Turmeric Curcumin Reprogramming Cancer Cell Death

Image Credit: Steven Jackson / Flickr. This image has been modified.

How Curry Can Kill Cancer Cells

It is estimated that the human body consists of ten or so trillion cells. Almost all of these cells get turned over within approximately 100 days. That means we’re like a new person every three months. We reinvent ourselves physically. And since we’re physically made of air, water, and food—those are essentially the only inputs—we are what we eat, literally and physically. In a sense our body has to rebuild itself every three months with the building materials we deliver to it through our stomach. Our mouths are like the access road to the continual construction site of our body. Trucks roll in three times a day. What do we want them to deliver? Some shoddy cheap stuff we scrounged around for or bought at the discount outlets that’s just going to fall apart? Or do we want to build our foundation solid? We are each walking inside the greatest known architectural structures in the universe. Let’s not ruin such grand blueprints by consuming junk.

We only own the biological real estate we’re born with, so if we need to rebuild every three months, we also need a wrecking crew. If we’re replacing ten trillion cells every hundred days, that means we have to kill off about 100 billion cells every day. Out with the old, in with the new. We do that primarily through “apoptosis,” pre-programmed cell death (from the Greek ptosis, meaning “falling”, and apo, “away from”). For example, we all used to have webbed fingers and toes. Literally. Each one of us did in the womb until about four months, when apoptosis kicked in, and the cells in the webbing kill themselves off to separate our fingers.

However, some cells overstay their welcome: cancer cells. They don’t die when they’re supposed to by somehow turning off their suicide genes. What can we do about that? Well, one of the ways the yellow pigment in curry powder kills cancer cells is by reprogramming the self-destruct mechanism back into cancer cells. Let me just run through one of these pathways.

FAS is a so-called death receptor that activates the FAS associated death domain, death receptor five, and death receptor four. The FADD associated death domain then activates caspase-8, which “ignites the death machine,” and kills the cell. (To see the diagram of the pathway, go to my video Turmeric Curcumin Reprogramming Cancer Cell Death). Where does curry powder fit into all this? In cancer cells, curcumin, the pigment in the spice turmeric that makes curry powder yellow, upregulates and activates death receptors (as shown in human kidney cancer cells, skin cancer cells, and nose and throat cancer cells).

Curcumin can also activate the death machine directly (as shown in lung cancer and colon cancer). Caspases are so-called “executioner enzymes,” that when activated, destroy the cancer cell from within by chopping up proteins left and right—kind of like death by a thousand cuts.

And that’s just one pathway. Curcumin can also affect apoptosis in a myriad other ways, affecting a multitude of different types of cancer cells. It also tends to leave normal cells alone for reasons that are not fully understood. Overall, researchers “showed that curcumin can kill a wide variety of tumor cell types through diverse mechanisms. And because curcumin can affect numerous mechanisms of cell death at the same time, it’s possible that cancer cells may not easily develop resistance to curcumin-induced cell death like they do to most chemotherapy.”

For more on turmeric and cancer, check out Back to Our Roots: Curry and Cancer and Carcinogen Blocking Effects of Turmeric.

Other herbs and spices such as garlic and amla have similar selective effects against cancer cell (See #1 Anticancer Vegetable and Some Ayurvedic Medicine Worse than Lead Paint Exposure).

I talk more about this concept of “apoptosis,” programmed cell death in:

What else can turmeric do? Here’s the videos I have so far (with more on the way!):

-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.


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.

42 responses to “How Curry Can Kill Cancer Cells

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  1. This is fascinating stuff. Thanks for all your videos and articles, which keep me motivated to stay away from SAD. Bring on the curry, sambar, shiro, and other yummy turmeric laden peasant foods.

  2. I’ve been adding a small 1.5 inch piece of raw turmeric root to my juice that I make each day. Does juicing it raw provide the same benefits as eating it from spice/curry form?

    1. I would think so, but from what I can tell these studies are conducted on dried powders. Sometimes dried herbs and spices can be more concentrated, but that doesn’t mean the root (the direct source) would be a bad choice and I would expect the benefits from juicing turmeric root.

      1. Thanks – hopefully the benefit is there. If you find any more details or have an idea on if I should use more please let me know.

        1. The raw turmeric helps with inflammation, but heat treated turmeric has DNA strand protecting benefits that the raw does not. Gregor had a video on that. Try to cook with it too and get the best of both worlds.

          1. Yes, I agree with Ben. I personally add fresh turmeric to my green smoothies and add turmeric powder to my food (esp when cooking millet and rice etc).

      1. Hi Aqiyl. I also include two tablespoons of fine ground flaxseed to my juice, maybe the fat from there would help. Good idea, though to use coconut milk as part of a base for the juice or maybe do that in a smoothie instead.

  3. Fascinating. No doubt that a mostly plant based diet is the best. Are there any known serious downsides to curcumin? We have no problem recommending B12, vitamin D and selenium as a supplement. Would anybody here recommend curcumin as a supplement? Michael? Joseph? Dr Dynamic? Others?

