Spring has sprung and along with mild temperatures and longer days come our primordial desires to clean houses, yards, cars and pets. Getting rid of excess “stuff” accumulated during the winter brings a tremendous sense of relief and accomplishment. Our bodies, according to Eastern and Western healing traditions, also accumulate excess “stuff” during the winter months. Heavy protein and fat laden meals, combined with lack of exercise, leave the digestive tract and liver sluggish. Among the “spring cleaning” herbs in Traditional Chinese and Ayruvedic Medicine is turmeric. Traditionally, people use turmeric for indigestion, bloating, intestinal parasites, and to support the liver and gall bladder. Herbal support for the digestive tract and liver, according to these healing methods, helps the body eliminate toxins and purifies the blood.
Turmeric’s medicinal uses extend well beyond cleansing. It is used topically for inflammation, bruising, infection and ringworm.
What is Turmeric?
Turmeric is a culinary spice used in curry dishes and mustard. The turmeric plant is a perennial herb indigenous to south Asia. Turmeric is a member of the ginger family and, similar to ginger, the herb comes from the root of the plant. Turmeric powder is yellow-orange in color. Biological and healing properties of turmeric are attributed to components collectively called curcuminoids, which give turmeric its yellow color. The most biologically active component, curcumin, makes up 2% to 5% of the culinary spice.
Curcumin in medical studies
Recently there is a tremendous interest in possible medical uses for the active components of turmeric among scientists, with over 1500 studies in the medical literature. Medical studies of curcumin extract are in preliminary stages, so this review is not intended as medical advice.
Curcumin and Cancer Prevention
Scientists recognize three stages in cancer development: initiation (cell is attacked and genetic material damaged), promotion (damaged cell becomes precancerous) and progression (cancerous cell spreads). All three stages are fueled by inflammation. Curcumin plays a beneficial role, according to preliminary lab studies, in all three stages. Curcumin is an antioxidant ten times more potent than Vitamin E. As an antioxidant it quenches free radicals potentially preventing DNA damage. Curcumin blocks an enzyme called iNOS, which is responsible for producing a potent cell assailant, nitric oxide. In autoimmune diseases, chronic inflammation and cancer, iNOS activity is excessive. Curcumin also blocks a chemical mediator that orchestrates the expression of over 200 genes, NF-kB. This mediator is normal in the body, but when over-stimulated, is associated with many diseases, including cancer. Additionally, curcumin induces liver enzymes that detoxify cancer-causing agents that may be present in the environment.
Pre-clinical studies of curcumin have been conducted with regard to colon, prostate, breast, skin cancer, lymphoma. Results from a small human study on colon cancer produced encouraging results. Curcumin reduced the size and number of pre-cancerous polyps in patients with a family tendency for colon cancer.
A lab study showed that curcumin stopped joint inflammation and destruction by inhibiting NF-kB and subsequent expression of NF-kB genes.
Curcumin prevents the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, inhibits blood clotting and stops excessive growth of vascular smooth muscle.
One animal study showed that curcumin protected brain cells form oxidative damage and another showed it inhibited formation of plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
In a small human study curcumin was administered to ten patients with inflammatory bowel disease. Nine of the ten improved.
Large amounts of curcumin extract are not recommended for pregnant or lactating women or people on anti-coagulant medication. Curcumin extracts are available in supplements, alone or in combination with other anti-inflammatory herbs. Curcumin powder is not well absorbed. An extract of black pepper, called piperine, is added to some formulations to enhance absorption. Tischon Corporation makes a patented product with enhanced bioavailability called Curcu-Gel.
Love Those Yellow Curries!!
In the U.S., the spice turmeric has GRAS status (generally recognized as safe) in amounts contained in foods. My recommendation is to obtain liberal amounts of curcumin through your diet. Yellow curries made with lean meat, tofu or seafood and plenty of veggies are a great way to cleans and recover from winter hibernation. At the same time you will be partaking of a tremendous functional food with anti-inflammatory, immune supporting attributes. One precaution, however – if you have bile duct obstruction you may get a tummy ache if you eat large amounts of turmeric because it promotes bile flow.
These statements have not been evaluated by the food and drug administration. They are not intended to diagnose, heal, prevent or cure any disease. They are for information purposes only.
Thangapazam, R Multiple molecular targets in cancer chemoprevention by curcumin. The AAPS Journal 2006; 8(3) Article 52.
Shishodia, S, et. al. Curcumin: Getting Back to the Roots. Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 1056:206-217 (2005)
Cruz-Correa M, et. Al. Efficacy and mechanism of action of turmeric supplements in the treatment of experimental arthritis. Arthritis Rhem. 2006: Nov; 54 (11) 3453-3464.
Holt, PR, et. al. Curcumin therapy in inflammatory bowel disease: a pilot study. Dig. Dis. Sci 2005 Nov; 50 (11):2192-3.