By David Blyweiss, M.D.
I love Indian food—the tandoori, the savory lentil and chickpea dishes, and especially the pungent curries. But, along with the complex and exotic flavors, many Indian dishes pack a powerful health punch, thanks to the spice tumeric.
Aside from its bright yellow hue, tumeric contains a compound called curcumin that studies credit with significant healing properties. Scientists became intrigued by turmeric’s properties when people realized that India’s rates of prostate, colorectal and lung cancer are among the lowest in the world. There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon: Many Indians are vegetarians. As a result their diets are rich in both fiber and phytonutrients. But it’s believed that a number of India’s signature spices, especially turmeric, also help keep cancer in check.
In the laboratory, turmeric—or more specifically curcumin—impacts virtually every tumor biomarker. Scientists at the University of Alabama found that curcumin inhibited prostate cancer cells from expressing a protein linked to tumor formation while increasing a protein linked with natural cell death. In other studies, curcumin blocked the production of substances that speed the spread of both colorectal and pancreatic cancer cells; inhibited angiogenesis, or the ability of malignant tumors to develop their own blood supply; and counteracted human papillomavirus (HPV), a main cause of cervical cancer. What’s more, science has confirmed traditional medicine’s view of turmeric as a valuable inflammation fighter—and chronic, low-level inflammation has been found to promote cancer development.
But tumeric’s benefits go well beyond cancer prevention. One double-blind clinical trial involving patients with rheumatoid arthritis found that supplementing with curcumin provided significant improvement in morning stiffness, walking time, joint swelling, pain and discomfort. Studies conducted at the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow, India, found that curcumin is an effective, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory. I’ve long advised my patients with osteoarthritis to take curcumin capsules with excellent results.
Curcumin also offers pulmonary benefits as well. Patients with respiratory diseases who were treated with curcumin experienced varying degrees of relief from coughing, excessive sputum and labored breathing. Some natural cold and flu formulas also include curcumin to help ease coughs from viral and bacterial infections.
One of curcumin’s most promising usages lies in its seeming ability to protect the brain. In one study, healthy older Asians who ate the most curry ran the smallest risk of mental decline. Other research pinpoints curcumin’s anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antiprotein-aggregate activities for this compounds neuroprotective affects. This helps explain why some scientists think that curcumin may help protect against Alzheimer’s disease.
Curcumin’s traditional role in digestive relief has also been demonstrated in studies. In addition to killing H. pylori, the germ that fosters stomach ulcer formation, curcumin has helped keep ulcerative colitis in remission and fought giardia, a main culprit in intestinal infections worldwide.
The only catch is that curcumin is not well absorbed by the body. This means you need to either take large quantities or take it with other compounds that boost absorption. A growing number of curcumin supplements add the black pepper-derived agent piperine to increase absorption. Piperine also enhances curcumin’s ability to tame inflammation.
While I prefer to get my curcumin via a steaming bowl of vegetable curry, not everyone is a fan. If you don’t like Indian food or aren’t able to enjoy it frequently, consider curcumin supplements standardized to contain 90 to 95 percent total curcuminoids. These can be taken in the amount of 250 to 500 mg. three times per day. Just check the label to make sure your supplement contains black pepper fruit that contains 95 to 98 percent piperine to enhance curcumin’s healthful properties.
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