Turmeric (Curcuma Longa) is a perennial “rhizomatous” plant that belongs to the family of ginger (zingiberaceae). It is native to Indonesia, China, India and other areas of the tropics.
What is Turmeric?
The rhizome of the plant is ground and boiled in order to get an orange powder. This is the spice that people commonly use in curry, as well as a color additive for products such as mustard, cheese and margarine.
Turmeric has many medicinal properties apart from its culinary uses. For centuries, it has been used to heal several disorders that affected the population. For a long time, its main use has been to treat any kind of gastrointestinal problem: from diarrhea to stones or inflammation. It is also a renowned antiseptic for wounds and burns.
Also known as the “spice of life“, it mainly grows in Asia. We could talk about its use in the kitchen… but what truly makes it so interesting are its medicinal properties.
Currently, turmeric has called the attention of scientists. They discovered the active ingredient of turmeric, called curcumin (a phytochemical responsible for its yellow-orange color). This element is the source of all its benefits for our health.
Curcumin or turmeric prevents cell inflammation and, therefore, it can prevent many chronic diseases.
Moreover, it provides strong cardiovascular protection and it can fight against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer or Parkinson as well as cancer. Curcumin also seems to be promising as a potential treatment for multiple sclerosis. It can also protect against cataracts and repair some of the damage caused by a high blood glucose, which is very common in diabetic people.
People also use turmeric to treat skin diseases like psoriasis or wounds. It even looks promising against the most common hereditary disease among the european population: cystic fibrosis.
What is the difference between Turmeric and Curcumin?
We must learn the difference between the turmeric root and its most beneficial component, curcumin.
Turmeric is one of the most used plants in India. Its root is harvested, cleaned, dried and turned into powder like a spice (turmeric gives curry its famous golden color). However, as we mentioned previously, it is also used in medicine. Traditionally, people have used turmeric against all kind of diseases, from smallpox to ankle sprains.
The key to all its benefits lies in one of its components from its root. We are talking about curcumin, a substance that has a bright yellow color. Turmeric, like oranges, is an important source of vitamin C.
But it is not enough to use turmeric powder as a medicine (you would not eat oranges only when you have a cold). Curcumin can be a natural remedy against cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and many other chronic diseases.
Nutritional value of Turmeric
Apart from containing curcumin, turmeric also has:
- Vitamins: C, E, K, B1, B2, B3, B6 and B9
- Potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper and zinc
Benefits and Properties of Turmeric
Turmeric is a powerful antioxidant that can help to protect the cells against the free radicals. These are unstable molecules that have a missing electron, so they feed from healthy cells in order to survive. Consequently, they trigger the so called oxidative stress.
Curcumin extract is one of the most common spices that we have at home, but it is more than that. In recent years, it has called the attention of professionals due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
When the body reacts to an injury, the free radicals produce several changes. These free radicals or “oxidants” protect the body against external invaders, like in the case of infections.
When they destroy these invading oxidant bacteria, they can also damage our own cells. These oxidants include superoxide, hydrogen peroxide, hydroxyl radicals and lipid peroxides.
Over the years, our body starts to degenerate because our cells are constantly being damaged by these free radicals. Chronic inflammation or heart diseases accelerate aging and the growth of harmful cells, which can result in cancer.
The body relies on its own defenses to protect itself against the free radicals. But at some point, aging and diseases exhaust the natural capacity of the body to keep the oxidant elements under control.
The research shows that curcumin can inhibit this process or even revert it by destroying or neutralizing the free radicals.
Scientific research carried out in 1995 proved that a diet that includes curcumin can reduce oxidative stress. Indian scientists discovered that curcumin inhibits the peroxidation of lipids, superoxide and hydroxyl radicals.
There are more recent studies on the matter though. One study conducted on cattle proved that endothelial cells of the aorta were “more resistant against oxidative cells” when they took curcumin for long periods of time.
In another study conducted on mice, the experts discovered that curcumin suppresses oxidative stress caused by trichloroethylene in the liver. The researchers concluded that the benefits of curcumin are due to its capacity to block the amount of peroxisome in cells, a substance that affects the use of oxygen in the cells.
