Preventing and Treating Colon Cancer with Turmeric Curcumin

Turmeric Curcumin and Colon Cancer

The low incidence of bowel cancer in India is often attributed to natural antioxidants such as curcumin, the yellow pigment in the spice turmeric, used in curry powder. However, it is important to remember that the benefits of a diet are seldom produced by a single ingredient in that diet. For example, diets rich in beta-carotene lower the risk of tobacco-related cancers, but beta-carotene pills do not. That doesn’t stop researchers from trying, though.

Back in 2001, in a last ditch attempt to save the lives of 15 patients with advanced colorectal cancer that didn’t respond to any of the standard chemotherapy agents or radiation, researchers started them on a turmeric extract. The extract appeared to help stall the disease in a third (5 out of 15) of the patients, suggesting that turmeric extract may clinically benefit at least some patients with advanced refractory colorectal cancer.

If we were talking about some new kind of chemotherapy, and it only helped one in three, we’d have to weigh the benefits against chemo side effects, such as losing our hair, the sloughing of our guts, intractable vomiting, maybe being bed-ridden. Therefore, a drug scenario, a one in three benefit may not sound particularly appealing. But when we’re talking about plant extract proven to be remarkably safe, it would be worth considering even if it just helped 1 in a 100. With no serious downsides, a one in three benefit for end-stage cancer is pretty exciting.

To see if colon cancer could be prevented, five years later, researchers at Cleveland Clinic and John Hopkins School of Medicine tested two phytochemicals, curcumin (from turmeric) and quercitin, (found in fruits and vegetables such as red onions and grapes) in people with familial adenomatous polyposis, an inherited form of colon cancer in which individuals develop hundreds of polyps that may become cancerous unless prophylactically removed. (See Turmeric Curcumin and Colon Cancer). Researchers gave supplements of curcumin and quercetin to five such patients who already had their colons removed, but still had either polyps in their rectum or in a little intestinal pouch. Each patient had between 5 and 45 polyps each, but after six months on the supplement they ended up with on average fewer than half the polyps, and the ones that were left had shrunk in half. One patient got rid of all polyps by month three, but then they seemed to come back. The researchers asked the patient what’s what, and it turned out that the patient stopped taking the supplements. So researchers put the patient back on the phytonutrient supplements for another three months, and the polyps came back down with virtually no adverse events and no blood test abnormalities.

By studying people at high risk for colon cancer, the researchers were able to show noticeable effects within just months. But polyposis is a rare disease; they were only able to recruit five people for the study. Thankfully, smokers are a dime a dozen. After another five years, researchers put 44 smokers on turmeric curcumin supplements alone for a month and measured changes in their colorectal aberrant crypt foci, which may act like the precursors to polyps, which are the precursors to cancer. After just one month there was a significant drop in the number of these abnormal crypt foci in the high dose supplement group but no change in the low dose group. There were also no dose-limiting side effects (although the stools in the participants did turn yellow).

The low cancer rates in India may also be related to phytate consumption  (Phytates for the Prevention of Cancer) and plant-centered diets (Back to Our Roots: Curry and Cancer).

More on turmeric and Cancer in Carcinogenic Blocking Effects of Turmeric and Turmeric Curcumin Reprogramming Cancer Cell Death.

Given the poor systemic absorption of turmeric compounds, what cancers other than that of the digestive tract may be directly affected? See my follow-up video Topical Application of Turmeric Curcumin for Cancer.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: sea turtle / Flickr

  • MikeOnRaw

    Once again, so interesting. We don’t need science to tell us plant based lifestyle is the best as we have societal evidence of this. The science is just trying to find out why it works, not does it work.

  • Dasaniyum

    so 2 grams didn’t have any effect compared to 4 grams at dropping abnormal crypt foci. How much does that look like in the kitchen?

