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.
Popular Videos for Turmeric
All Videos for Turmeric
Recipe: Garlic Caesar Salad Dressing
My go-to salad dressing, from the How Not to Die Cookbook.
Best Supplement for Canker Sores
Vitamin C, turmeric, beta glucan fiber, and vitamin B12 are put to the test for recurring canker sores (aphthous ulcers).
How to Win the War on Cancer
How effective is chemotherapy for colon, lung, breast, and prostate cancer?
Shark Cartilage Supplements Put to the Test to Cure Cancer
Yes, shark cartilage supplements carry risks, but so do many cancer treatments. The question is does it work?
Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen Checklist
In my book How Not to Die I center my recommendations around a Daily Dozen checklist of all the things I try to fit into my daily routine.
Dr. Greger in the Kitchen: My New Favorite Beverage
Dr. Greger blends up a vegetable smoothie inspired by a recipe in his How Not to Die Cookbook.
Tomato Sauce vs. Prostate Cancer
What happened when cancer patients were given three-quarters of a cup of canned tomato sauce every day for three weeks?
Amla vs. Drugs for Cholesterol, Inflammation, & Blood-Thinning
Indian gooseberry extracts put to the test head-to-head against cholesterol-lowing statin drugs and the blood thinners aspirin and Plavix.
The Best Food for Fibroids
Women with uterine fibroids should consider adding green tea to their daily diet, as a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled interventional trial suggests it may help as well as surgery.
Benefits of Turmeric for Arsenic Exposure
See what happens when turmeric curcumin was put to the test to see if it could reverse DNA damage caused by arsenic exposure.
Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen Checklist
In my book How Not to Die, I center my recommendations around a Daily Dozen checklist of all the things I try to fit into my daily routine.
The Benefits of Açai vs. Blueberries for Artery Function
The effects on artery function of açai berries, cooked and raw blueberries, grapes, cocoa, green tea, and freshly squeezed orange juice.