Curry is a firm favourite here in the UK and many of you may be planning on eating spicy dishes over the coming week. Turmeric is one of the main spice ingredients of curry powder and has been used for thousands of years in Indian and Chinese medicine to relieve many different conditions. In the last few years the spice has gained recognition here in the West as a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent.
Curcumin, a polyphenol (plant chemical), is the key active component found within turmeric and is largely responsible for the orange/yellow colour of the spice. In ancient times turmeric was used on the Indian subcontinent to treat various illnesses such as rheumatism, body-ache, skin diseases, intestinal worms, diarrhoea, intermittent fevers, liver disorders, nausea, urinary discharges, indigestion, inflammations, constipation, absent periods (amenorrhoea), and colic(1).
A recently published review paper(2) discusses the growing body of research suggesting that curcumin, has potential for the prevention and therapy of cancer. Animal studies and in vitro (test tube) studies on human cells have shown that curcumin can both inhibit the formation of tumours and can act on cancer development in a variety of ways. Cell studies also demonstrate that curcumin is efficient at inducing controlled cell death (known as apoptosis) and that the spice exhibits a degree of selectivity for the destruction of cancer cells. Studies indicate that curcumin is a safe agent, after further trials in humans take place it may well be developed for use in cancer prevention and therapy.
Another recent review paper(3) discusses the mounting evidence, from cell studies, of the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant potentials of turmeric and curcumin. If further studies find that these properties extend in humans it would be hugely significant as many diseases have underlying inflammatory causes e.g. diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, psoriasis and many, many more!
Although curcumin and turmeric have promising health properties it was previously thought that absorption of the polyphenol into the body was limited. However, a recent human study(4) found that curcumin was well absorbed by humans and could be detected in their blood plasma after consumption. This is good news in terms of the therapeutic potential of the spice. Neither turmeric nor curcumin has yet been extensively studied in human clinical trials, though small trials have taken place and larger ones are planned.
A small study(5) with 62 patients who had ulcerating mouth or skin cancers found that an extract of turmeric as well as an ointment of curcumin was very helpful in relieving symptoms in the patients. The patients applied the ointment to their lesions three times a day for at least four weeks. Reduction in smell was noted in 90% of the cases and in 70% the lesions dried up (they were no longer weeping/exuding). 50% of participants noted a reduction in pain and 10% of patients experienced a reduction in lesion size.
Turmeric is available as a supplement and many people take the spice in capsule form for anti-inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and also for indigestion and digestive complaints. If you decide to try such a supplement the recommended dose is usually 500mg-1000mg a day. Do not exceed the recommended dose as turmeric in large amounts can cause gastrointestinal problems. Of course, if you have any medical conditions or are currently taking any medication you should consult your doctor, curcumin can alter the effectiveness of some medications.
Using spices and herbs to flavour food is also a great way to improve taste and palatability without the use of salt and, as these studies show, may add to the overall health-potential of your meals. Why not spice up your meals this week?!
(1)Pari L, Tewas D, Eckel J. 2008. Role of curcumin in health and disease. Arch Physiol Biochem. 114(2):127-49.
(2)López-Lázaro M. 2008. Anticancer and carcinogenic properties of curcumin: Considerations for its clinical development as a cancer chemopreventive and chemotherapeutic agent. Mol Nutr Food Res. May 21;52(S1):103-127. [Epub]
(3)Krishnaswamy K. 2008. Traditional Indian spices and their health significance. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr.17 Suppl 1:265-8.
(4) Vareed SK et al. 2008. Pharmacokinetics of curcumin conjugate metabolites in healthy human subjects. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 17(6):1411-7.
(5)Kuttan R, Sudheeran PC, Joseph CD. Turmeric and curcumin as topical agents in cancer therapy. Tumori. 1987; 73:29-31.
Written by Ani Kowal