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      4 grams is like one teaspoon (just under one teaspoon). If you recall other videos on turmeric,1 tsp per day is recommended for those who may have kidney problems. And like you said black pepper can do wonders! Only like 1/20th of a teaspoon can help boost the bioavailability of curcumin – the main active compound found in turmeric. You should be able to use less, or eat curry powders that have black pepper already in it.

      • David Pollock

        Dr Gonzales,
        I have started buying raw tumeric root at Whole Foods which I now grate into my breakfast red, curried lentils. I wonder how many grams of raw tumeric is equivalent to the rrecommendation of 4 grams of powdered tumeric?

  • Julie

    Turmeric is looking more and more like a miracle spice. The newest discovery–fat loss. Research suggests that curcumin can induce white fat cells to morph into the more metabolically active brown fat cells.

  • My dog had a growth on his back and I applied tumeric to it after oxygenating it. He recovered completely and he still LOVES turmeric. I eat it on many things… salads… rice… salsa… and in curries. It’s great to know that something I like SO much is so good for me. Ethiopian recipes use a lot of turmeric too.

  • Ginger C

    I already take curcumin. Is it necessary to add quercitin?

  • Matthew Smith

    The one study on beta-carotene and smokers is flawed, according to some experts. There were 200 studies that suggested beta-carotene supplementation was good for cancer. “In the US ´China study´ a five year research study involving over 170,000 people from 1988-93 the 38,000 people taling beta-carotene, vitamin E and selenium had 13 per cent less cancers and 21 per cent less deaths from cancer. … in the French 7-year SuViMax study ending in 2003 involving 17,000 people, those taking a combined antioxidant pill of vitamin E and C, beta-carotene, selenium and zinc saw a 31 per cent decline in male cancers and a 37 per cent decline in deaths.”
    “Specific serum carotenoids are inversely associated with breast cancer risk among Chinese women: a case-control study.” I personally intend to take quercitin and turmeric daily. Studies negative to vitamins get all the press and become enshrined in the minds of the public. Soybeans can reduce your risk of colon cancer. Maybe spinach and beet greens can too. Soy consumption and colorectal cancer.

    • Matthew Smith

      Please forgive me, I am not a medical researcher but would like to be one. Turmeric is yellow. There is a vitamin that is yellow, riboflavin or B2. Is turmeric yellow in part because of riboflavin? It has some riboflavin. Curcurmin might be superior to riboflavin. Is riboflavin similar to curcurmin? B2 has some anti-cancer benefits. Riboflavin as adjuvant with cisplatin: study in mouse skin cancer model. You could do a study: turmeric, riboflavin, turmeric and riboflavin, and placebo against colon cancer. Perhaps the yellow pigment of turmeric is as fundamental a medicine as it could be. Is it essential or is it only an anti cancer benefit? Turmeric can reduce DNA damage more than any other spice. We should all eat more turmeric. Are we sicker without it? Is this a yellow deficiency or do we have a B2 riboflavin deficiency from not eating enough plants? We should all eat more plants. Eat more plants!

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Thanks for sharing those links. It seems the overall theme from the first link was to make sure antioxidants were consumed. It said the best and cheapest way to do that was naturally, not synthetically. It seems like an article that mentions some studies, which is great, but I can’t follow all of their sources. Keep in mind the studies on beta-carotene supplements and increased lung cancer risk focused on smokers and only lung cancer. And the second link was looking at blood levels of antioxidants not necessarily antioxidant supplements. I think you have the right idea. Spinach, soybeans, beets, all topics Dr. Greger covers, are the way to go for nutrients. It’s all about the whole plant-foods. Dr. Greger’s Optimal Nutrition Recommendations are a great place to check out, too, as some supplements are crucial.

  • HaltheVegan

    What is the brand name of the curcumin extract supplement used in these studies? It seems there are many brands claiming their’s is the most “bioavailable”, but I would like to know which one is really the best as proven by in vivo research.

    • Julie

      While I don’t know what brand was used in these studies, here’s some research results on various brands of curcumin.

