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Spice up your life

MagazineDecember 2010 (Vol. 21 Issue 9)Spice up your life

Things are hotting up as exciting new studies show that curcumin-the yellow pigment in turmeric-may be able to ease arthritis, soothe digestive problems and even cure cancer

Things are hotting up as exciting new studies show that curcumin-the yellow pigment in turmeric-may be able to ease arthritis, soothe digestive problems and even cure cancer. Although, so far, most of the research has involved test tubes and animals, a growing number of human trials suggest that curcumin may be a safe and effective treatment for a range of chronic conditions.

Cancer

Researchers at the Cork Cancer Research Centre in Ireland have reported that curcumin looks promising for both pre-venting and treating oesophageal cancer, an increasingly common condition with a poor prognosis. In the laboratory, curcumin began killing oesophageal cancer cells within 24 hours (Br J Cancer, 2009; 101: 1585-95), and other studies show that curcumin may also work against other types of cancer cells, such as those of the breast, pancreas, stomach and colon (Int J Oncol, 2009; 35: 867-72; Anticancer Res, 2001; 21: 873-8). In animals, curcumin has an impact on all three stages of cancer development-namely, its initiation, promotion and progression (Altern Med Rev, 2009; 14: 141-53).

Although these results may not apply to people, preliminary trials in cancer patients are encouraging. In one, 15 patients with advanced colorectal cancer were given a turmeric supplement (equivalent to 36-180 mg of curcumin) every day for up to four months. Five patients saw their condition stabilize, while one showed signs of cancer regression (Clin Cancer Res, 2001; 7: 1894-900).

Digestive disorders

Curcumin may also help with gastrointestinal conditions, including dyspepsia (indigestion), Helicobacter pylori infection, peptic ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis (Altern Med Rev, 2009; 14: 141-53).

In one trial of 25 peptic-ulcer patients given 600 mg of curcumin five times a day for 12 weeks, nearly half had no ulcers after four weeks and, by the end of the study, 76 per cent were ulcer-free (Southeast Asian J Trop Med Public Health, 2001; 32: 208-15).

In a randomized controlled trial, or RCT, of patients with ulcerative colitis, those taking curcumin (1 g twice a day) together with conventional drug therapy fared better than those taking a placebo with their conventional treatment (Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol, 2006; 4: 1502-6).

Arthritis

In one preliminary RCT, 1200 mg/day of curcumin effectively improved joint swelling, morning stiffness and walking time in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, findings supported by both animal and laboratory evidence (Altern Med Rev, 2009; 14: 141-53; Int J Mol Med, 2007; 20: 365-72).

In yet another RCT, turmeric extract (50 mg/capsule) in combination with other botanicals and zinc appeared to be useful for osteoarthritis by significantly reducing pain and disability (J Ethnopharmacol, 1991; 33: 91-5). However, as the treatment was a combination of different agents, it wasn't clear what role curcumin played in the improvements.

Alzheimer's disease

Mounting research suggests that curcumin may help patients with Alzheimer's. In animals, even low doses have significantly reduced amyloid plaques in the brain-the hallmark of the disease-and improved cognitive deficits such as impaired memory (Curr Alzheimer Res, 2005; 2: 131-6).

Although such results may not apply to humans, Alzheimer's is much less common in India than in the US, possibly because curcumin-containing curries are widely consumed. More important, researchers have found a link between curry consumption and cognitive function. In a study of over 1000 elderly Asians, those who ate curry "occasionally" and "often or very often" performed significantly better on cognitive tests than those who "never or rarely" ate the spice (Am J Epidemiol, 2006; 164: 898-906).

Anti-inflammatory powers

Curcumin may also be effective against oedema, pancreatitis, eye conditions such as uveitis, and even obesity and type 2 diabetes (Altern Med Rev, 2009; 14: 141-53; Endocrinology, 2008; 149: 3549-58). What these conditions have in common is inflammation-and curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Indeed, curcumin has proved to be just as effective as the anti-inflammatory drugs hydrocortisone and phenylbutazone (Int J Clin Pharmacol Ther Toxicol, 1986; 24: 651-4; J Ethnopharmacol, 2007; 112: 292-9).

Curcumin's antioxidant and antimicrobial actions may also explain its promising effects against a wide range of illnesses. Although more human trials are needed, this spicy compound is already proving to be one of the safest and strongest disease-fighters Nature has to offer.

Joanna Evans

WDDTY VOL 20 NO 11


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