July was a big month for the herb tumeric, as a host of different studies and articles were published linking the bright yellow flavonoid found in the herb called curcumin to pain relief, protection against Alzheimer’s and lowered risk of breast cancer. This new information adds to mounting evidence of the powerful role this herb can play as an anti-inflammatory agent in the body.
Turmeric is a bit of a foreign food in the Americas where you are only likely to see it in the curries of Indian and Thai cuisine. But the herb’s major flavonoid curcumin finds a welcoming home inside the many micronutrient laboratories the US, if not our dinner tables. A dizzying amount of research has now been conducted on curcumin and most of it points to some amazing health effects, so long as you stay in the lab.
Latest Studies Show A Great Range of (Unqualified) Benefits
Time Magazine ran a relatively major article on the subject, written by Dr. Scott Haig, that described one of his patient’s seemingly miraculous, pain-free recovery from hip replacement surgery after popping turmeric capsules. In his words (emphasis mine -ed):
When he first started coming to me, I gave him the usual anti-inflammatory medications we use for arthritis pain. He had no side effects, but he wasn’t helped much either, so he stopped the pills and lived with the pain. Then he found turmeric.
Soon enough, there was no pain at all. And his lower back and hands, which ached before, were also now pain-free. So I was curious last year, when at age 73 he came in and told me he was ready for a hip replacement. ‘It’s just so stiff’ is all he would say. He certainly had the limp, the trouble with stairs and the slow rise from a chair that you see in folks with hip arthritis. His X-ray showed bone-on-bone erosion and plenty of spurring; his examination showed the profound loss of motion you would also expect. Everything said ‘just do a hip replacement’ — except for that one cardinal feature: pain.
The article itself is pretty unremarkable and poorly written but we can bridge you into some of the more important scientific investigation behind the anecdotal story. The pain reduction side of curcumin’s abilities relate to how the flavonoid deactivates inflammatory systems in the body. Specifically, inflammatory cytokines – a major inflammation marker – are modulated by the curcumin [1, 2], as are MAPK pathways, another significant inflammation ingredient. That’s a mouthful but its also a rather amazing feat that a simple herb can modulate the same systems in your body that powerful drugs can – and its the basis for the success of Dr. Haig’s patient on the simple pills.
Breast Cancer Case
Women who have been subjected to hormone replacement therapy after menopause tend to have higher risks of breast cancer after the therapy. Although the practice has now been largely stopped, the legacy of it continues. Turmeric, it turns out, also plays a role in preventing this type of cancer development.
The menopausal-type breast cancers studied here develop due to an over-abundance of progestin, a faux version of the hormone progesterone that is sometimes given to women. Curcumin significantly impacted the growth rate of these tumors in rats and the study authors recommended that curcumin:
“be considered an excellent candidate for use as a chemopreventive agent in clinical trials involving postmenopausal women taking…both estrogens and progestins.”
In general, this study reinforces a battery of information showing curcumin slows the growth of tumors by regulating a host of different cell signaling pathways – essentially cutting off the communication channels of the cancerous cells in such that tumors cannot survive .
Curcumin on the Brain
As if the other studies weren’t enough, scientists from California presented a novel approach to Alzheimer’s treatment – a combination of Vitamin D and curcumin. Published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the researchers found that by combining the most bioavailable form of Vitamin D3 and synthetic curcumin, that the clean up crew of the immune system – macrophages – could be stimulated into removing amyloid-beta plaques from the brain, helping to remedy Alzheimer’s . The research is ‘preliminary’ but promising as it reinforces other previous research showing curcumin’s ability to enhance the immune system and remove the brain plaques [5, 6, 7] .
Along those same lines, curcumin has shown itself to act like a MAOI drug – one of the most powerful classes of anti-depressant drugs available. It blocks monoamine oxidase thereby preventing the brain from breaking down dopamine (read the Nutrition Wonderland break down on dopamine if you need help). This mechanism may also help treat Parkinson’s disease, as they rely on similar mechanisms in the brain .
The Absorption Problem
Curcumin suffers from a similar problem to most flavonoids we have looked at in the past: it just doesn’t get absorbed into the bloodstream very effectively. In fact, its present at woefully small amounts in the body. Even after consuming as much as 12g of turmeric (which is a ton of tumeric), only trace amounts of curcumin made it into the body . The only way to translate all this positive research in the lab is to figure out a way to get more curcumin into the body.
Plenty of researchers are working on this problem though. John Cashman at the Human BioMolecular Research Institute is developing methods to deal with the bioavailability issue. Dubbed ‘synthetic curcuminoids‘, these compounds his lab is developing combine the medical benefits of curcumin with a better delivery vehicle that survives the brutal GI tract that usually destroys natural curcumin. Some of these synthetic methods employed by the HBRI folks include nano-particle engineering, cutting edge work that may overcome part of what holds back this herb today.
A more natural approach may also fix the tumeric absorption problem. The addition of piperine (an active compound of black pepper) enhances the anti-depressive effect of turmeric . Simply adding together the compounds found in nature may multiply the effect of tumeric by up to 2000% by allowing the body to absorb more curcumin . The complex spice combinations found in curries backup this theory, as it has been noted Indian cultures who consume curry regularly have far lower incidences of Alzheimer’s as they age.
An Even Bigger Problem
With all of these benefits and the small bits of such promising research, it may come as a surprise that so many of these findings are preliminary in nature, especially since curcumin has been widely used in Ayrvedic medicine for well over 4,000 years now. Part of the answer is a fairly typical one in the 21st century world of science. The LA Times published a piece last year that both strongly warns against turmeric supplementation and offers an explanation to why so little ‘actionable’ research has been done on the subject.
Bharat Aggarwal, professor of cancer research at the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and a leading curcumin researcher, says that big, expensive human trials of the compound haven’t been done because drug companies can’t make money selling a curry spice. Despite this, at least a dozen small clinical trials are underway around the world. He believes that the compound shows great potential for treating Alzheimer’s, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, cardiovascular disease and other conditions caused by inflammation. Anecdotally, he says, ‘I have a thousand patients who correspond with me, and the response [to curcumin] has been overwhelming.’
So we have to leave this story where we have left so many before it. Turmeric and its flavonoid curcumin show massive therapeutic benefits for all sorts of diseases and maladies. Inflammatory pain from arthritis, elderly suffering from mental decline and women genetically predisposed to cancer would appear to benefit from this compound. But no doctor in his right mind would recommend such a protocol until it was rigorously studied against the barrage of unknown drug interactions, and, of course, amidst a minefield of malpractice litigation.
Here we wait, for additional study that will probably never come on the scale required to elevate curcumin to the echelon of a true pharmaceutical-type product. The advances are novel and interesting but remain in a medical gray area until the structure of the medical system is updated to take herbal medicine seriously. Let’s hope for a day when someone with a bit more training than the clerk at your local vitamin/herb store can legally guide you towards therapeutic herbal remedies.