For other diseases
Curcumin has been the subject of many studies that have proven its efficacy when it comes to fight against cancer cells. According to a study published in the journal “Cancer Letters” in 2008, curcumin is effective against several types of cancer.
The report, made by researchers from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, explains how curcumin interrupts the cell signalling pathways. It also explains how it can affect the ability of cancer cells to develop, multiply, survive and invade healthy tissues. Curcumin also stimulates the apoptosis or death of cancer cells.
In general, scientists do all they can to avoid exaggerating when it comes to describing their study subjects. Nevertheless, the amazing properties of curcumin allow them to state that “Curcumin seems to meet all the requirements of a polyvalent medicine developed in a laboratory”.
A preventive measure
Some researches have focused on its promising benefits against cancer. Last year, indian researchers stated that “curcumin is one of the most effective chemopreventive agents against cancer”. “Its biological effects go from anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties to inhibit angiogenesis, to its specific anti-cancer activity.”
Even though some medicines against cancer tend to weaken the immune system, this does not happen with curcumin. This is due to the fact that it works as an «immune system restorer». For this reason, one of the most studied aspects of curcumin is its benefits to prevent and treat cancer.
Some american researchers from “Cancer Letters” have recently observed that clinical studies conducted on animals with several cancer types have proven its effects to fight cancer. These include breast cancer, womb, colon, stomach, liver, leukemia, mouth, pancreas, ovary and prostate.
Other researchers have claimed that: “Cancer has 3 stages: beginning, development and progress. Curcumin has proven to have useful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-cancer properties in all these stages.”
Curcumin and its specific mechanisms against cancer
In 2007, scientists from the Alabama University in Birmingham published a report in the “Cancer Research” journal. It revealed that curcumin is one of the most useful and effective substances against cancer, among other medicines.
The researchers have subjected prostate cancer cells to different concentrations of curcumin. The result is the following:
- Curcumin reduces the production of the protein MDM2, which is associated with the formation of malign tumors.
- At the same time, curcumin stimulates the cells to produce new proteins to fight against programmed cell death (apoptosis). The defective relation of NF-kB, which triggers inflammation, could be involved in the production of MDM2. This is a new research challenge to treat cancer in human beings. In order to test the effects of curcumin on a living organism, the researchers inserted prostate cancer cells in mice, which later developed the tumors.
- For the purpose of this study, the mice took curcumin or a placebo five days a week during four weeks.
- The mice that took curcumin were divided into three different groups.
- One group only took curcumin, while the second group also took gemcitabine, a common medicine in chemotherapy.
- The last group took curcumin and a radiation treatment.
- The researchers’ conclusion was that: “curcumin inhibited the growth of cancer and improved the anticancer effects of gemcitabine and radiotherapy”.
- “The tumors reduced the increase of MDM2”.
The researchers have discovered that this reduction or “suppression” of MDM2 is the anticancer mechanism of curcumin.
Researches concluded that a low MDM2 regulation through curcumin “could be a decisive factor for its chemopreventive and chemotherapeutic effects”.
In relation to this, the epidemiological studies show that the number of prostate cancer cases among men in India is one of the lowest in the world.
- A recent study estimates that the annual rate of prostate cancer in India is between a 5.0% and 9.1%.
- On the contrary, prostate cancer in white men in the United States is a 110.4% higher annually when compared to men in India. And the rate among Afro-american men is even higher.
Maybe it is no a mere coincidence that a constant intake of turmeric, through curry, in indian men is one of the highest in the world. The indian population consumes an average of 2-2.5g/day of turmeric, which provides between 60-200mg of curcumin daily.
Curcumin and pancreas cancer
Curcumin has also proven that it has the ability to improve the effectiveness of gemcitabine in the treatment of pancreas cancer. Although gemcitabine is, for now, the best treatment for this aggressive type of cancer, it often loses efficacy. This is due to the fact that the cancer cells are resistant to this medicine.
Recently, the researchers from the Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, have proven that curcumin combats said resistance when applied on pancreas cancer cells of animals.
They stated that “generally, our results show that curcumin enhances the effect of gemcitabine when it fights against pancreas cancer by inhibiting the proliferation of metastasis”.
