Curcumin: An Ancient Gift For Modern Health

Updated: June 13, 2017 | 13:10

I have been writing about Curcumin, since February 2006. The astonishing effect it has had upon my eyesight continues to be among the most joyous gifts of My Serrapeptase Adventure, and my continuing journey towards good, and improving, health.

Although most of the questions, sent to me by those who read my story, or who have heard it on the radio, will probably always be about Serrapeptase, among the people who know me personally, I am much more often asked about Curcumin. This is, perhaps, because the improvements in my eyesight have been among the most unexpected of all. It is for this reason that now in 2009, I am still learning about Curcumin.

From powerful heart medications and antibiotics to simple aspirin, many modern pharmaceuticals have been derived directly from ancient plant and fungal sources that exhibit remarkable abilities to improve well being and intervene in disease processes at the molecular level. Scientists continue to discover medically useful plant compounds that demonstrate powerful anti-inflammatory, anti cancer, antibiotic, and anti-ageing properties. Turmeric is a case in point. This tropical root delivers a smorgasbord of powerful health benefits.

Research shows that turmeric – and its main bioactive compound, Curcumin – has the power to block inflammation, stop cancer, kill infectious microbes, and improve heart health.

Turmeric is perhaps most familiar as the star ingredient in powdered curry mixes. Curcumin, a group of polyphenolic plant pigments, is responsible for turmeric’s characteristic canary yellow colour. Curry is the signature seasoning and fragrant dish of the Indian subcontinent.

India’s relationship with turmeric, and thus Curcumin, goes back thousands of years. Both ginger and turmeric have been cultivated in India and South-east Asia for millennia. India produces and consumes most of the world’s turmeric. The ancient Romans and Greeks, who valued its medicinal properties, revered a cousin of ginger, turmeric. Indeed, its English name derives from the Latin, which roughly translates as ‘earth-merit’.

Unlike their Western counterparts, most native Indians would probably not be surprised to learn that modern science has begun to investigate and catalogue turmeric’s various health-promoting properties. Turmeric is familiar to Indians not only as a spice but also as an important element of folk medicine. In the ancient Indian system of Ayurvedic holistic medicine, turmeric is revered for its ability to quell inflammation and to treat a variety of maladies. Indeed, Ayurvedic medicine recommends mixing turmeric in a small amount of honey for the treatment of numerous ailments. It is taken orally at the first sign of the common cold, and the sticky paste is applied to the skin as a topical ointment for the treatment of skin infections and irritations.

Turmeric powder also is a popular remedy for stomach complaints throughout Asia. In Hawaii, it is reportedly used to treat swimmer’s ear (infection) and sinus infections. Perhaps one of its most important applications is as an anti-inflammatory for the treatment of arthritis; it has been used as such in China and India for thousands of years.

Modern Science Meets Ancient Faith

Modern scientists have examined these largely faith-based claims and have subjected them to rigorous testing over the last 50 years. Although few large-scale human trials have been completed, hundreds of experiments conducted by researchers around the globe have demonstrated Curcumin’s ability to:

  • Halt or prevent certain types of cancer
  • Stop inflammation
  • Improve cardiovascular health
  • Prevent cataracts
  • Kill or inhibit the toxic effects of certain microbes including fungi and dangerous parasites
  • Protect, at least in the laboratory, against the damaging effects of heterocyclic amines (potentially carcinogenic compounds found in some cooked foods)

This hard-working spice shows promise as a potential treatment for multiple sclerosis, and may ameliorate the damaging effects of long-term diabetes. It is even being investigated as a topical treatment to speed diabetic wound healing. Some researchers also have noted an exciting link between turmeric consumption and a dramatically decreased incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, an effect that may well be related to Curcumin’s ability to block signalling pathways that lead to inflammation.

Cancer-Fighting Capabilities Documented

Numerous studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals detail Curcumin’s ability to protect against cancer. In addition to its capacity to intervene in the initiation and growth of cancer cells and tumours – and to prevent their subsequent spread throughout the body by metastasis – Curcumin also has been shown to increase cancer cells’ sensitivity to certain drugs commonly used to combat cancer, rendering chemotherapy more effective in some cases. Much research has focused on Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties, and some research suggests that Curcumin may protect the heart and circulatory system, and prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Still other studies have examined Curcumin’s potential ability to counteract the effects of fungal toxins in the food supply, and to protect the eyes from cataracts and uveitis, an inflammation of a portion of the eye that may result in glaucoma.

