It’s common knowledge that cabbage will help relieve breast pain in swollen, clogged and lactating breasts. Mastitis is a painful condition that plagues many moms, my sister being one of them. In order to help her, I’ve started researching What exactly is going on when a cabbage leaf helps relieve swelling in a painful breast.
In this article, I’m going to walk you through the very interesting scientific findings that relate not just to women’s boobs, but inflammation of other types. This also relates to your taste buds and insects.
An article released by the BBC in their Science Focus magazine set me hot on the trail.
Furthermore, a recent study at a Cairo maternity hospital suggests that cold leaves reduce the engorgement that can lead to mastitis. Most advocates agree that the leaves need to be chilled, and some recommend cooking them first to release chemicals from the cells.
So how do the leaves work? The cold helps, especially when alternated with a warm compress. But the key may lie in the fact that cabbages contain glucosinolates. Enzyme action converts these to pungent isothiocyanates, collectively referred to as mustard oil. And mustard oil has long been used as a home remedy for swelling.Do cabbage leaves cure mastitis?
Cabbage (as well as many other cruciferous vegetables) contain phytochemicals which “are chemical compounds produced by plants, generally to help them thrive or thwart competitors, predators, or pathogens.”  They can be used as poisons or medicine.
The two most common phytochemicals in cabbage include sulforaphane and other glucosinolates, which have been proven to have beneficial effects regarding carcinogenesis, and cardiovascular and neurological diseases. 
Yet this doesn’t explain the title “Mustard oil bomb”. The inflammatory action occurs when the cabbage leaf is masticated, torn or otherwise crushed, and an enzymatic conversion takes place turning the Glucosinolates into Isothiocyanates.
Because of the enzyme Myrosinase, Glucosinolates turn into Isothiocyanates in a bomb like cacophony! In 1980 Philippe Matile discovered this and called it the “Mustard Oil Bomb” “because it like a real bomb is waiting to detonate upon disturbance of the plant tissue.” 
This happens when an insect chews it (this plant defense accounts for the reaction to begin with), when a human grinds it with a mortar and pestle (accounting for some of the delicious mustard flavors), and when humans chew it bringing the zing of watercress and other pungent & noteworthy flavors out in cauliflower, turnip, radish, horseradish, and wasabi.
Your taste buds can thank the damaged plant tissue for their titilation!
The benefits of this enzymic reaction in the cruciferous vegetables is a subject of much study. You can read a detailed account of the actions of Isothiocyanates here. The authors of a recent study titled, Daily Consumption of Well-Cooked Broccoli May Affect Glucosinolate Metabolites and Inflammatory Biomarkers, confirm some of the benefits of isothiocyanates in saying,
Consumption of Brassica vegetables is inversely associated with incidence of several cancers, including cancer of the lung, stomach, liver, colon, rectum, breast, endometrium, and ovaries. Brassica vegetables are a good source of many nutrients, but the unique characteristic of Brassicas (Broccoli in particular) is their rich content of glucosinolates. Glucosinolates are sulfur-containing compounds that are converted to isothiocyanates (ITC) by an enzyme in the plant called myrosinase, which is released when the vesicles containing myrosinase are ruptured by chewing or cutting. The isothiocyanates are considered to be the active agent for cancer prevention.
It is now widely recognized that these mechanisms are multiple and include at least the following: alterations of carcinogen metabolism due to changes in the activities of drug-metabolizing enzymes; induction of cell cycle arrest and apoptosis; inhibition of angiogenesis and metastasis; changes in histone acetylation status; and antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulatory activities.Glucosinolates and isothiocyanates in health and disease
If that is not enough reason to eat your Cruciferous family veggies, I don’t know what is! These things pack a major punch.
Isothiocyanates & Inflammation
Yet, for our purposes with inflamed breast tissue or clogged milk ducts due to mastitis, let’s hone in on inflammation & isothiocyanates.
One study, testing the isothiocyanates in Moringa leaves found that,
Both of the isothiocyanates described above significantly decreased gene expression and production of inflammatory markers in RAW macrophagesStable, water extractable isothiocyanates from Moringa oleifera leaves attenuate inflammation in vitro
Now this is cool as well because they found that the isothiocyanates were stable for 30 days in a water solution.
This is exciting because, theoretically, macerated cabbage leaf in water may also be stable at 37 °C and a breastfeeding mom could blend some up and leave it in the fridge for an easy breast-relief.
Mastistis is a painful condition that some breastfeeding women go through. A long held tradition is to use cabbage leaves on the breast to relieve inflammation. This has been proven to be effective in a recent study, THE EFFECTIVENESS OF CABBAGE LEAF APPLICATION (TREATMENT) ON PAIN AND HARDNESS IN BREAST ENGORGEMENT AND ITS EFFECT ON THE DURATION OF BREASTFEEDING. This study found that not only was pain reduced, but so was hardness of the breast.
Finding the scientific roots of the efficacy of cabbage is very interesting and can lead to the creation of useful products for breastfeeding moms (like this creme) or at least some peace of mind when they are placing sheaves of cabbage on their breasts. It is still up for debate whether a slightly cooked cabbage (thus sparking more of the enzymic reaction) or cold cabbage, but I suppose in breaking the cabbage up and fitting in on the breast, plenty of crunching happens leading to the enzymic reaction.
Rest assured curious moms, this tradition also finds confirmation in science and the same “Mustard oil bomb” which sparks our tastebuds and deters pests in the garden! In this case, it is medicine and not poison.