Curcumin for colon and breast cancer
The effect of curcumin against colorectal cancer has drawn a lot of the attention. In this case, its bioavailability is a minor problem, since the intestine can absorb and transport it through the digestive tract.
Its excellent tolerance and safety have been tested in five different clinical studies on colorectal cancer in stages I and II.
Several british researchers have recently proven that curcumin inhibits the growth of several types of colorectal cancer. Moreover, it also increases the efficacy of medicines used in chemotherapy, like oxaliplatin.
The potential role of curcumin against breast cancer
- Italian researchers recently informed that curcumin effectively works against a common type of breast cancer cells and a mutant cell line. The latter is resistant to conventional chemotherapy treatments.
- They stated that “by analysizing the effects on cell proliferation, cell cycle, and cell death, the anticancer activity of curcumin enhances the power of the medicines used against breast cancer”.
This efficacy also applies to a type of leukemia cells, which are resistant to several medicines.
The research by italian scientists proves that curcumin is capable of adapting its properties against cancer when necessary.
The product and its derivatives change its effects according to the different existing patterns and genes. It modified the effect of medicines to make them more effective. Like with breast cancer, the properties of curcumin can clearly build the foundations to develop cancer treatments
Anti-inflammatory and therapeutic properties
Curcumin also has anti-inflammatory properties by stimulating the adrenal glands to produce anti-inflammatory hormones. This is achieved by reducing the histamine levels.
Effective protection for the nervous system
The researches have discovered that curcumin has several benefits for a long list of neural problems.
“Curcumin has at least 10 neuroprotective effects and many of them can be observed in living subjects.” That is what a group of American scientists claimed in “Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology”. To this, they added:
“A curcumin supplement is an ideal complement to treat and prevent serious neurodegenerative diseases related to aging, such as Alzheimer, Parkinson and strokes.”
These scientists are not the only ones supporting the potential of curcumin to fight against such terrible diseases like Alzheimer. There are many researchers who have deepened in the protective effects of curcumin on the brain.
- For example, at the beginning of 2007, a group of chinese scientists informed that curcumin protects the brain of laboratory animals against a type of damage that usually results in an apoplexy.
- It is known that the damage caused by ischemia of the brain tissue is the result of deficiencies in the blood-brain barrier, which are related to cerebrovascular damage.
- A single curcumin injection significantly reduces the damage from ischemia, as well as the neural damage and death death of animals with an experimentally induced stroke.
Moreover, the scientists informed that curcumin also protects the brain tissue against oxidative stress by increasing the production of the oxygenase-1 (HO-1) enzyme. “In the central nervous system”, the researchers wrote, “HO-1 provides a fundamental protection for the neurons, by protecting them against oxidative stress.”
Traumatic brain damage can also cause oxidative stress that often affects perception and the “synaptic plasticity”. It plays a vital role in a healthy learning and memory.
Through all the experimentation on animals, the American researchers proved that: “Using a curcumin supplement reduces the oxidative damage considerably and fights against cognitive deterioration caused by traumatic brain damage.”
Curcumin prevents dementia and cognitive deterioration
Even if there is no damage, cognitive deterioration is a very common consequence of the aging process. Memory loss usually starts around the age of 50, and a 50% of people over the age of 80 suffer some kind of dementia.
A group of Asian researchers carried out an epidemiological study on the consumption of curry related to the cognitive function in the elderly. Their purpose was to see if curcumin could protect the brain against cognitive deterioration.
- They found out that those who ate curry “occasionally”, “often” or “very often” got significantly better results during their mental assessment when compared to other people who “never” or “hardly ever” ate curry.
The researchers described the results as “a promising evidence for the cognitive performance due to curry in old people who did not suffer dementia”.
Curcumin protects against Alzheimer’s disease
Curcumin can protect us against Alzheimer, the most common cause of dementia.
Alzheimer is characterised by an irregular accumulation of beta-amyloid protein. Usually, the immune cells, also known as macrophages, identify these damaged proteins and destroy them. However, due to unknown reasons, macrophages cannot carry out this important task in the case of Alzheimer’s disease.
Through experimental studies focusing on this disease on animals, the scientists have proven that curcumin improves the elimination of the beta-amyloid protein. Consequently, this reduces the myofibrils that are also related to Alzheimer.