As an anti cancer agent, Curcumin is promising enough to warrant serious attention from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). In its 2002 annual report, the Chemo-preventive Agent Development Research Group, a subset of the NCI’s Division of Cancer Prevention, details its efforts to encourage and support research on Curcumin’s utility in cancer prevention and treatment. Because Curcumin is a non-patentable product, such support is crucial, especially for research involving all-important human trials, as other sources of funding are virtually non-existent. At least one human trial, focusing on dosing, bioavailability, and pharmacokinetics (how Curcumin is used, metabolised, and eliminated by the body), has been undertaken at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Test-tube and animal-model studies have demonstrated that Curcumin exhibits significant anti-cancer activity. Numerous experiments have shown that Curcumin inhibits the progression of chemically induced colon and skin cancers. In colon cancer, in particular, Curcumin seems significantly to inhibit both the promotional and progression stages of the disease. Various studies have reported that Curcumin reduces the number and size of existing tumours, and decreases the incidence of new tumour formation.

Much discussion has focused on the use of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) inhibitors as potential colon cancer preventive agents. This new approach arose from the observation that people who routinely take anti-inflammatory non-steroidal drugs (NSAIDs) are statistically less likely to develop cancer than those who do not. Unfortunately, NSAIDs are poorly tolerated by some, and they can even cause bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. Regarding Curcumin’s potential benefits for the prevention and treatment of colon cancer, one research team commented:

“Naturally occurring COX-2 inhibitors such as Curcumin and certain phytosterols have been proven effective as chemo preventive agents against colon carcinogenesis with minimal gastrointestinal toxicity.”

Additionally, other studies using cancer cells grown in the laboratory in vitro have demonstrated Curcumin’s ability to prompt apoptosis, or programmed cell death, among leukaemia, B lymphoma, and other cancerous cells.

Curcumin has been used as a topical application successfully to induce apoptosis in skin cancer cells both in vitro and in animal models. Curcumin is under investigation as a preventive agent for increasingly common non-melanoma skin cancers, and as a potential preventive or treatment agent in breast, prostate, oral, pancreatic, and gastric cancers, among others.

Curcumin also has been shown to enhance the effectiveness of certain anti-cancer drugs, and, amazingly, potentially to improve the effectiveness of anti-cancer radiation treatment by preventing tumour cells from developing radiation resistance. Protein kinase C (PKC) has been suggested as a possible mechanism by which tumour cells develop resistance to radiation therapy. Curcumin’s helpful effect may be due to its ability to inhibit radiation-induced PKC activity. Additionally, one study found that Curcumin protected study animals from the tumour-producing effects of deadly gamma radiation, while another found that it protects against damaging ultraviolet light, which is known to play a role in the development of skin cancer.

Researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center declared: “…Curcumin has enormous potential in the prevention and treatment of cancer.” They noted that Curcumin has been found to be safe for human consumption, even in doses ranging as high as 10 grams per day. However, other researchers have observed that more is not necessarily better. A published study from India found that among rats fed a diet causing high blood sugar, those given low doses of Curcumin did not develop experimentally induced cataracts as often as control subjects did. However, rats receiving high doses of Curcumin actually developed cataracts somewhat faster, possibly due to increased oxidative stress. The difference in dosing was extreme, but these findings underscore the importance of further inquiry into the uses of Curcumin in humans for a variety of diseases and under a variety of conditions.

Contrary to the many remarkably encouraging reports on Curcumin’s anti-cancer benefits, at least one study reported that Curcumin interfered with, rather than potentiated, the effects of anti-cancer chemotherapy. Another study found no significant therapeutic effect against prostate cancer, a finding that stands in stark contrast to numerous other studies that have noted significant anti-prostate cancer activity by Curcumin. This lack of consensus has led some experts to caution against taking Curcumin during chemotherapy, except under an oncologist’s supervision.

Heart Health Benefits

Some of the most intriguing research on Curcumin’s potential benefits involves its apparent ability to improve cardiovascular health. As with many of Curcumin’s protective actions, this ability to improve circulatory system function may be due to its powerful antioxidant activity. Several reports detailed Curcumin’s ability to protect test animals against a variety of conditions that model heart disease in humans.

