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In recent years, more than five thousand articles have been published in the medical literature about curcumin, the pigment in the Indian spice turmeric that gives curry powder its characteristic golden color. Many of these papers suggest curcumin can benefit a multitude of conditions with a dizzying array of mechanisms. Curcumin was first isolated more than a century ago, yet out of the thousands of experiments, only a few in the twentieth century were clinical studies involving actual human participants. Since the turn of the century, however, more than 50 clinical trials have tested curcumin against a variety of diseases, and dozens more studies are on the way.

Since 1987, the National Cancer Institute has tested more than a thousand different compounds for chemopreventive, or cancer-preventing, activity. Only a few dozen have made it to clinical trials, and curcumin, turmeric’s bright-yellow pigment, is among the most promising. Chemopreventive agents can be classified into different subgroups based on which stage of cancer development they help to fight: Carcinogen blockers and antioxidants help prevent the initial triggering DNA mutation, and antiproliferatives work by keeping tumors from growing and spreading. Curcumin is special in that it appears to belong to all three groups, meaning it may potentially help prevent and/or arrest cancer cell growth.

The anticancer effects of curcumin extend beyond its ability to potentially prevent DNA mutations. It also appears to help regulate programmed cell death. Our cells are preprogrammed to die naturally to make way for fresh cells through a process known as apoptosis (from the Greek ptosis, falling, and apo, away from). In a sense, our body is rebuilding itself every few months with the building materials we provide it through our diet. Some cells, however, overstay their welcome—namely, cancer cells. By somehow disabling their own suicide mechanism, they don’t die when they’re supposed to. Because they continue to thrive and divide, cancer cells can eventually form tumors and potentially spread throughout the body.

So how does curcumin affect this process? It appears to have the ability to reprogram the self-destructing mechanism back into cancer cells. All cells contain so-called death receptors that trigger the self-destruction sequence, but cancer cells can disable their own death receptors. Curcumin, however, appears able to reactivate them. Curcumin can also kill cancer cells directly by activating “execution enzymes” called caspases inside cancer cells that destroy them from within by chopping up their proteins. Unlike most chemotherapy drugs, against which cancer cells can develop resistance over time, curcumin affects several mechanisms of cell death simultaneously, making it potentially harder for cancer cells to avoid destruction. For reasons not fully understood, curcumin seems to leave noncancerous cells alone.

Curcumin may play a role in preventing or treating lung disease, brain disease, and a variety of cancers, including multiple myeloma and cancers of the breast, brain, blood, colon, kidney, liver, pancreas, and skin, and may also help speed recovery after surgery and effectively treat rheumatoid arthritis better than the leading drug of choice. It also may be effective in treating osteoarthritis and other inflammatory conditions, such as lupus and inflammatory bowel disease. In a recent trial for ulcerative colitis, a multicenter, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study found that more than 50 percent of patients achieved remission within just one month on curcumin compared to none of the patients who received the placebo.

With few downsides at culinary doses and myriad potential health benefits, I’d suggest trying to find ways to incorporate turmeric into your daily diet.

Image Credit: Thanthima Limsakul © 123RF.com. This image has been modified.

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