Turmeric has been gathered and cultivated in India for over 2500 years, used as an orange dye, a medicinal plant and a spice in curry. Today there is renewed interest in turmeric and its main ingredient curcumin for their potential activity against cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and many other health problems.
At the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Dr. Bharat Aggarwal is studying curcumin. Aggarwal, a biochemist and molecular biologist, considers turmeric to offer great promise for health. He says that the combined rate of the four most common cancers in the United States—lung, prostate, breast, and colon—is much lower in India, where turmeric (in curry) is a staple in the diet. Aggarwal is studying the ability of curcumin to shut down nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB), which is involved in the regulation of inflammation and many other processes. By blocking the activity of this ‘master switch’, curcumin appears to interfere with the cancer process at an early point, impeding multiple routes of growth: reducing the inflammatory response, inhibiting the proliferation of tumor cells, inducing their self-destruction, and discouraging the growth of blood vessels feeding tumors. These effects can shrink tumors and inhibit metastasis. Also, shutting down NF-kB can enable chemotherapy drugs to destroy cancer cells more effectively. Research on curcumin and various cancer types is still preliminary, and laboratory based; there have been few human trials. It would be unwise to stop cancer chemotherapy to take curcumin, however some oncologists are interested in curcumin as a supplement. People under treatment for cancer should confer with their oncologist, as curcumin may alter the efficacy of chemotherapy drugs. A detailed discussion of curcumin used in cancer can be found at Dr. Aggarwal’s website www.curcuminresearch.org.
Alzheimer’s Disease: Based on the finding that there is 4 times less Alzheimer’s disease in India than in the US (turmeric is used as a daily spice in Indian curries), researchers at UCLA are studying the ability of synthetic curcumin and Vitamin D to clear the amyloid plaques found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Laboratory experiments have shown that blood cells called macrophages are able to destroy amyloid plaque when incubated with Vitamin D and a form of synthetic curcumin. Studies using Vitamin D and curcumin in human patients are underway at UCLA, USC and various universities in India. At present, there is no recommended dose of curcumin for treatment or prevention.
Since curcumin is anti-inflammatory, it is being tried in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, with trials at UCLA. Osteoarthritis may also be helped, according to a trial at Western Ontario and McMaster Universities, where researchers used a mixture of curcumin and soy phospholipids, called Meriva. At the University of Arizona, there is a study on curcumin’s ability to prevent bone loss in mid-life women.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Both Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis can result in abdominal pain, diarrhea, weight loss and fatigue, and often strike children or young adults. At the U. of Arizona there are studies showing that daily curcumin pills were able to decrease intestinal damage and cut the number of relapses by 50%. The researchers stressed that curcumin should not replace standard therapies.
Cautions: Curcumin is safe, but should not be used in pregnancy or in people with gall bladder disease because it stimulates bile secretion and gallbladder contractions. Most people, however, can try curcumin supplements, which are better absorbed if combined with pepperine (black pepper). If you look at the recent book by Dr. Aggarwal, Healing Spices, you will find more information on turmeric as well as ways to make your own curries.
Sadja Greenwood MD, MPH –back issues on this blog