The history and chemistry of tumeric and curcumin and its many health benefits:
- A strong antioxidant.
- Relieves pain and inflammation.
- Helps prevent and may improve Alzheimer’s Disease.
- Prevents and suppresses cancer.
- Has many other amazing health benefits.
- Curcumin is safe.
History and chemistry.
Most everyone is familiar with the bright yellow color of Indian curry. Tumeric is the spice that gives curry much of its color. The spice is made from the powdered root of Curcuma longa, a member of the ginger family, Zingaberaceae.
Tumeric has been used for over a thousand years as a remedy in Ayurvedic (India) and Chinese medicine. In Ayurveda it used to inhibit inflammation. It was also prized by the ancient Romans and Greeks who valued its medicinal properties. The name “tumeric” derived from Latin, translates to “earth-merit”.
A group of chemical compounds in tumeric called curcuminoids are responsible for the color. The curcuminoids are extracted from the spice to concentrate them for medicinal use. This is "curcumin" and was initially extracted from tumeric over 100 years ago.
Three primary curcuminoids have been identified. They are curcumin (diferuloyl methane), demethoxycurcumin and bisdemethoxycurcumin. Curcuminoids are polyphenolic compounds that comprise 2-9% of tumeric.(1)
Curcumin extracts of tumeric are available as nutritional supplements. Some extracts indicate that they are standardized to contain 95% curcuminoids. This represents a 10-50X concentration of the curcuminoids found in their natural state in tumeric.
Curcumin concentration in the blood’s serum peaks 1-2 hours after taking it by mouth.(2)
A strong antioxidant.
Oxidation is a natural attribute of oxygen. Oxygen likes to combine with other molecules. As it does so they become oxidized. In nature the process of oxidation is seen when metal rusts and when fat goes rancid. The rusted metal is chemically different than non-rusted. Rancid fat has also been chemically altered by oxygen. In the human body oxidation can also damage molecules and tissues. The body protects itself with antioxidants. In every day terms antioxidants are like putting oil on metal to protect it from rust. Or putting butter in the refrigerator to prevent it from going rancid.
Many different nutrients serve as antioxidants. Vitamins C and E and selenium are examples of some. Plants produce their own antioxidants to protect themselves from the effects of oxygen. In the plant kingdom antioxidants often give the plant, fruit or vegetable its color.
In India tumeric has been used for centuries as a food additive for flavoring and to keep food from spoiling. In our body it does the same. It prevents damage from oxygen (oxidation), and in so doing protects our health.
One of the primary theories of aging says we grow old as the result of oxidation of our tissues. Our antioxidant systems can’t keep up with the damaging effects of oxygen. Eventually so much tissue damage occurs that our body systems begin to malfunction. Eventually the malfunctioning of our organs leads to death.
The damage of oxidation often occurs through an intermediary molecule called a free radical. Free radicals are very reactive transient molecules that swipe electrons from their neighbor molecules. If the nearest neighbor happens to be the cell’s DNA or genetic material, a free radical can damage DNA. Damaged DNA can cause the cell to go out of control, multiplying again and again. This is cancer. Carcinogens (chemicals that are known to cause cancer) mainly cause cancer by producing free radicals which damage the cellular DNA.
Researchers have shown that curcuminoids can prevent free radicals from forming. Once formed, curcuminoids are able to neutralize free radicals before they cause damage. Curcuminoids inhibit potent free radical molecules such as superoxide and hydroxyl radicals.(3) Still other researchers compared curcumin to vitamins C and E in its strong antioxidant activity.(4) One of the body’s core antioxidants is glutathione. When curcumin is added to cells in a tissue culture it increases intracellular glutathione levels.(5)
Relieves pain and inflammation.
Curcumin has strong anti-inflammatory activity. One researcher summarizes the findings this way:
”Turmeric, an approved food additive, or its component curcumin, has shown surprisingly beneficial effects in experimental studies of acute and chronic diseases characterized by an exaggerated inflammatory reaction. There is ample evidence to support its clinical use, both as a prevention and a treatment.”(6)
Researchers find the action of curcumin to two non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, indomethacin (Indocin) and phenylbutazone, but without the side effects. The side effects of phenylbutazone are serious. They include suppression of production of white cells (immune system) and of red cells in the bone marrow resulting in anemia. Other side effects of prolonged use include those characteristic of other NSAID’s gastrointestinal ulcers and bleeding, and kidney damage.
Curcumin has also been shown to have activity similar to aspirin, but without the side effects.(7)
Researchers are beginning to understand how curcumin’s anti-inflammatory activity works. Remember the “Cox-2 inhibitors” like Celebrex and Vioxx? These drugs were designed to inhibit the action of an enzyme that is involved in the inflammatory process. By inhibiting the enzyme, inflammation could be decreased. Unfortunately when the enzyme was blocked by these drugs it through other important and vital chemical reactions out of balance. This is what creates the harmful side effects of these drugs and the other NSAID’s.
