Alison Dalton, BA, BS, MS - Turmeric, the Golden Child
Turmeric, the beautiful golden-orange spice that gives curry powder its brilliant color, may turn out to be a great way to add spice to your life. Numerous in vitro studies and some uncontrolled small trials have found that turmeric is a powerful anticarcinogen, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory that may prevent or slow the growth of many types of cancer, relieve arthritis and rheumatism, and interfere with the actions of hepatitis and HIV viruses. As if that weren’t enough, turmeric is also said to lower blood lipid levels, support insulin production and lower blood sugar levels in diabetics, decrease bone loss, help to prevent osteoporosis… and more.
Could all this be true of just one substance—let alone one you can pick up at your local supermarket?
It’s Got a History
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is member of the ginger family, and turmeric powder is derived from the plant’s dried rhizome. It’s been used for many centuries throughout Asia and the Middle East as cosmetic, spice, dye, preservative, and medicine. Bindis—the bright red dots on the forehead worn by some Hindu women—are traditionally made by mixing turmeric with lime juice. Turmeric powder contributes a rich, slightly bitter flavor to curry and other dishes and is used to dye a variety of foods, such as mustard and cheese. Because it has antibacterial properties, the spice is also used as a food preservative. In traditional medicine, turmeric has so many uses—treating everything from diarrhea and parasitic infection to leprosy and infected wounds—that it’s almost a panacea.
The Plant That Has It All
Interest in the medical research community is focusing on curcumin, a potent anti-inflammatory and one of three curcuminoids found in turmeric. Curcumin forms about 3-5% of the dried rhizome and is responsible for most of its yellow color.
Much of the excitement about curcumin has been generated by in vitro studies of curcumin’s ability to prevent and treat cancer. In vitro studies are performed in the lab and not on animals or humans. Dozens of nonclinical studies have shown that curcumin fights cancer in myriad ways: it inhibits the action of inflammatory agents (including COX-2) that can lead to cancer, suppresses the growth of a wide variety of cancer cells, inhibits growth factors that stimulate tumor blood supply, and just plain kills certain types of cancer cells.
Studies performed with mice and rats have shown that turmeric can inhibit the formation of cancer-causing enzymes, shrink tumors, and slow the spread of some cancers.
There must be a catch, you say. You’re right.
The problem is that it’s hard to get curcumin to the tissues that need it. Curcumin is poorly soluble and is rapidly metabolized and eliminated by the human body. Even when large doses are administered, blood serum levels of curcumin remain low, measured often in nanograms (billionths of a gram) per milliliter. Tissue levels remain low as well.
Curcumin in the Colon
That’s why much of the excitement about curcumin is centering on its potential to prevent or fight colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon and rectum) and other diseases of the bowel. Curcumin isn’t absorbed well into the body, but it does absorb into the colon lining and into cancerous tissue in the intestine, through which it passes in the process of being digested. It may not be a coincidence that India, where it’s typical to consume 2.5 grams of turmeric every day, has amongst the lowest rates of colorectal cancer in the world.
Early clinical trials—trials using human subjects—are promising. They have shown that curcumin may prevent colon cancer and can reduce the number and size of familial adenomatous polyps (which become cancerous if left untreated). Curcumin has also been found to be effective in treating inflammatory bowel diseases (such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) and irritable bowel syndrome.
Because curcumin seems to have such potential for treating disorders and diseases throughout the body, scientists are busy working on all sorts of new drug-delivery systems to increase curcumin’s bioavailability and get it where it’s needed. These approaches include microemulsions, nanoemulsions, liposomes, nanoparticles, microspheres, solid dispersion, and self-microemulsifying systems.
Try This at Home
If you want to try the golden spice for yourself, you have a few choices. You can go the whole-foods route and take turmeric as a loose powder, in capsules, or as a tincture. You can eat it in food, or drink it as a tea or mixed with warm milk and maybe a little honey. Turmeric may be better absorbed if it’s taken with some form of fat, like olive oil or dairy fat. Combining it with a little black pepper (the active ingredient is piperine) may aid absorption as well. Some practitioners recommend taking a teaspoon of the spice with each meal.
If you prefer to go straight to the active ingredient, curcumin is widely available in capsule form. Be aware, though, that dosages and quality can vary widely. Buy from a reputable source.
Some studies show that eating turmeric may inhibit the antitumor action of chemotherapeutic agents such as cyclophosphamide. (On the other hand, curcumin has been shown to sensitize colorectal cancer cells to some chemotherapy drugs and to radiation treatment.) More research is obviously necessary, but cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy should probably limit their intake of turmeric and turmeric-containing foods. Turmeric stimulates the production of bile by the liver. People with bile duct obstruction and those predisposed to gallstone or kidney stone formation shouldn’t take turmeric or curcumin, nor should those with gastrointestinal disorders, including stomach ulcers and hyperacidity disorders.
Alison Dalton, BA, BS, MS
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