Which Spices Protect Against DNA Damage?

Image Credit: Todd Huffman / Flickr. This image has been modified.

The Top Three DNA Protecting Spices

In my video Which Spices Fight Inflammation? I profile a landmark study that compared the ability of different spices to suppress inflammation. The study also compared the spices’ ability to protect DNA. Cloves, ginger, rosemary, and turmeric were able to significantly stifle the inflammatory response, but can they also protect DNA?

If a tissue sample is taken from a random person, about 7% of their cells may show evidence of DNA damage, actual breaks in the strands of their DNA. If we then blast those cells with free radicals, we can bring that number up to 10%. But if the person has been eating ginger for a week, DNA damage drops to just 8%. In the video, Spicing Up DNA Protection, you can see a comparison of DNA damage in cells from people eating different spices. Those who hadn’t been eating any herbs or spices were vulnerable to DNA damage from oxidative stress. But just including ginger in our diet may cut that damage by 25%—the same with rosemary.

Turmeric is even more powerful—DNA damage was cut in half. And this was not just mixing turmeric with cells in some petri dish: This is comparing what happens when you expose the cells of spice eaters versus the cells of non-spice eaters to free radicals and count the DNA fracture rates.

And not only did the turmeric work significantly better, but it did so at a significantly smaller dose. One and a third teaspoons a day of ginger or rosemary was compared to practically just a pinch of turmeric (about an eighth of a teaspoon a day)—that’s how powerful the stuff is. I encourage everyone to cook with this wonderful spice. It tastes great and may protect every cell in our body, with or without the added stress. Counting the DNA breaks in people’s cells before and after a week of spices without the free radical blast revealed no significant intrinsic protection in the ginger or rosemary groups. However, the turmeric still appeared to reduce DNA damage by half.

This may be because curcumin is not just an antioxidant—it also boosts the activity of the body’s own antioxidant enzymes. Catalase is one of the most active enzymes in the body: each one can detoxify millions of free radicals per second. If we consume the equivalent of about three quarters of a teaspoon of turmeric a day, the activity of this enzyme in our bloodstream gets boosted by 75%!

I suggest cooking with it rather than, for example, just throwing it in a smoothie. Why? Because this effect was found specifically for heat-treated turmeric. In practice, many herbs and spices are only consumed after cooking, so the researchers tested turmeric and oregano in both raw and cooked forms. In terms of DNA damage, the results from raw turmeric did not reach statistical significance. However, the opposite was found for its anti-inflammatory effects. So we might want to eat it both ways.

“Practical recommendations for obtaining curcumin in the diet might be to add turmeric to sweet dishes containing cinnamon and ginger.” I add it to my pumpkin pie smoothies (a can of pumpkin, frozen cranberries, pitted dates, pumpkin pie spice and some nondairy milk). We can also cook with curry powder or turmeric itself. The researchers suggest something called “turmeric milk,” which is a traditional Indian elixir made with milk, turmeric powder, and sugar. I’d suggest substituting a healthier sweetener and a healthier milk. Soy milk, for example, might have a double benefit. If you’re taking turmeric to combat inflammation, osteoarthritis sufferers randomized to soy protein ended up with significantly improved joint range of motion compared to dairy protein.

For some other extraordinary benefits of spices, see:

There are a few herb and spice caveats. See, for example:

Too much turmeric may also not be a good idea for those at risk for kidney stones (See Oxalates in Cinnamon).

Feel free to check out my Healthy Pumpkin Pie recipe for another way to spice up your diet.

-Michael Greger, M.D

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Discuss

Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.


26 responses to “The Top Three DNA Protecting Spices

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  1. Thank you Dr. Gregor. I used to absolutely hate powdered turmeric but found that the fresh form delicious. I find it next to the ginger root in many stores. Fresh turmeric is delicious cooked with anything Indian and even better used in Ethiopian lemony yellow split peas called Kik Alicha. After discovering Kik Alicha, I also discovered the dry stuff isn’t too bad in it. Sambar is also OK made with the powdered kind. Capsules are another good way to get it down the gullet. I guess I make no sense, but want to say thank you for helping me in so many ways…even learning to like dried turmeric.




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    1. You might like the turmeric powder from Terrasoul. It’s not only a freaking amazing price, but it’s certified raw (as well as organic) and there is a HUGE difference between it and the dried stuff you get in stores. The color is insanely vibrant and you can even see pieces of the fresh root, but overall it’s very nicely powdered.




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  2. Dr. Greger, did you also want to mention that the use of black pepper (piperine) when taken at the same time as the turmeric can boost blood levels of curcumin from the turmeric by up to 2,000%?