Curcumin, being composed of a number of active molecules, has a broader action than single drugs. We know that this action is also more balanced and in tune with the body’s need. This is obvious because of the lack of harmful side effects with curcumin. It acts on several major inflammatory pathways in the body. The biochemistry of inflammation is complex. The key idea here is that curcumin exerts a more gentle action on several different inflammatory pathways, producing an overall result comparable to what is achieved with drugs.
Here is how researchers summarize the biochemical actions of curcumin with regard to inflammation.
“The anti-inflammatory effect of curcumin is most likely mediated through its ability to inhibit cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), lipoxygenase (LOX), and inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS).(8)
An oil extract of tumeric was shown to decrease arthritis in rats.(9)
A preparation of tumeric containing eye drops effectively treated bacterial conjunctivitis, a condition in which the eye becomes inflamed because of a bacterial infection. Eye redness and burning improved after 3 days of treatment. After six days 23 out of the 25 participants in the study reported relief of all their symptoms.(10)
Researchers gave 18 patients with rheumatoid arthritis 1200 mg of curcumin daily. After two weeks they reported improvement in morning stiffness, walking time and joint swelling.
Curcuminoids have been shown to help post-surgical pain. 40 men who had undergone surgery for hernia’s were given curcumin at a dose of 1200 mg per day. After five days the reported relief in swelling, tenderness and pain was the same as that reported for NSAID phenylbutazone.
Three more researcher’s in a study titled “Role of curcumin in health and disease” summarize the research findings on curcumin and inflammation this way:
“Curcumin has the potential to treat a wide variety of inflammatory diseases including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, psoriasis, etc, through modulation of numerous molecular targets.”(11)
Another research group praised curcumin’s properties this way:
“[Curcumin] has been proven to exhibit remarkable anticarcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties.”(12)
When I (Dr. Mittag) suffered a herniated disc, during the first week I was in such severe pain I needed a steroid injection and narcotics. As it became less severe I shifted to large doses of curcumin, a few other herbs and a couple alternative treatments. Just one and one-half weeks after my initial hospitalization I was off all drugs and pain free.
Can help prevent and may improve Alzheimer’s Disease.
The rate Alzheimer’s disease in India is perhaps the lowest in the world. Scientists find that cultures that consume the greatest amount of tumeric have the lowest incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in the world. India’s rate of Alzheimer’s is one-quarter that of the United States. Only 1% of Indians over the age of 65 suffer from the degenerative brain condition.
In Alzheimer’s protein deposits form amyloid plaques in the brain. In a sense these plaques gum up the works, disrupting brain function. When plaques form in synapses—the communication junctions between nerve cells—nerve cells fail to communicate with each other effectively. Memory loss is one result. Researchers have shown that oxidative damage and inflammation contribute to the formation of these plaques. It has been shown that in a test tube curcumin inhibits the formation of the protein that makes up these plaques.(11) It has been confirmed that curcuminoids in the blood stream do cross the blood brain barrier and enter the brain.(13) In animals with an Alzheimer’s like disease, curcumin even decreased the amount of amyloid plaques.(13-15)
The promise of curcumin for Alzheimer’s has resulted in a number of clinical trials now in progress.(16) These studies are looking at curcumin both as a way to prevent and to treat Alzheimer’s disease. In the mean time I’m taking my curcumin supplements and enjoying more curry in my diet.
Can prevent and suppress cancer.
Cancer arises when cells multiply out of control. Cell multiplication is normally under the control of genetic material within the nucleus of the cell. This genetic material is chemically called DNA. Damage to the DNA can initiate the process of out of control multiplication. Damage is known to occur through exposure to carcinogens such as the chemicals in cigarette smoke, radiation, other toxic chemicals and even infections. Hormone imbalances can also over stimulate cells resulting in cancer formation.
The development of cancer is a complex multi-step process. If cells multiply out of control but do not spread, the result is a benign tumor. Cells that are multiplying out of control can also invade neighboring tissues. In the process the don’t act or look like the cells they once were. These cells spread throughout the body or metastasize. This is called metastasis (or spread) and makes the cancer malignant (literally meaning “bad”). As they invade tissues elsewhere in the body they begin to disrupt body functions and as we all know, can eventually cause death.
Clinicians have classified the stages of a malignant cancer’s growth.These stages are called initiation, promotion and progression. Initiation involves permanent damage to the cellular DNA or genetic material. Viruses, radiation and environmental chemical toxins are all thought to cause of “initiation”. With promotion the cell begins to multiply or grow out of control. The carcinogenic chemicals in tobacco smoke, environmental pollutants, drugs and hormones are all promoters. With progression the cell begins to invade neighboring tissues. It has lost its identity in terms of its normal structure and function. It is now a rogue destructive opportunist.
