since its deep yellow-orange color is similar to that of the prized saffron. It has been used throughout history as a condiment, healing remedy and textile dye.
Turmeric is native to Indonesia and southern India, where it has been harvested for more than 5,000 years. It has served an important role in many traditional cultures throughout the East, including being a revered member of the Ayurvedic pharmacopeia (the traditional medicine of India). While Arab traders introduced it into Europe in the 13th century, it has only recently become popular in Western cultures. Much of its recent popularity is owed to the recent research that has highlighted its multiple therapeutic properties. The leading commercial producers of turmeric include India, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Haiti and Jamaica.
There are many health benefits of turmeric – mostly from curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric. Turmeric is the spice from India that is used in curry dishes. Curcumin is the part of turmeric that gives curry food its golden color. This also provides turmeric with curcuminoids – reported to possess health properties such as antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities. (Note: Turmeric is often mis-spelled as “tumeric.”)
- Turmeric benefits have been known for centuries. This natural food is reported to support liver health, help prevent bad cholesterol, and is being studied for its ability to block tumors.
- In laboratory studies at the University of Texas, preliminary research found turmeric to be useful in preventing and blocking the growth of cancer such as melanoma tumor cells, breast cancer, colon cancer and other cancers.
- Some researchers believe there also appears to be some kind of association between reduced rates of leukemia and colon cancer, and populations of countries that consume a diet with higher amounts of curcumin from turmeric.
- Many other reputed health benefits of turmeric extract include a reputation for supporting healthy skin, liver and gallbladder health and joint pain relief through anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
The antioxidant power of turmeric is so effective it actually helps preserve the shelf life of foods it is added to.
Ø A Potent, Yet Safe Anti-Inflammatory
The volatile oil fraction of turmeric has demonstrated significant anti-inflammatory activity in a variety of experimental models. Even more potent than its volatile oil is the yellow or orange pigment of turmeric, called curcumin – the primary pharmacological agent in turmeric. In numerous studies, curcumin's anti-inflammatory effects have been shown to be comparable to the potent drugs hydrocortisone and phenylbutazone as well as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory agents such as Motrin. Unlike the drugs, which are associated with significant toxic effects (ulcer formation, decreased white blood cell count, intestinal bleeding), curcumin produces no toxicity.
Ø An Effective Treatment for Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Curcumin may provide an inexpensive, well-tolerated, and effective treatment for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, recent research suggests. In this study, mice given an inflammatory agent that normally induces colitis were protected when curcumin was added to their diet five days beforehand. The mice receiving curcumin not only lost much less weight than the control animals, but when researchers checked their intestinal cell function, all the signs typical of colitis (mucosal ulceration, thickening of the intestinal wall, and the infiltration of inflammatory cells) were all much reduced. While the researchers are not yet sure exactly how curcumin achieves its protective effects, they think its benefits are the result of not only antioxidant activity, but also inhibition of a major cellular inflammatory agent called NF kappa-B. Plus, an important part of the good news reported in this study is the fact that although curcumin has been found to be safe at very large doses, this component of turmeric was effective at a concentration as low as 0.25 per cent – an amount easily supplied by simply enjoying turmeric in flavorful curries.
Ø Relief for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Clinical studies have substantiated that curcumin also exerts very powerful antioxidant effects. As an antioxidant, curcumin is able to neutralize free radicals – chemicals that can travel through the body and cause great amounts of damage to healthy cells and cell membranes. This is important in many diseases, such as fibromyalgia and arthritis, where free radicals are responsible for the painful joint inflammation and eventual damage to the joints. Turmeric's combination of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects explains why many people with joint disease find relief when they use the spice regularly and in supplements. In a recent study of patients with rheumatoid arthritis, curcumin was compared to phenylbutazone and produced comparable improvements in shortened duration of morning stiffness, lengthened walking time, and reduced joint swelling.
Ø Inhibits Cancer Cell Growth and Metastases
Epidemiological studies have linked the frequent use of turmeric to lower rates of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer; laboratory experiments have shown curcumin can prevent tumors from forming; and research conducted at the University of Texas suggests that even when breast cancer is already present, curcumin can help slow the spread of breast cancer cells to the lungs in mice.
