Mustard greens and cabbage could very well be back-up plants for Popeye’s spinach when it comes to building muscles and increasing physical performance.

Recent studies show that brassinosteroids present in mustard and other Brassica plants such as cabbage or broccoli trigger a physiological response in rats that is similar to anabolic steroids.

Researchers hope these substances in plants can be used to provide effective, natural, and safe alternatives for age- and disease-associated muscle loss, or be used to improve endurance and physical performance.

Recently published research and presentations at conferences are garnering attention for the study’s authors —Debora Esposito, postdoctoral associate, Rutgers University, who is hosted at the North Carolina State University Plants for Human Health Institute; Slavko Komarnytsky, metabolic biologist and assistant professor, Plants for Human Health Institute, and Ilya Raskin of Rutgers.

Esposito discussed the team’s findings at the Society for In Vitro Biology World Congress in Bellevue, Washington, in early June where she was awarded third place for her presentation, and at the International Congress on Natural Products Research in New York City in late July and early August, where she was honored with the American Society of Pharmacognosy Research Award.

The researchers studied rat skeletal muscle cells, exposing them to different amounts of homobrassinolide, a plant steroid. They then measured protein turnover and found that muscle cells respond to brassinosteroids by increasing protein synthesis and decreasing protein degradation in cell culture.

The result was a significant increase in net muscle protein.

The next step was to feed healthy rats a homobrassinolide daily for 24 days. The researchers measured changes in body weight, food consumption and body composition. The rats that were fed the plant steroid showed an increase in lean body mass over those that were not fed the substance.

Results from the study also showed an increase in the number and size of muscle fibers crucial for increased physical performance.

According to the researchers, the findings suggest that therapies using brassinosteroids could represent a viable future approach for repairing damaged muscle.

“It’s exciting to see that plants we eat contain these compounds,” said Esposito. “In the future, we may be able to breed plants for higher brassinosteroid content and produce functional foods that can treat or prevent diseases and increase physical performance.”

The North Carolina State University Plants for Human Health Institute is part of the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. The campus is a public-private venture including eight universities, the David H. Murdock Research Institute (DHMRI) and corporate entities that collaborate to advance the fields of nutrition and health.