The fact that curcumin is capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier and binding directly to plaques could be very important for its anti-amyloid effect.
Researchers in LA tested the anti-amyloid effects on patients who suffered Alzheimer. The destruction of the beta-amyloid proteins by macrophages increased significantly in those patients who consumed curcumin. The researchers reached the conclusion that this change in the immune system “could be due to the suppression of beta-amyloids accumulated on the patients’ brains.”
This information seems to point to the fact that curcumin can protect the brain against Alzheimer and help with its treatment.
Turmeric as a nootropic substance
It has been proven that it has nootropic properties (which means that it can support the brain function). This is due to the fact that it protects the neurons and improves the synapsis.
Another important benefit of curcumin is its ability to dilute the blood and reduce the oxidation of plaque in the arterial walls.
LDL oxidation, the “bad” cholesterol, plays an important role in the development of atherosclerosis. The researchers relied on this knowledge to review the effects of curcumin regarding the LDL oxidation and lipid levels in the plasma.
In a study on nutrition carried out by spanish doctors, 18 guinea pigs followed a high cholesterol diet and divided into 3 groups. The first group took 1.6 mg/kg of curcumin, the second group 3.2mg, and the third group was the control group.
Seven weeks later, the researchers found out that the group who was given the highest dose of curcumin reduced its sensitivity to LDL oxidation and lipidic peroxidation. It also had the lowest cholesterol level.
It can improve the digestion
Apart from being used as a spice in the kitchen, turmeric can improve the digestion and lower the gases and swelling. Moreover, turmeric can also stimulate the production of bile and our ability to digest fats.
Turmeric and its relevance in ocular diseases
Turmeric is much more than a spice for cooking.
Curcumin, the substance that makes it yellow, is used to treat certain diseases and ocular disorders.
One of them is chronic anterior uveitis, an inflammatory disease that affects the vascular layer of the eye, particularly the area surrounding the iris.
In a little study conducted on 32 patients that suffered from this disease, they took curcumin orally and split in two groups.
- The first group only consumed curcumin, while the second group took a combination and a tuber treatment.
- Surprisingly, those who exclusively took curcumin experienced an improvement of a 86% when compared to those who took the combined treatment.
The researchers concluded that curcumin is as effective as a corticosteroid treatment. This is the usual treatment for chronic anterior uveitis. They also added that “the lack of side effects in curcumin is its greater advantage when compared to corticosteroids”.
A similar research conducted on rats and guinea pigs showed how curcumin provides very good results for this disease even in very low amounts. The same study found that this type of cataracts are related to the apoptosis (planned cell death) of the eye epithelial cells and curcumin reduces said effects.
In one of the first studies on curcumin as a treatment for cataracts, the researchers fed two groups of rats for 14 days with corn oil or a blend of corn oil and curcumin.
From then on, the presence of lipid peroxidation was analyzed. The researchers found out that “those rats treated with curcumin had more resistance against cataracts than the control group who was not given curcumin”.
Curcumin shortens the wound healing process
Wound healing can be faster thanks to curcumin.
A study compared two groups of treated and non treated rats and guinea pigs. It was proven that curcumin shortens the wound healing process.
After carrying out biopsies, they found a new development of epidermic cells. Moreover, the migration of other cells increased, as well as myofibroblasts, fibroblasts and macrophages from the wound and a new and developed growth of the blood vessels.
After this study, the researchers obtained similar results in diabetic rodents with hearing impairment that were treated with curcumin.
The researchers observed an increase in the formation of blood vessels. Moreover, there was an improvement of the cells from the wound as well as more collagen, fiber, bone and cartilage in the connective tissue.
How to take turmeric?
Turmeric supplements tend to come in doses around 400mg that have to be taken twice or three times a day with the meals. If this supplement provides 1,000mg of turmeric extract, you will just need to take it once a day.
High quality supplements have a standardized 95%. This means that a 95% of the turmeric supplement is actually curcumin.
Contraindications of Turmeric
It is important to consult your doctor before starting to use a turmeric supplement. This is especially important if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you are taking prescribed medicines. This is important because they may interact with turmeric. Do not use it if you suffer from kidney stones or bile duct obstruction. Turmeric can delay the blood coagulation.
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