The Spice of Life

A kitchen fave that fights cancer: Turmeric is supplemental gold.

By Lisa James

October 2007

That splash of bright yellow in your curry comes courtesy of turmeric, a spice beloved by Asian cooks for centuries. And now turmeric (especially in the form of curcumin, one of its principle components) has lent its golden tinge to the supplement market; sales of turmeric-based items have jumped 35% in a year. Such commercial interest is built on a solid—and growing—research base, including ongoing clinical trials being conducted by the National Institutes of Health.

A curry herb becoming one of the hottest properties in the supplement world? Who knew? Actually, healers in India probably aren’t surprised. In that country, turmeric—known there as haldi—is a household remedy for cuts and coughs, is used in traditional medicine to reduce inflammation and ease digestive problems, and is treasured as a skin beautifier. For their part, Western researchers have found that turmeric can help fight a number of diseases, most notably cancer.

Anti-Cancer Action

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’s certainly a number of possible factors: Many Indians are vegetarians for religious reasons, and 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, which is the herb’s primary pigment—has affected “virtually every tumor biomarker,” according to one researcher. 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 apoptosis, or natural cell death (Cancer Research 3/07). In other studies, curcumin has blocked 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 the human papillomavirus (HPV), a main cause of cervical cancer (Clinical Cancer Research 6/07, Molecular Carcinogenesis 5/06). 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.

A Bowlful of Benefits

Inflammation has been linked to a number of disorders, which helps explain why curcumin has shown a healing touch for so many different conditions. Take arthritis for example; arthritic rats given a turmeric extract showed less joint inflammation and cartilage destruction.

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 (American Journal of Epidemiology 11/06). 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. Topical curcumin has even repelled mosquitoes and black flies.

Curcumin: It can really spice up your supplement regimen.

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