      • HaltheVegan

        Thank you so much, Julie. This is the kind of information I’ve been searching for! I had never heard of this website before … it looks interesting and helpful. And the comments at the link you provided are helpful, too. I’ll put this website in my “favorites” list :-)

        • Julie

          You’re welcome, HaltheVegan! Glad I could help.

      • Fred

        Good link. Problem seems to be that the people who make supplements are always trying to outdo the others by claiming better adsorption…but not a lot of info on how much is too much? Too much of some supplements can be harmful….while too little won’t be effective? Not to mention the result of taking multiple supplements…what is their combined effect?

        • Julie

          Agreed. I am especially cautious about isolated supplements–what is the effect of a huge dose of one part of the whole? Curcumin vs turmeric for example.

  • And doesn’t the research suggest that heating turmeric and adding a little healthy oil (along with the black pepper) increases its impact? I love this recipe for Indalian onions. For extra quercetin, garnish with dill or fennel leaves.

  • Jerry LA

    As previously published in there’s a very high colon cancer correlation between a U.S. diet including meat and dairy vs. a plant based diet. Plant based diets are common in India.

    Now we take curcumin to help with joints etc. Black pepper has been found to significantly increase absorption of curcumin. We use a curcumin phytosome claimed to have enhanced absorbability. Also there’s a supplement bioperine which is a black pepper fruit extract. No sneezing.

    There’s a recent article noting carnivores have a high acidic stomach where much of the digestion takes place and a short digestive tract on the order of the animal length giving a total short digestion time. Humans have a lower acidic stomach and a digestive tract running 27 feet, four or more times our length. The longer digestion time is suitable for fermenting and digesting plant foods. Partly digested meat in this long digestive time can putrify resulting in cancer causing compounds in the large intestine.

  • Jerry

    Does anyone have any input on Youngevity Products such as “Beyond Tangy Tangerine”?

  • tamsyn

    I’ve started making Juma (an Indonesian herbal medicine/tonic) at home. It’s a mix of Turmeric (I use fresh) Ginger and Tamarind. I heat it up in a big pot of water with some black pepper, leave it to cool overnight and reheat a small cup with a tablespoon of virgin coconut oil. I use it primarily as an anti inflammatory but have read about the many benefits of Turmeric for years.

  • gavriel

    I was diagnosed with bladder cancer after being a pescatarian for 15 years (vegetarian eating fish and eggs). Never smoked and never exposed to industrial chemicals. I’ve had the operation in late November 2015 and waiting for my 1st check up. 10 days ago I came across your website and thank you so much for the information and I have ordered your book. None of this information has been given to me by my doctors or specialist here in Australia, so we have a similar problem to North America in regards to that. I have gone totally vegan and hoping my future is going to be clear.
    I was told by someone who survived cancer 23 years ago to take 3 supplements and wanted to know if there is anything you can enlighten with. They are Quercetin, Bromelain and a Jason Winters Tribalene tablet. The Tribalene consists of Red Clover flowers,Gotu Kala herb,Capsicum Frutescens, Chaparral and Herbalene Special Spice Blend. There were also 2 extracts-one a cypress tree extract (popular in Crete/Greece and Japan) and the other a mistletoe extract (popular in Europe).
    My main concern is the Chaparral as I have seen positive and very negative views about it. I’m very uncertain about the extracts as I can’t seem to get a great deal of 2nd hand information. (Quercetin may be my saviour as searching for it directed me to this website!).
    If you can please give me some direction I would greatly appreciate it.

  • Stephie Henson

    I have a friend with hereditary colon polyps. He is having the big ones removed (over 1 cm) but trying to keep the smaller ones under control with diet. If he takes Tumeric powder and plenty of raw onions for the quercetin, is this good enough or will he need to get a specific concentrated form of both?

    • NFModeratorKatie

      Hi Stephie – Dr. Greger’s current recommendation for turmeric is ¼ teaspoon of dried turmeric daily – this amount is equivalent to about a quarter inch of fresh turmeric root. Hope this helps!