Researchers in Egypt noted that Curcumin protected rats from oxidative stress injury following experimentally induced stroke. Stroke is a common result of thrombosis and/or atherosclerosis, which leads to clogging of the arteries that supply the brain with vital oxygen and nutrients. It is believed that such injury, known as ischaemia/reperfusion (I/R) insult, is responsible for many of the deficits seen in stroke victims. Researchers concluded that Curcumin protected the rats from I/R damage. They noted that when Curcumin was administered at the highest levels, injury-related oxidants, believed to be responsible for the majority of I/R damage, were significantly reduced. Among the Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), whose levels or activities were reduced by Curcumin were xanthine oxidase, superoxide anion, malondialdehyde, glutathione peroxidase, superoxide dismutase, and lactate dehydrogenase. Scientists attribute many of the undesirable effects of ageing to the rogue activities of damaging free radicals, and antioxidants are crucial for their control. As noted previously, Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant and many of its beneficial effects may be directly related to its ability to scavenge and neutralise these ROS.

Positive Effects On Cholesterol

In laboratory tests on animals and in vitro, scientists have shown that Curcumin prevents lipid peroxidation and the oxidation of cellular and sub cellular membranes that are associated with atherosclerosis.

Moreover, Curcumin acts to lower total cholesterol levels. Perhaps even more important, it prevents peroxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. LDL peroxidation plays a key role in the development of atherosclerosis, so it follows that a substance that inhibits peroxidation should benefit cardiovascular health.

Atherosclerosis is a common disorder associated with ageing, diabetes, obesity, and a diet high in saturated fat. It begins gradually, as cholesterol and other lipids deposit on arterial walls and form damaging plaques. Oxidised lipids are suspected of playing a particularly damaging role in the progression of atherosclerosis. As plaques grow, vessel walls may eventually thicken and stiffen, restricting blood flow to target organs and tissues. Atherosclerosis is a major cause of heart disease and may lead to stroke.

When atherosclerotic plaques restrict blood flow to the heart, depriving cardiac muscle of vital oxygen and nutrients, coronary tissue dies; angina and heart attack are the results. Since Curcumin is a naturally occurring, well-tolerated antioxidant that is capable of destroying the dangerous free radicals that lead to lipid peroxidation, it would appear that it holds enormous potential in the fight against heart disease.

Still more intriguing than its ability to limit peroxidation is the finding that Curcumin raises HDL (‘good’) cholesterol levels, even as it reduces LDL levels. In a small study of human volunteers, researchers reported a highly significant 29% increase in HDL among subjects who consumed one-half gram (500 mg) of Curcumin per day for seven days. Subjects also experienced a decrease in total serum cholesterol of more than 11%, and a decrease in serum lipid peroxides of 33%. Further human studies are needed, but these preliminary findings are promising. As one research team noted: “Administration of a nutritional dose of Curcuma longa extracts [Curcumin]…may contribute to the prevention of effects caused by a diet high in fat and cholesterol in blood and liver during the development of atherosclerosis.”

Although scientific investigation into the therapeutic properties of Curcumin is ongoing, it seems clear that this plant pigment from a humble tuber has powerful healing potential. The data are occasionally conflicting, but it seems likely that adding Curcumin to one’s diet makes exceptionally good sense. Curcumin appears to prevent certain cancers, inhibit cardiovascular disease, and quell inflammation, and may even offer protection against Alzheimer’s disease.

Update

In October 2010, working with Indena S.p.A., the worldwide experts in botanical extract technology, Good Health Naturally, introduced Curcumin, which includes an answer to better Curcumin absorption – phytosome technology.

Phytosomes are plant extracts bound to phosphatidylcholine (fos-fa-tidal-ko-leen), which is an essential component of human cells. Our bodies make phosphatidylcholine, but we can also get it from food and supplements. When taken orally, phosphatidylcholine is very well absorbed. To improve absorption, scientists at Indena found a way to attach Curcumin to phosphatidylcholine – the result is Curcumin! When you take Curcumin your body readily absorbs the phosphatidylcholine and the Curcumin attached to it, resulting in more Curcumin reaching the cells that can benefit from it.

With thanks to Robert Redfern of Naturally Healthy Publications, for original information.

More Information

Curcumin Information Curcumin is the main biologically active part of Turmeric. Over 500 references to articles on Turmeric and Curcumin have been published in peer reviewed professional journals.

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