    1. Hmm not sure. As you probably know, Dr. Greger mentions who should not consume turmeric. I think if someone refuses to use the spice in cooking than perhaps taking a supplement (or a capsule full of turmeric) would be a good option. I just shoot a few tsps of turmeric powder into my mouth when I remember and call it a “supplement” but I don’t use the curcumin supplements and I have not recommend them.

    2. Actually, our very own vegan Dr. Mcdougall has flat out sad that vitamin D supplements are harmful and should be avoided. He put it in writing.

  4. I’m wondering if green tea or other plant polyphenols have quite the same capacity, since my immune system is unfortunately overreactive to turmeric. Also fasting seems to be very beneficial for a wide array of chronic health issues including cancer. Lately I’ve been playing with fasting/green tea combo, it feels good, natural and easy..

    1. Green tea has so many benefits I could write a book here! Check out Dr. Greger’s resources. Polyphenols are very important. The first video discusses how juicing our fruit may remove these important polyphenols. So yes if you cannot do turmeric there are so many other plant-foods that exhibit similar roles.

  5. While it may be true that cumin, turmeric kill cancer cells, it’s because they are toxic chemicals. Unfortunately, anything that will kill cancer cells will also kill healthy cells. BTW, these substances do not act on living cells. It’s the other way around as these substances are not under any type of intelligent control unlike the living body. They are just dumb chemicals.

    1. Do you avoid all spices and most herbs? I partly agree with your logic. Spices are not meant to be ingested by humans. But what do you think of garlic and chives and onions? Are these act like toxic chemicals also? You avoid these?

      1. I don’t understand why spices aren’t meant to be ingested by humans? They are plants with biological properties, like any other, and have been shown to have so many benefits over time. I realize everything is made up of chemicals, but toxins implies something that would poison and harm…we’ve been using them for eons for their benefits. What am I missing?

        1. This is just my opinion, but the spices have inherent properties that kill things. They are a flavoring. Sure, they have positive attributes, when someone is sick. Not everyday or weekly substances to put in our bodies, in my opinion.

        2. Don’t be fooled by the ‘natural’ argument. Arsenic is natural but it will kill you. The truth of the matter is that technically you don’t want anything in or on your body that has a pharmacological result only nutritional. For that reason, most of your so called herbs are toxic and should be avoided. They are just unrefined drugs. People not knowing any better, have died from herbs and supplements so be careful! Just because some company puts something in a jar or tube and tells you how great it is, you should be ever vigilant. The reason drugs seemed to “work” IS BECAUSE THEY ARE TOXIC! If you body is having an acute or chronic disease process and you take ‘x’ and the dis ease goes away, what’s really happened is your subconscious brain has to stop the dis ease repair / detox process and now attempt to neutralize whatever poison you’ve just ingested or rubbed into your skin as that becomes a higher priority because you’ve just poisoned yourself and that’s a threat to survival. So what should you do when you don’t feel good? Go to bed! Allow the dis ease to run it’s course and you’ll be fine. Then you need to figure out what it is you’ve done that’s making the dis ease necessary in the first place and eliminate whatever that may be.

          1. Sorry but your “logic” escapes me. Food is medicine, as per Hippocrates, all plants or anything we ingest have pharmacological effects…Nutrition has pharmacological effects! Certainly not everything is beneficial, but the dose makes the poison, assigning a label like “toxic” to plants traditionally used to heal is arbitrary and meaningless in your example. Should we avoid plants with oxalates, phytic acid, or any number of “toxins” when we know they also have benefits? Do you do a chemical assay of everything you ingest and know just how it affects your biology? Your theory of disease is pretty um, interesting too. So if you breathe pollution and get lung cancer, you can just blame yourself and go to bed? Okay.

            1. With all due respect – Ideally you only want to ingest substances that have nutritional results, i.e. convertible to living matter. Fruit is at the top of that list. And no dose does not make the poison. That’s a ridiculous medical concept. A substance is either a food OR a poison, poison defined as not convertible to living cells, therefore whatever it is is an irritant. As for dose, a poison is a poison regardless of dose – if it’s a small dose, it’s a small amount of poison; if it’s a large amount, it’s a large amount of poison. Plants don’t heal anything, only the living organism can do that, but because what you’re referring to is symptom suppression, yes certain plants with pharmacological effects do indeed suppress symptoms but since acute and chronic symptoms are RIGHT ACTION completely under the control and direction of the subconscious brain, suppressing symptoms would be like if you had to defecate but instead of voiding you stuck a cork up your rectum to stop the “symptom”. And yes we should avoid plants with phytic and oxalic acids or, at the least should minimize them. Yes spinach, kale and chard have lots of nutrients but they also have oxalic acid so it should not be dietary staple. You can get all the same mineral benefits from romaine lettuce without the oxalic acid. I have had patients with lung difficulties that, as a part of their health remediation process, MOVED from where they were living where air pollution was high to places with clean air because it was important enough to them to do that. They understood that health is only produced by healthful living.