In this study, published in Biochemical Pharmacology (September 2005), human breast cancer cells were injected into mice, and the resulting tumors removed to simulate a mastectomy.
The mice were then divided into four groups. One group received no further treatment and served as a control. A second group was given the cancer drug paclitaxel (Taxol); the third got curcumin, and the fourth was given both Taxol and curcumin.
After five weeks, only half the mice in the curcumin-only group and just 22% of those in the curcumin plus Taxol group had evidence of breast cancer that had spread to the lungs.
But 75% of the mice that got Taxol alone and 95% of the control group developed lung tumors.
How did curcumin help? "Curcumin acts against transcription factors, which are like a master switch," said lead researcher, Bharat Aggarwal. "Transcription factors regulate all the genes needed for tumors to form. When we turn them off, we shut down some genes that are involved in the growth and invasion of cancer cells."
In another laboratory study of human non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cells, published in Biochemical Pharmacology (September 2005), University of Texas researchers showed that curcumin inhibits the activation of NF-kappaB, a regulatory molecule that signals genes to produce a slew of inflammatory molecules (including TNF, COX-2 and IL-6) that promote cancer cell growth. In addition, curcumin was found to suppress cancer cell proliferation and to induce cell cycle arrest and apoptosis (cell suicide) in the lung cancer cells. Early phase I clinical trials at the University of Texas are now also looking into curcumin's chemopreventive and therapeutic properties against multiple myeloma and pancreatic cancer, and other research groups are investigating curcumin's ability to improve liver function.
In a recent rat study conducted to evaluate the effects of turmeric on the liver's ability to detoxify xenobiotic (toxic) chemicals, levels of two very important liver detoxification enzymes (UDP glucuronyl transferase and glutathione-S-transferase) were significantly elevated in rats fed turmeric as compared to controls. The researchers commented, "The results suggest that turmeric may increase detoxification systems in addition to its anti-oxidant properties...Turmeric used regularly in a supplement would probably mitigate the effects of several dietary carcinogens."
Curcumin has been shown to prevent colon cancer in rodent studies. When researchers set up a study to analyze how curcumin works, they found that it inhibits free radical damage of fats (such as those found in cell membranes and cholesterol), prevents the formation of the inflammatory chemical cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), and induces the formation of a primary liver detoxification enzyme, glutathione S-transferase (GST) enzymes. When the rats were given curcumin for 14 days, their livers' production of GST increased by 16%, and a marker of free radical damage called malondialdehyde decreased by 36% when compared with controls. During this two week period, the researchers gave the rats a cancer-causing chemical called carbon tetrachloride. In the rats not fed curcumin, markers of free radical damage to colon cells went up, but in the rats given turmeric, this increase was prevented by dietary curcumin. Lastly, the researchers compared giving turmeric in the diet versus injecting curcumin into the rats' colons. They found injecting curcumin resulted in more curcumin in the blood, but much less in the colon mucosa. They concluded, "The results show that curcumin mixed with the diet and through supplementation achieves drug levels in the colon and liver sufficient to explain the pharmacological activities observed and suggest that this mode of administration may be preferable for the chemoprevention of colon cancer."
Ø How Turmeric Lowers Cholesterol
Turmeric’s cholesterol-lowering effects are the result of the curry spice's active constituent, curcumin, which research reveals is a messaging molecule that communicates with genes in liver cells, directing them to increase the production of mRNA (messenger proteins) that direct the creation of receptors for LDL (bad) cholesterol. With more LDL-receptors, liver cells are able to clear more LDL-cholesterol from the body.
LDL-receptor mRNA increased sevenfold in liver cells treated with curcumin at a concentration of 10 microM, compared to untreated cells. (Liver cells were found to tolerate curcumin at levels of up to 12. microM for 24 hours). (Peschel D, Koerting R, et al. J Nutr Biochem)
Turmeric Cautions and Side Effects…
Doctors advise that turmeric extract be avoided by anyone with gallstones except under doctor supervision, and it should not be taken women who are pregnant.