We all know we’re supposed to eat our greens. Broccoli, kale, collards—these dark green vegetables are part of the cruciferous family, and have been linked to a number of beneficial effects on health. A recent study published in the journal Nature Immunity found that a particular gene (T-bet) controls the development of recently discovered immune cells in the intestinal lining called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs). ILCs are found in the lining of the intestines, and they help protect against harmful bacteria. They are also thought to play an important role in controlling food allergies, inflammatory diseases, and obesity, and may even prevent the development of bowel cancers.

“In this study, we discovered that T-bet is the key gene that instructs precursor cells to develop into ILCs, which it does in response to signals in the food we eat and to bacteria in the gut,” stated Gabrielle Belz, PhD, lead researcher. “ILCs are essential for immune surveillance of the digestive system and this is the first time that we have identified a gene responsible for the production of ILCs.” Green leafy vegetables are known to “turn on” the T-bet gene, so eating your greens may play an important role in maintaining ILC cells for optimal gut health.

ILCs play an important role in maintaining immune balance, which involves, all at once, the right amount of immunity, inflammation, and tolerance of what passes through the gut. “We are just starting to understand how important these immune cells are in regulating allergy and inflammation, and the implications for bowel cancer and other gastrointestinal disorders such as Crohn’s disease,” stated Belz.

Cruciferous vegetables are also important for healthy liver detoxification, helping to support the removal of toxins through the liver. If you don’t eat these nutrient-rich veggies on a regular basis, now you have some great reasons to incorporate them into your diet.