      2. I don’t make the rules, Mother Nature does. One of the rules is that whatever substance you’re referring to, if you cannot make a mono meal off of it, it’s not really a food for us. If you attempted to eat nothing but curry or cumin, you would be in for a rude awakening. Unfortunately garlic, contrary to popular belief, is definitely toxic and some of its chemical components are used in chemical warheads. Onions, of course, is what tear gas is made from so it’s an irritant too. Surely you’ve chopped into an onion and had some of the volatile gases get into the air and into your eyes. I’m not saying I don’t like their flavor, I do, but what we’re discussing here is if they are toxic or not. Having said all the above, the good news is that if you’re going to cheat with garlic and onions, if you sauteed them, much of their volatile gases are cooked off so they are not nearly as toxic to you as when eaten raw. Just don’t stick your head over the pan when sauteing as you will choke. When used in warfare, these chemicals when breathed in cause blistering of the lungs and death by suffocation within probably less than a minute. Pretty gruesome huh.

        I do avoid most spices. I use a little oregano and garlic salt in stir frys and I use to use red pepper but like salt, it’s majorly toxic and was actually causing dis ease symptoms. Since eliminating pepper, I no longer have the symptoms so it’s worth it! I eliminated salt years ago as well as the other ‘whites’ – white flour, refined sugar, dairy, refined rice.

        Most lack of eases people experience are due to what they put in their bodies, other lifestyle factors and not caused by viruses, bacteria and other things too small to see. As long as one lives within our biological limitations and dictates, experiencing dis eases becomes rare. I began my journey into conscious living 27 years ago and can honestly say that I have not taken even as much as an aspirin since. So with the exception of a couple of recoverable accidents and routine dental cleanings, I have not been a very good medical customer. All my adult life, I have never had health insurance. The few accidents I’ve had, I paid for services out of my pocket. Perhaps I’ve been lucky but I do try to be careful when doing things that could be dangerous.

        1. Dr Jack, with very little respect, you are a goof. Turmeric and cumin, onions and garlic have been consumed multiple times daily across the vast reaches of India, Asia and Africa with only beneficial effects. Eat what you will but keep your harmful nonsense to yourself.

  6. Another good curcumin read. I still drink mine in a cup of green tea with a dash of black pepper. That way I don’t have to add it to a food dish every day.

    Just noticed Frontine is doing a familiar story tonight. “The spread of pathogens in chicken” and why the food safety hasn’t stopped it.

    They must be getting ideas from watching Dr G’s videos…:)

  7. So what is the right way to eat turmeric powder? Do we add it to the oil or do we add it to the preparation without frying in oil?
    I use turmeric powder everyday and use it both ways. I use it in my dals where I add it to the water directly, while in vegetable preparations I sometimes add it to the oil.
    So what is the right method.

    1. Wyman – Please if you are putting in a link – link to the article/video you are referencing not to the home page with no way to know where what you are talking about is. Thanks.

  8. I eat turmeric almost every day. It’s one of my treatment. I think it’s working very well for me. No any side effects, I feel better and better everyday. I’m so glad that I didn’t choose chemo and radiation to treat my cancer. Thank you so much Dr. Greger. People live with knowledge, I believe that the knowledge Dr. Gregor teach us, not only for prevent the diseases,it’s also treating the diseases. Only key is don’t give up, just keep up, god bless everyone!

    1. Jojo, I am using turmeric to treat breast cancer. I, too, am not using conventional medicine. Did you elect to have surgery!

  9. I’d like to know if Turmeric Powder is just fine to consume for the benefits or do we need to consume Curcumin Extract Powder Standardized to contain 95% Curcuminoids,no body is talking about this and I think it’s pretty important when it comes to consuming Turmeric.Any body have any thoughts on this?

    1. Dennis, I have not found any research papers on turmeric vs. curcumin extract. Those that sell curcumn extract make a convincing sales pitch, that’s for sure. However my own personal experiences with turmeric over this past year has proved to me that my body responds well to it. I receive a definite benefit from daily consumption of turmeric and have documented and tested the results to my satisfaction.

  10. Yup, been consuming 3 teaspoons fresh turmeric powder with black pepper, almost daily, for about a year. I miss some days but pretty consistent. I have stopped for a week at a time to test results. It’s all subjective, but I find that I am very flexible, no sore muscles, no joint aches, when I’m on it. I run and lift weights, and at 62 if I don’t take turmeric daily, with my strenuous workouts, I get sore and achy. With turmeric i feel great, like back in my 30’s. I’m also taking it for prostate cancer prevention along with many other natural clean foods; so far so good – no tumors. All the men in my family have died from it, so I’m pretty extreme with my eating; natural foods are medicine for me. Thank you Dr. Greger for all your work. I’ve pulled many, many tips from your web site and worked them into my cancer beat down food protocol. Blessings to you and family.

  11. Dr. Greger, this article is right on time for me. I am gathering information on cell replacement. Different sources give different times for cell regeneration for different cells. Red bloods are replaced around every three months, but are bone cells completely replaced in 3 months? Also, why do scars remain when skin cells are replaced. Thank you in advance.

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