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  3. Swing Dancer, I also wanted ask about the pepper? Is it essential to add it, or not? Maybe it just boosts the effects of something that is already pretty effective? What about the pepper Dr. Greger?




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  4. Which method of heat treatment is most beneficial to use on turmeric? There are many ways one could heat it. Either in a water based medium or dry, and either using convection heat or microwave. I don’t want to ruin the benefits I need.
    Also, I assume regular standard store-bought turmeric you find in the tins in the spice sectiopn is suitable for this purpose?




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    1. Looks like he is having a mild panic attack or breathlessness crisis there ^^.
      Anyway I’m pretty sure you should look at NO OIL as don’t eat oil for the sake of oil:
      do not drown your salads in olive oil, do no eat fries or potato chips laden with fat, avoid emulsified oils (sauses) or hardened oils (spreadables).

      I think it is very unlikely he would push the discontinuation of all oil as either a heat conductor or transport medium of nutrients in carefully chosen tiny doses. Both require very small amounts of oil and frankly cooking would become exceedingly difficult and bland without some of it sometimes.




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      1. I agree. I can’t prepare a satisfying meal without some oil. In practice, “no oil” means “no more oil than is necessary”. Perhaps, Dr. Greger will address this issue in detail.




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        1. For what it’s worth, I dropped all oil use a few months ago and love my food more than ever before. I never would have imagined how easy it is to clean grease-free dishes.




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  5. Pepper, oil, boiling……Too much guess work for me. I take a standardized preparation, CurQfen. Curcumin is combined with fiber derived from Fenugreek to form a highly bioavailable, sustained release product that is both water and fat soluble and crosses the blood-brain barrier. I understand Dr. Greger’s distrust of supplements and “fancy pills” but the fact remains that of the 7000-plus curcumin studies cited in Pub Med, the overwhelming majority involve some form of enhanced delivery system.




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  6. For example, the very study Dr. Greger cites in the above paragraph with the words “boosts” highlighted in green used a lipidated curcumin supplement called Longvida.




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  7. Hi Dr Gregor,
    Thanks for the info..
    Does that mean that raw turmeric had no reading for protection against DNA damage? Or was it just that raw is better as an anti inflammatory?
    I eat a heaped teaspoon with black pepper in water daily – Im hoping this will also give me DNA protection.. ?
    Thanks!!
    Kate




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    1. It doesn’t seem to offer the same remarkable DNA protection, however inflammation and free radicals can cause DNA damage, so it only makes sense that due to the incredible anti-inflammatory benefits and the array of antioxidants found in fresh turmeric would only further help your body defend against DNA damage to SOME degree. Still, if you want to know you’re getting DNA protection, I would consume it cooked as well as raw.




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  8. ahhh this brings backs memories of tumeric milk my mom would make me consume the minute she saw us getting sick…n i hated it but had to drink it. Tumeric leaves a nasty stubborn stain on any counter so could never pour it down the drain or anywhere w/o my mom finding out ha!!




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  9. Hey guys, I was inspired by this blog post to find and/or create a turmeric smoothie, since Dr. Greger says we should be eating turmeric cooked and raw. So this is what I came up with!
    1/2 Hass avocado
    1/2 c frozen mango
    1/2 t turmeric
    1/2 t ginger
    1/2 cinnamon
    a few cracks of black pepper (yes, pepper in a smoothie!) : )
    soymilk, almondmilk, or water (I used water)
    optional: erythritol or whatever sweetener you prefer (I didn’t add a sweetener)
    I actually LOVED this smoothie, even though I was afraid it would be gross. The ginger, cinnamon and pepper give it almost a chai kick, and the turmeric seemed to be working some magic in there too. And to me there’s nothing better than avocado and mango.
    So there you have it! A delicious smoothie that lets you get the benefits of raw turmeric curcumin and black pepper piperine.




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  10. It blocks cytokines involved in ovarian cancer tumor/cell milieu that cause inflammatory based metastasis and cell growth too (EMT theory.). I am hoping it can also get into the mitochondria to quench ROS, vit E did not,, believed to cause multiple, random DNA breaks, recombination, amplifications and deletions of tumor suppressors. As a BRCA1+, preventing DNA assaults, is one of my approaches to avoiud overloading the cell, and remaining good allele.
    Thank you for your work. It is so validating and helpful to the cancer community.




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  11. Hey There – I’m curious – are these studies done on fresh turmeric, or turmeric powder? I use the fresh a lot, but almost never the powder. I’d love some insight – thank you!




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  12. How long do you have to cook turmeric to get the heat treated benefits of DNA protection? I’ve been pouring rapidly boiling water over mine and then sealing the container and letting it sit until it comes to room temperature. Is this enough to get the benefits?




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