Many spices have powerful medicinal properties, which is why they've been used to promote healing for thousands of years prior to the advent of patented synthetic drugs.
Some spices are clearly more useful than others, and one “star player” within Nature’s pharmacy is turmeric, a yellow-pigmented curry spice often used in Indian cuisine. Turmeric also has a long history of medicinal use in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda.
Curcumin—one of its most well-studied bioactive ingredients—exhibits over 150 potentially therapeutic activities, including potent anti-cancer properties. Curcumin is also capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier, which is one reason why it holds promise as a neuroprotective agent in a wide range of neurological disorders.
Researchers have previously investigated curcumin for its potential role in improving Parkinson's, Alzheimer’s disease, and damage. It can also promote brain health in general, courtesy of its potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
One of the ways it works, which is similar to vitamin D is by modulating large numbers of your genes. But unlike vitamin D that influences thousands of genes, curcumin has been shown to influence about 700 genes.
Previous research has also demonstrated that curcumin acts by inserting itself into your cells' membranes where it changes the physical properties of the membrane itself, making it more orderly.
Yet another part of the answer for turmeric’s multifaceted benefits lies in the herb’s ability to affect signaling molecules. For example, curcumin has been shown to directly interact with:
|Inflammatory molecules||Cell survival proteins||Histone|
|Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV1) integrase and protease||DNA and RNA||Various carrier proteins and metal ions|
Recent animal research3, 4 suggests another bioactive compound in turmeric called aromatic-turmerone can increase neural stem cell growth in the brain by as much as 80 percent at certain concentrations. Neural stem cells differentiate into neurons and play an important role in self-repair.
The findings suggest aromatic-turmerone may help in the recovery of brain function in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and stroke—provided the effect also applies to humans. As reported by Time Magazine:5
“[T]he same research group found that rodent neural stem cells grew when they were bathed in a solution of aromatic-turmerone. The cells bathed in the turmeric compound also appeared to specialize into certain types of brain cells more rapidly.
‘It is interesting that it might be possible to boost the effectiveness of the stem cells with aromatic-turmerone,’ Maria Adele Rueger, a researcher on the team, told the BBC. 'And it is possible this in turn can help boost repair in the brain.'”
Previous research has also shown that curcumin may help inhibit the accumulation of destructive beta-amyloids in the brain of Alzheimer's patients, as well as break up existing plaques.
People with Alzheimer's tend to have higher levels of inflammation in their brains, and curcumin is perhaps most known for its potent anti-inflammatory properties.
The compound can inhibit both the activity and the inflammatory metabolic byproducts of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX2) and 5-lipooxygenase (5-LOX) enzymes, as well as other enzymes and hormones that modulate inflammation.
The effects of turmeric are not limited to brain health. As noted in a previous GreenMedInfo6 article on this subject, turmeric has been “empirically demonstrated to positively modulate over 160 different physiological pathways.”
A study published in the Natural Product Reports7 in 2011 describes curcumin as being therapeutic for a wide range of diseases, including:
Lung and liver diseases Neurological diseases Metabolic diseases Autoimmune disorders Cardiovascular diseases Inflammatory diseases
For example, curcumin has been shown to benefit those with osteoarthritis. Research published in 2011 found that patients who added 200 mg of curcumin a day to their treatment plan had reduced pain and increased mobility, whereas the control group, which received no curcumin, had no significant improvements.
A 2006 study9 also found that a turmeric extract composed of curcuminoids (plant-based nutrients that contain powerful antioxidant properties) blocked inflammatory pathways, effectively preventing the launch of a protein that triggers swelling and pain.
Studies now numbering in the hundreds have shown that curcumin and other bioactive compounds in the spice may be helpful for a wide array of health problems. For example, research has shown turmeric can:
Support healthy cholesterol levels Prevent low-density lipoprotein oxidation Inhibit platelet aggregation Suppress thrombosis and myocardial infarction Suppress symptoms associated with type 2 diabetes Suppress symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis Suppress symptoms of multiple sclerosis Protect against radiation-induced damage and heavy metal toxicity Inhibit HIV replication Suppress tumor formation Enhance wound healing Protect against liver damage Increase bile secretion Protect against cataracts Protect against pulmonary toxicity and fibrosis
Dr. William LaValley is one of the leading natural medicine cancer physicians. He has spent a considerable amount of time immersing himself in the science of curcumin, which has the most evidence-based literature supporting its use against cancer of any other nutrient. This includes vitamin D, which also has a robust base. Curcumin has been shown to be nontoxic and appears to be safe in the treatment of all cancers. Interestingly, it appears to be universally useful for just about every type of cancer, which is quite odd considering cancer consists of a wide variety of different molecular pathologies. You wouldn’t necessarily suspect that there would be one herb that would work for most of them.
As mentioned, curcumin has the ability to modulate genetic activity and expression, and in cancer, it can both destroy cancer cells and promote healthy cell function. It also promotes anti-angiogenesis, meaning it helps prevent the development of additional blood supply necessary for cancer cell growth, and affects more than 100 different molecular pathways once it gets into a cell.
As explained by Dr. LaValley, the curcumin molecule may cause either an increase in activity of a particular molecular target, or a decrease/inhibition of activity—either way, studies repeatedly show that the end result is a potent anti-cancer activity. This is why it appears to work for virtually all cancers. Furthermore, curcumin does not adversely affect healthy cells, suggesting it selectively targets cancer cells. Research has also shown that it works synergistically with certain chemotherapy drugs, enhancing the elimination of cancer cells.
For clinical results, it’s not enough to liberally add turmeric to your food. The turmeric root itself contains only about three percent curcumin concentration, and curcumin is poorly absorbed by your body to boot. Even in supplement form it’s unlikely to provide the results shown in various disease studies. Poor absorption is also the drawback that makes curcumin unsuitable for emergency treatment of stroke. When taken in its raw form, you’re only absorbing about one percent of the available curcumin.
It is easiest and far more convenient to find a high-quality turmeric extract that contains 100 percent certified organic ingredients, with at least 95 percent curcuminoids. The formula should be free of fillers, additives, and excipients (a substance added to the supplement as a processing or stability aid), and the manufacturer should use safe production practices at all stages: planting, cultivation, selective harvesting, and then producing and packaging the final product.
According to Dr. LaValley, typical anticancer doses are up to three grams of good bioavailable curcumin extract, three to four times daily. One work-around is to use raw curcumin powder and make a microemulsion by combining a tablespoon of the powder with 1-2 egg yolks and a teaspoon or two of melted coconut oil. Use a high speed hand blender to emulsify it. Just take precautions to avoid "yellow kitchen syndrome.” Curcumin is a very potent yellow pigment and can permanently discolor surfaces if you’re careless.
Another strategy that can help increase absorption is to put one tablespoon of the curcumin powder into a quart of boiling water. It must be boiling when you add the powder as it will not work as well if you first put it in room temperature water and then heat the water and curcumin. After boiling it for 10 minutes, you will have created a 12 percent solution that you can drink once cooled. It will have a woody taste. The curcumin will gradually fall out of solution, however. In about six hours, it will be down to a six percent solution, so it's best to drink the water within four hours.
Because it’s a fat-loving or lipophilic molecule, many newer preparations now include some sort of oil or fat, which improves its absorbability and bioavailability. Such preparations typically have seven to eight times higher absorption than the raw, unprocessed 95-percent-concentration of dry powder. There are also newer sustained release preparations, which Dr. LaValley prefers and recommends.
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