Native to southwest India, and known for its radiant golden color and unique taste, turmeric has been used as a culinary herb for thousands of years, and is found in abundance in many Indian dishes, especially curries. But it is its role as a healing herb that has caused scientists to take a closer look at this "miracle spice."
The magic of turmeric resides in the roots, specifically in the chemical compound called curcumin. Curcumin is a polyphenol – a chemical compound found in plants with antioxidant properties and myriad therapeutic attributes. In 2007, a study in Advances in Experimental Medicines and Biology, went so far as to state that, "Curcumin has been shown to exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal and anticancer activities, and thus has a potential against various malignant diseases, diabetes, allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease and other chronic illnesses."
No. 1: Defense Against Cognitive Decline
A 2008 study in the Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology explored curcumin's potential for use in the treatment for Alzheimer's disease. Some of the key points included:
Curcumin may help the macrophages, which play an important role in our immune system, clear the amyloid plaques found in Alzheimer's disease.
Curcumin has anti-proliferative actions on microglia. Microglia are immune cells of the central nervous system that become active in response to any number of stressors on the body. However, if the microglia have been stimulated to react too often, they become hyper-reactive, which can trigger system-wide inflammation that can be difficult to stop.
Curcumin has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. "Overall, curcumin decreases the main chemical for inflammation and the transcription of inflammatory cytokines ... The exposure to curcumin also impaired the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines (IL-1, IL-6 and TNF-)."
As chronic neuro-inflammation is considered one of the major factors in the development of Alzheimer's, it's possible too that curcumin may help in the treatment of other inflammatory disorders.
No. 2: Defense Against Cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, tests have shown that curcumin can kill cancer cells in laboratory dishes, and also slow the growth of the surviving cells. Furthermore, it has been found to reduce the development of several forms of cancer in lab animals, while also shrinking various animal tumors. A 2003 review – Anticancer Potential of Curcumin: Preclinical and Clinical Studies – in Anticancer Research concluded that, "...it is quite apparent that curcumin has tremendous potential for prevention and therapy of various cancers."
Another study on the role of curcumin in cancer therapy found that, "Research over the last few decades has shown that curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory agent with strong therapeutic potential against a variety of cancers. Curcumin has been shown to suppress transformation, proliferation and metastasis of tumors," and called for additional and larger controlled studies to determine its full potential.
No. 3: Treatment of Osteoarthritis
Curcumin's anti-inflammatory properties also make it a strong candidate for treating inflammatory diseases such as osteoarthritis. A 2014 study in the Clinical Interventions in Aging found that curcumin extracts "were as effective as ibuprofen for the treatment of knee osteoarthritis."
How Should You Add Curcumin to Your Diet?
Supplementation. Curcumin is not a major component of American diets, so supplementation could be considered. Unfortunately, because curcumin is not easily absorbed in the bloodstream, its bioavailability is diminished. Bioavailability can be increased, however, by partnering the extract with another compound to enhance its absorption. At the Kaplan Center, our curcumin extract is attached to the well-absorbed phosphatidylcholine (a component of human cells) for this reason. Peperine, a compound found in black pepper, is another such example. Remember, supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so make sure to purchase your supplement from a trusted source. And speak to your physician before you begin taking any supplement to rule out any possible interactions with other medications.
Eat more curry! Eating more curried dishes that are rich in turmeric spice as well as black pepper regularly can be a good source of curcumin.
Enjoy a cup of turmeric tea. End your day with a cup of turmeric tea with milk (curcumin is fat-soluble; therefore, combining it with milk will help make the curcumin more readily absorbed into the body).
Although studies on curcumin are still in their early stages, the research looks quite promising, and additional studies to establish its efficacy in humans are ongoing. What we do know is that, with very few side effects and powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and antioxidant properties, plus a long history of medicinal use, curcumin can play an important role in maintaining the body's normal inflammatory response, while also supporting healing and relieving pain.
Gary Kaplan, D.O., is the founder and medical director of the Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine and author of "Total Recovery: A Revolutionary New Approach to Breaking the Cycle of Pain and Depression." A pioneer and leader in the field of integrative medicine, Dr. Kaplan is one of only 19 physicians in the country to be board-certified in both Family Medicine and Pain Medicine. Dr. Kaplan is a Clinical Associate Professor of Family Medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine and serves on the Advisory Committee to Health and Human Services for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
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