Curcumin to the rescue. Hear what researchers have to say with regard to curcumin’s anticancer properties and the three stages of cancer formation.
“Carcinogenesis encompasses three closely associated stages: initiation, progression, and promotion. [Curcumin] has been shown to possess anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antitumor properties. [It] has also been shown to be beneficial in all three stages of carcinogenesis.”(17)
Normally diseased cells will self destruct. This is sort of a safety mechanism programmed into human cells. The process is called apoptosis. Cancer cells skirt this safety net as they metastasize throughout the body.
Curcumin was demonstrated to increase apoptosis or self destruction of prostate cancer cells in men.(18) The rate of prostate cancer in India versus the United States is revealing. Remember that East Indians tend to consume lots of curcumin. In India the rate of prostate cancer ranges from 5.0 to 9.1 per 100,000/year. In the United States is 110.4 per 100,000/year or more than 10X’s. For African Americans the rate of prostate cancer is even higher.(19)
In fact, curcumin has been shown to protect the body from cancer in many ways, and in many stages of the cancer formation process. Researchers recognize the value of this when they state…
“Curcumin… has emerged as one of the most powerful chemopreventive and anticancer agents. Its biological effects range from antioxidant [and] anti-inflammatory to inhibition of angiogenesis, and [it] is also shown to possess specific antitumoral activity.”(20)
Cancer refers to the process that can happen to many different cells in the body. Researchers are finding that curcumin works against many types of cancer, not just a single type:
“Pre-clinical studies in a variety of cancer cell lines including breast, cervical, colon, gastric, hepatic, leukemia, oral epithelial, ovarian, pancreatic, and prostate have consistently shown that curcumin possesses anticancer activity in vitro and in pre-clinical animal models.”(21)
The study of the cancer preventative and suppressive effects of curcumin continue. Researchers are also moving to develop anticancer drugs based on the chemicals found in curcumin.
Many other amazing health benefits.
Many other health benefits of curcumin have been verified.
- Nervous system protection. We’ve seen that curcumin protects against and may help to reverse Alzheimer’s Disease. Researchers find that curcumin “has at least 10 known neuroprotective actions…” which make it “a strong candidate for use in the prevention or treatment of major disabling age-related neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and stroke.”(22)
- Protects against cataracts. Oxidative stress is thought to be the basis of cataract formation. Curcumin is known to be a strong antioxidant. Two studies have found that curcumin protected the eye lenses of rats from cataract formation. The opacification (clouding) that is characteristic of cataract formation was significantly reduced when rats were fed curcumin.(23)
- Stimulates wound healing. Rats given curcumin had skin wounds heal faster than those who didn’t.(24) This was found to also be true in diabetic rats and mice. Normally wounds in diabetic animals are known to heal more slowly.(25)
- Curcumin has also shown promise in the treatment of multiple sclerosis(26), psoriasis(27), cystic fibrosis(28), dementia(29) and more.
Curcumin is safe.
Curcumin has been demonstrated to be absolutely safe for humans. Curcumin containing tumeric has been used in Indian and Asian cooking for over one thousand years.
Researchers also say that curcumin is safe. In one study 25 subjects took 8000 mg of curcumin daily for three months without any toxic effect. A total of six studies have looked at the safety of curcumin for human consumption. After reviewing all of these studies the scientists concluded that “Curcumin has been demonstrated to be safe in six human trials and has demonstrated anti-inflammatory activity.”(30) Consumption of 20-40 mg of curcumin has been reported to increase gall bladder contraction in healthy people.(31-32) Gall bladder contraction is a normal physiological activity, occurring after ingestion of fats.
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(2) Cheng AL, Hsu CH, Lin JK, et al. Phase I clinical trial of curcumin, a chemopreventive agent, in patients with high-risk or pre-malignant lesions. Anticancer Res. 2001;21(4B):2895-2900.
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(17) National Institutes of Health. Clinical Trials.gov. 2005.
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(19) Asok Mukhopadhyay, Carlos Bueso-Ramos, Devasis Chatterjee, Panayotis Pantazis and Bharat B Aggarwal. Curcumin downregulates cell survival mechanisms in human prostate cancer cell lines. Oncogene (2001)20,7597-7609.
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(21) Li M, Zhang Z, Hill DL, Wang H, Zhang R. Curcumin, a dietary component, has anticancer, chemosensitization, andradiosensitization effects by down-regulating the MDM2 oncogene through the PI3K/mTOR/ETS2 pathway. Cancer Res. 2007 Mar1;67(5):1988-96.
(22) Johnson JJ, Mukhtar H. Curcumin for chemoprevention of colon cancer. Cancer Lett. 2007 Apr 18.
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