The Benefits of Watercress / Nastursium officinale
As a child, I used to grow watercress in the family kitchen. From memory, it was something we learned to do in a science class at school. Since then, I have given the plant little thought but remember its peppery and spicy flavor. I was certainly unaware of the amazing health benefits that the plant possessed but researching this article has once again piqued my interests.
If you would like to find out more about watercress and exactly how it can benefit your health, please read on.
What is Watercress?
Watercress, which is known scientifically as Nastursium officinale, is an aquatic plant belonging to the Brassicaceae family. This family of cruciferous vegetables also includes broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage and kale.
Once regarded as a weed, watercress was originally cultivated in the United Kingdom in the early 19th Century but is grown today near springs, streams and other watery beds around the world.
When it comes to its culinary uses, watercress is extremely versatile. It has a subtle, peppery taste and makes for a tasty accompaniment to salads and soups. It is also commonly used in sandwiches in the UK and goes extremely well with egg or cream cheese.
Because it grows in the water, you should wash your watercress thoroughly before use. After washing it, soak it for around 30 minutes in clean, cool water. You can submerge the watercress in water then store it in your refrigerator for a few days.
Watercress is extremely low in calories and packs a wonderful nutritional punch. It is extremely dense in nutrition and ranks as one of the most nutritious foods on certain official lists. (20) It is extremely high in vitamin K with one cup providing over 100% of your recommended daily intake of vitamin K.
The following can be found in one cup or 34 grams of watercress (Nastursium officinale)
- 4 calories and no fat
- 0.4 grams of carbohydrates
- 0.8 grams of protein
- 0.2 grams of fiber
- Vitamin A : 22% of the recommended daily intake
- Vitamin C : 24% RDI
- Vitamin K : 106% RDI
- Calcium : 4% RDI
- Manganese : 4% RDI
Also found in watercress are smaller amounts of riboflavin, thiamine, Vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, folate, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, copper, phosphorus and sodium.
Health Benefits of Watercress (Nastursium officinale)
Antioxidants and Disease Prevention
Watercress is a great source of antioxidants which are compounds that protect the body against free radical damage. We are exposed to free radicals on a daily basis and it is important to get as many antioxidants into our system as possible to protect against disease related to oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress is linked to a number of serious illnesses including cancer, heart disease, cognitive disease and diabetes. Antioxidants can also help protect us against premature aging and a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables will not only protect us from internal illness but can also help our skin look younger and for longer.
Diets high in antioxidant rich foods are important to protect against and even reverse the damage done by free radicals. Studies have found that watercress contains over 40 different flavonoids with antioxidant potential.
According to a comparative study looking at the antioxidant effects of various cruciferous vegetables, watercress outperformed the rest. The study found that it contained more total phenols and the greatest potential to neutralize the harm done by free radicals. (1)
Other studies have actually linked the antioxidant compounds found in watercress to a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. (2) (3)
The phytochemical compounds found in watercress may also reduce the risk of a person developing cancer of certain types.
Like other cruciferous vegetables, watercress contains glucosinolates. When they are cut or chewed, these compounds get activated into another compound called isothiocyanates. These compounds include various chemicals that research has found may protect against several types of cancer.
According to research, they work by inhibiting the growth and the spread of cancerous tumors and by making carcinogenic chemicals less active in the body. (4) (5)
Research has found that the isothiocyanates present in watercress can help prevent lung, colon, skin, breast and prostate cancer. (6) (7) (8) (9) (10)
While the studies done to date show a lot of promise, a great deal more research needs to be done in the future to confirm the anti-cancer effects of these compounds. Nevertheless, the signs so far are certainly positive.
Studies have also revealed that eating plenty of watercress can improve your heart’s health in a number of different ways. Many of the cardiovascular benefits of cruciferous vegetables are linked to their high antioxidant content.
A review of studies involving over 500,000 people linked the consumption of cruciferous veggies like watercress, kale and cabbage to a 16% reduction in the risk of developing heart disease. (11)
Watercress contains various antioxidants including carotenoids like lutein, zeaxanthin and beta carotene. Insufficient amounts of these antioxidant carotenoids have been linked to elevated blood pressure and heart disease. (12)
Studies also show that higher levels of these carotenoids can protect against heart disease and also reduce a person’s risk of stroke and heart attack.
Watercress contains certain dietary nitrates that help the heart by reducing inflammation, boosting the health of the blood vessels and decreasing the thickness of the blood vessels. Studies have also revealed that these dietary nitrates help reduce blood pressure by increasing the level of nitric oxide present in the blood. (13)
Watercress might also help the heart by reducing cholesterol levels. One animal study looked at the effects of watercress fed to rats with elevated cholesterol levels. The researchers found that the watercress extracts helped significantly reduce total cholesterol and reduce LDL cholesterol by over 50%. (14)
When we think of bone health, we almost always think of calcium but other nutrients like potassium, magnesium and vitamin K also play a very important role.
A well-balanced diet rich in nutrient-dense veggies like watercress has been linked to better bone health. (15)
A cup of watercress is extremely high in vitamin k providing you with over 100% of your recommended daily intake of the vitamin. Vitamin k is important for the bones because it is a major component of a protein called osteocalcin which helps regulate the turnover of bone and maintain healthy tissue.
One study found that people who consumed the highest amounts of vitamin K were significantly less prone to experience fractured hips than those who consumed the least. (16)
Because of its rich nutritional profile, eating plenty of watercress and other cruciferous vegetables can help bolster your immune system and help prevent illness.
A cup of watercress contains a good amount of vitamin C – equal to around 20% of the recommended daily intake. Vitamin C is very well known for it ability to boost the immune system and deficiencies in the vitamin have been linked to weakened immune function as well as increased inflammation.
Vitamin C may help decrease the risk of illnesses like the common cold and also help reduce the severity and the duration of the symptoms experienced. (17)
Consuming plenty of watercress might well be good for your waistline especially as part of an overall diet plan. A cup of watercress contains no fat and only four calories but it still packs a powerful nutritional punch.
Adding watercress to your diet will help nourish your body and fill you up while not adding any extra calories to your diet.
Eating watercress and other foods rich in certain carotenoids is great for your eyes. Watercress contains carotenoid antioxidants including zeaxanthin and lutein which are known to have eye health benefits. The vitamin C found in watercress also has well-know eye benefits.
A host of studies have demonstrated that these compounds play a vital role in eye health. They help protect the eyes from blue light damage and have been linked to a reduced risk of cataracts and macular degeneration (18)
Might Improve Athletic Performance
Whatever your level of participation, watercress may also help you to improve your athletic ability and performance.
Watercress and other vegetables belonging to the Brassicaceae family have high levels of dietary nitrates. These compounds found in leafy green veg, radishes and beets help increase the levels of nitric oxide present in the blood. Nitric oxide also helps relax the blood vessels which could lead to improved athletic performance.
Nitric oxide also helps reduce blood pressure and the amount of oxygen a person needs while exercising. This might lead to increased exercise tolerance and performance.
Research into the effects of dietary nitrates extracted from beet suggests that they can improve performance levels in athletes. (19)
How to Consume Watercress
Watercress is not just tasty, it is extremely diverse and can be enjoyed in a wide variety of ways. These are just some of the ways you can enjoy this wonderful food.
- Add it to your salads.
- Use it as an ingredient in a salad or egg sandwich.
- Sprinkle it over your soups.
- Use it as a replacement for lettuce in any salad dish or sandwich.
- Blend it with olive oil and garlic and make it into a home made pesto.
However you choose to eat it, we are sure that you will enjoy it and get plenty of health benefits besides.