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One of the most talked about supplements around right now is turmeric (active compound curcumin). We all know people who suffer from chronic inflammation of their joints and are taking mouthfuls of ibuprofen and other non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to medicate their chronic pain. Enter the humble power of turmeric—curcuma longa is the scientific name. This ancient plant has been used in food and Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Turmeric is a rhizome (subterranean main stem) of the same family as ginger. The plant itself grows to over 3 feet tall, but it’s the stuff in the ground that has garnered so much attention over the years.

The distinctive yellow-gold color of turmeric comes from it’s main ingredient curcumin. Curcuminoids are also the compounds of turmeric that have been most widely studied in the scientific literature. It’s these compounds that have been reported to have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-diabetic effects and even may modulate the effects of Alzheimer’s.

Turmeric is variably absorbed through the GI tract depending how it is eaten. The concentration of turmeric curcumin is improved by adding black pepper. The piperine is the active ingredient in black pepper which inhibits the metabolism of curcumin in the liver boosting the available amount in the blood (bioavailability) 2000% higher than without black pepper. Also, the natural oils found in the turmeric root enhance the bioavailability by 8 times. So eating the whole turmeric root or powdered turmeric with black pepper enhances the effect significantly. See also Indian foods (lots of pepper coupled with natural fats).

Anti-inflammatory

This is the one that seems to ring true with my patients. Every one seems to have some degree of back pain, knee pain or other joint issue. Osteoarthritis is an inflammatory condition characterized by loss of cartilage in the joint. There have been head-to-head trials of NSAIDs (non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen (Advil), naprosyn (Alleve), meloxicam, etc. compared to turmeric supplements in patients with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis showing that the patients 1 2 who took turmeric had similar reduction in pain and without all of the bad side-effects of NSAIDs such stomach ulcers, worsening hypertension, or possible increased risk of stroke and heart attacks that comes with NSAIDs.

Anti-cancer

Curcumin has been shown to have anti-neoplastic effects on cancer in both cellular and animal studies.  According to researchers, curcumin has been shown to slow the growth of several different cancers such as pancreatic, esophageal, prostate, liver and multiple myeloma.3 Studies are currently ongoing to assess the efficacy in humans but there is little debate in the literature that eating foods high in turmeric is beneficial in the overall armamentarium for cancer prevention.

Anti-diabetes

A double-blind, placebo controlled trial looked at patients with pre-diabetes and followed them for development of type II diabetes. Of those in the standard care group, 16% went on to get type II diabetes, whereas NO ONE in the turmeric group progressed on to diabetes.4

Anti-alzheimer’s

There are some reports of turmeric changing the course of the disease with Alzheimer’s patients who consumed turmeric on a consistent basis having improved behavioral effects. Also, 5 India has the lowest rate of documented Alzheimer’s disease in the world (3%) versus the highest in rural Pennsylvania (19%).  Studies looking at isolated curcumin supplements versus the actual turmeric have been mixed regarding efficacy in treating Alzheimer’s disease. This may relate to the fact that there are many compounds in turmeric that may play a role in disease prevention and not just the curcumin. The concept that the whole is better than the sum of it’s parts is seen over and over in nutrition (and medicine for that matter).

Who shouldn’t consume turmeric?

High doses of curcumin may increase the level of blood oxalates which leads to kidney stones. So, those who are prone to kidney stones should probably eat regular turmeric as an added spice in their diet instead of the concentrated curcumin supplements. Same goes for pregnant females as there is some evidence that very high levels of curcumin may cause DNA damage. Finally, those with gallstones may want to avoid high doses of turmeric as it causes enhanced gall bladder contraction. This is good for those trying to prevent gallstones, but may be a real problem for those with gallstones as the increased contraction may push the stones into the duct and cause obstruction.

1 V. Kuptniratsaikul, S. Thanakhumtorn, P. Chinswangwatanakul, L. Wattanamongkonsil, V. Thamlikitkul. Efficacy and safety of Curcuma domestica extracts in patients with knee osteoarthritis. J Altern Complement Med. 2009 15(8):891 – 897.

2 B. Chandran, A. Goel. A randomized, pilot study to assess the efficacy and safety of curcumin in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis. Phytother Res. 2012 26(11):1719 -1725.

3 AICR Science Now. Volume 30. Fall 2009

4 S Chuengsamarn, S Rattanamongkolgul, R Luechapudiporn, C Phisalaphong, S Jirawatnotai. Curcumin extract for prevention of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2012 Nov; 35(11):2121-7.

5 N Hishikawa, Y Takahashi, Y Amakusa, Y Tanno, Y Tuji, H Niwa, N Murakami, U K Krishna. Effects of turmeric on alzheimer’s disease with behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. Ayu. 2012 Oct-Dec; 33(4): 499–504.

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