Turmeric is currently the spice of choice in the wellness world and it has long been used as a medicinal plant in Asia, particularly India. 2017 was the year of turmeric - it cropped up everywhere in healthy food cafés and all over Instagram. Turmeric lattes become the drink du jour of wellness Instagrammers everywhere.
Turmeric has been used for over 4000 years in cooking, particularly in making Asian curries. It has been used for many centuries in Ayurvedic, herbal and traditional Chinese medicine as an antiseptic, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-killer). It is often used as a colouring agent, herbal supplement and cosmetic ingredient and as a skin treatment.
So what is Turmeric and what are its health benefits? Turmeric is actually a type of ginger. The turmeric root or rhizome as shown above is processed to form turmeric, which contains between 2% to 5% curcumin, the active ingredient which provides the medicinal and health benefits.
Curcumin is one of 3 different curcuminoids in turmeric but is the one with the most active biological properties. It is a potent polyphenol, which has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Curcumin has poor oral bioavailability which means that a small percentage of what you consume is absorbed. It’s actually fat soluble so the turmeric latte may make more sense than you think; traditionally in India, turmeric is served in hot milk if you are ill. Sometimes, black pepper and other spices are added to this hot milk drink. Research has shown that black pepper extract, piperine, actually increases the bioavailability of curcumin to be absorbed into the blood stream.
Many of curcumin’s medicinal properties work by reducing oxidation and inflammation by neutralising free radicals, prevention oxidative and DNA damage. Whilst there are many studies on animals and in test tubes, I have focused on human studies to show why you might want to supplement with curcumin.
As an antioxidant – Curcumin has been shown to prevent oxidative damage that causes aging and other health issues. Several randomised controlled studies (gold standard for research) demonstrated that antioxidant profiles and release of nitric oxide is notably increased when taking a curcumin supplement. (DiSilvestro 2012, Kalpravidh 2010, Baum 2008, Biswas 2010)
Inflammation – Curcumin has long been thought to have anti-inflammatory properties and in depth studies have shown that it decreases diseases or conditions where inflammation is implicated. It doesn’t discriminate where it reduces inflammation, mostly by reduction in cytokines. This means it is important in a range of different therapeutic uses including against ulcerative colitis, osteoarthritis and kidney conditions. (Chainani-Wu 2012, Hanai 2006, Khajehdehi 2012)
Osteoarthritis – Curcumin supplementation has a functional improvement in patients being able to walk twice as much after taking this supplement for 8 months and almost halving osteoarthritis symptoms. Having more mobile elderly people not only makes a difference to their health, it helps with weight management and quality of life. (Belcaro 2010)
Cardiovascular disease– The inflammatory effects of curcumin support healthier heart and artery and vein health by reducing atherosclerosis, reducing blood pressure and increasing endothelial function. (Appendino 2012, Akazawa 2012)
Depression and anxiety – Using curcumin as an add-onto conventional treatments seems to reduce symptoms of depression or anxiety more than a placebo but more longer term studies need to be done with higher dosage of curcumin (Sanmukhani 2014, Esmaily 2015, Lopresti 2017, Bortolato 2017)
Cognitive Decline and Alzheimer’s disease – Curcumin supplementation seems promising to delay the onset and progression of neurodegenerative and cognitive decline. This may be partly due to the increase in BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which drives the process of formation of new neurone connections. Curcumin has an impact on microscopic plaques and tangles in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, potentially due to its anti-inflammatory properties. However, there needs to be further research done. (Small 2017, Kodali 2018, Desai 2016, Rainey-Smith 2016, Baum 2008)
Kidney health – Curcumin supplementation increases kidney function for those with impaired kidney function. This may be due to curcumin’s ability to moderate binding of autoantibodies and inflammation led release of TNF. (Khajehdehi 2012)
Diabetes – Curcumin can increase insulin sensitivity in insulin resistant people and adiponectin, which is particularly important in pre-diabetic or type 2 diabetes. Given that almost 10% of our NHS budget is spent on diabetes care, this could reduce diabetes incidence in a cost effective manner. (Cheungsamaran 2012)
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – Curcumin has an acute effect on maintaining remission in patients who have had ulcerative colitis but this effect ends after supplementation ends. This is due to anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin. Further RCT studies are required for curcumin therapy in inflammatory bowel disease. (Hanai 2006, Holt 2005)
Pain – Higher doses of curcumin ie approx 500mg can decrease post-operative, arthritic and general pain. This might be due to curcumin’s general downregulation effect of inflammation, which means it can be a safe complement. (Agarwal 2011, Di Pierro 2013, Belcaro 2010)
Curcumin and cancer prevention
Curcumin has potential for therapeutic uses in cancer treatment as in vitro and animal studies have shown that it has anti-carcinogenic properties via inhibition of tumour growth. (Huang 1992, Conney 1991). Curcumin has been found to regulate many cell signaling pathways which moderates tumour cell growth, potentially by changing the structure of membrane proteins. (Aggarwal 2007, Bilmen 2001). Over 50% of cancers have loss of function mutations in the p53 gene so this is a potential target for treatment, particularly as malignant cells with this mutation are sometimes resistant to chemotherapy. Curcumin has been shown to upregulate the expression of p53, decreasing TNF-alpha and increasing cell apoptosis.
Curcumin and cancer treatment - Uses on different cancers:
Prostrate – Soy isoflavones & curcumin work together to reduce PSA levels through anti-androgen levels, reducing prostate cancer risk. (Ide 2010)
Colorectal – Curcumin has been shown to improve the health of colorectal cancer patients by upregulating p53 expression. (He 2011, Caroll 2011)
Breast cancer – Several clinical trials have tested curcumin activity in breast cancer patients. One of these trials showed that curcumin reduced radiation dermatitis (Ryan 2013) whilst a phase 1 trial showed that curcumin escalated doxetaxol in advanced and metastatic breast cancer (Bayet-Robert 2010).
Whilst turmeric might not be the superfood that the wellbeing world is looking for, the active ingredient, curcumin, is certainly a supplement worth taking for long term health. It’s still early days as far as using curcumin as a treatment in every doctor’s clinic, but the human studies and clinical trials are incredibly promising. Please do see a registered and qualified nutritionist, dietician or GP before taking any supplements as there are some contraindications with those who are taking warfarin, are pregnant and if you are taking other drugs, particularly some types of chemotherapy.