
1/2 carrot (shaved)
1 whole wheat tortilla or sheet of Nori

Scoop out the avocado and smear it down the center of the tortilla.
Mound the carrot and watercress on top of the avocado.
Roll up. Enjoy!

Note: The avocado cuts the bitterness of the watercress -
and the carrot gives it additional sweetness.

MIke Rubino - October 6, 2010 9:30 PM

Great article.

Kristi - October 8, 2010 10:01 AM

I will have to get some watercress this weekend and try it in my morning green shake. Thanks.

Theresa Anderson - October 8, 2010 12:47 PM

Thank you!
And thanks for the above recipe Wilma!
I have watercress growing in our little backyard pond and along a country road nearby it grows abundantly!

StephenMarkTurner - October 8, 2010 1:34 PM

Growing up in England in the late 50's early 60's, we had a variety that we just called 'cress'. It was smaller (tiny leaves) and much less bitter than watercress (although I imagine it may well be less nutritious).


Paul - October 8, 2010 2:32 PM


Thank you for the update. I would offer that, in my experience, watercress, among all cruciferous vegetables, produces the strongest physical reaction (negative) in me when juiced and consumed whole and on an empty stomach. To obtain the benefits of watercress, I have found it personally useful to adhere to general guidelines from John Kohler that call for no more than 1/4 cruciferous (watercress) to 3/4 milder tasting greens (many with very high andi scores) such as spinach, romaine lettuce, cucumber, celery, along with maybe a slice of lemon (citrus) to reduce oxidation and a little fruit to sweeten/offset the strong flavor, usually pear or apple. Apple is preferable as it is lower glycemic index. Though with watercress, like all cruciferous vegetables. A little experimentation wouldn't hurt any of us and compare notes.


Mark - October 12, 2010 3:49 PM

I live in the MidWest. Can anyone provide a source online for watercress? We have a good health food store with lots of organic produce but they can't find a supplier for it.

John - February 9, 2011 2:27 PM

Blending/mixing watercress with tomato juice works very well I think. With a bit of salt&pepper (although watercress already adds a peppery taste) or even tabasco, its quite delicious.

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