Turmeric’s potent yellow pigment may curb cancer; zesty chemical cousins in ginger may bear comparable benefits
by Craig Weatherby
Who wouldn’t like to increase their odds of dodging Alzheimer’s disease and the most common cancers?
As Hippocrates said, around about 2,500 years ago, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food."
Research is just beginning to reveal the remarkable anti-cancer, anti-Alzheimer's powers of turmeric's potent yellow pigment, called curcumin.
We'll cover the cancer story here, in Part I of our turmeric series, and address the brain benefits of turmeric in Part II, which will run next week.
The healthful yellow thread that connects curries
As reliable data on cancer rates in India became available in the early 1990’s, researchers found it curious that people’s risk of colon, breast, prostate, and lung cancer in that curry-loving country was 10-20 times lower than in America.
And, epidemiological (population) studies associate high turmeric intake with lower rates of certain common cancers: specifically, leukemia and cancers of the breast, lung and colon.
The correlation between Indians’ copious curry consumption and radically lower rates of America’s most common cancers prompted researchers in both countries to began testing curry spices for their anti-cancer potential.
And the outcomes of dozens of laboratory investigations indicate that curcumin—the potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory constituent that creates turmeric’s yellow color—is also the leading anti-cancer compound in curry.
The English word curry—which encompasses all Indian spice mixtures—comes from the Tamil (South Indian) word “kari”, meaning soup or sauce.
Regardless regional differences, a common thread runs through most of the Indian spice mixes that Westerners call curries. And that common curry ingredient is the bright-yellow spice called turmeric.
Turmeric is a member of the ginger family, and it has long been used in India and China as a folk medicine, food preservative, coloring agent, and spice, usually as a component of the various spice mixes generically termed “curry”.
It's the pigment, pal
The deep-orange root of the turmeric plant contains a variety of polyphenol compounds called curcuminoids, which are close cousins to the polyphenol-class antioxidants that provide the cardiac and cancer-preventive properties research has revealed in tea, chocolate, berries, ginger, grapes, plums, and other fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices.
The oily substance called curcumin is the key both to turmeric’s yellow-red color and to its health benefits. This is because curcumin consists of three particularly potent curcuminoid polyphenols called turmerone, atlantone, and zingiberone.
Compared with the polyphenols in other plant foods, the curcuminoids that constitute curcumin possess extraordinarily strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. And these are the specific physiological effects that account for the anti-cancer effects of many polyphenol-rich foods.
These are among the key health properties of curcumin demonstrated to date:
- Interferes with all three stages of cancer formation: initiation, promotion, and progression
- Reduces the inflammation, oxidation, and amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease
- Acts as a powerful antioxidant whose free-radical-scavenging activity exceeds that of vitamin C and most polyphenols, including vitamin E and the catechins in tea and the and flavanols in cocoa and dark chocolate
- Exerts anti-inflammatory effects comparable to steroidal and non-steroidal drugs (e.g., aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen)
- Protects the cardiovascular system by lowering triglyceride and cholesterol levels, reversing cell-membrane damage, and inhibiting inflammation and platelet aggregation
- Protects the liver by several mechanisms;
While curcumin constitutes only 3-5 percent of turmeric, a little bit packs a big preventive health punch, as we shall see.
Curcumin, inflammation, and cancer
Readers of Dr. Nicholas Perricone’s books—which focus on factors that accelerate external and internal aging—may recall his detailed discussion of the key, harmful role played by certain of the body’s cellular switches or “nuclear transcription factors”.
When activated—often by the presence of free radicals—certain of these switches (e.g., NF-kB and AP-1) turn on pro-inflammatory genes.
Pro-inflammatory transcription factors—which Dr. Perricone targets with anti-inflammatory foods (e.g. wild salmon and curry spices) and topical treatments—initiate and aggravate a variety of inflammation-related diseases, including cancer, atherosclerosis (clogged, inflamed arteries), diabetes, allergies, and Alzheimer’s disease.
The remarkably consistent results of extensive research conducted in recent years prove that the strongly antioxidant, anti-inflammatory polyphenols in tea, berries, chocolate, and spices such as turmeric, ginger, red pepper, anise, fennel, basil, rosemary, and garlic can prevent inflammation-inducing genetic switches from being triggered.
Better yet, should those dangerous genetic switches get activated, curcumin will block the inflammatory enzymes produced in response—notably, COX-1 and COX-2—which are implicated in arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and common cancers.
In fact, COX-2 is the inflammatory enzyme that the now-discredited drugs Vioxx and Celebrex were created to block, in an effort to reduce inflammation and resulting pain in arthritis patients, and possibly reduce the risk of colon and prostate cancer.
But unlike these synthetic drugs, which appear to raise the risk of heart problems, curcumin enhances heart health. And cell tests at Columbia University show that turmeric and other spices rich in COX-2 inhibitors like curcumin are highly effective inhibitors of prostate cancer cells.
Much of the research into curcumin’s powerful anti-cancer properties has been conducted at one of the world’s leading cancer research labs, The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
It's worth quoting from a scientific review published recently by the Texas team (Shishodia S 2005). As they said, “The efficacy, pharmacologic safety, and cost effectiveness of curcuminoids prompt us to "get back to our roots." The confidence with which they describe the anti-cancer value of curcumin—and of 6-gingerol, a curcumin-like component of ginger root—reflects the strength and abundance of the evidence:
- “The use of turmeric… for treatment of different inflammatory diseases has been described in Ayurveda and in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. The active component of turmeric responsible for this activity, curcumin, was identified almost two centuries ago.
- “Modern science has revealed that curcumin mediates its effects by modulation of several important molecular targets, including transcription factors... enzymes... cell cycle proteins... cytokines... receptors... and cell surface adhesion molecules.
- “Because it can modulate the expression of these targets, curcumin is now being used to treat cancer, arthritis, diabetes, Crohn's disease, cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's disease, psoriasis, and other pathologies.
- “Interestingly, 6-gingerol, a natural analog of curcumin derived from the root of ginger (Zingiber officinalis), exhibits a biologic activity profile similar to that of curcumin.
The M. D. Anderson team is now conducting two human clinical trials, testing the ability of daily capsules of curcumin powder to retard growth of pancreatic and multiple myeloma cancers. Another trial is planned for patients with breast cancer.
As team leader Dr. B.B. Aggarwal says on the Center’s Web site, "Curcumin affects virtually every tumor biomarker [of cancer risk] that we have tried. It works through a variety of mechanisms related to cancer development.” He went on to note that the ability to suppress numerous biological routes to cancer development—a key characteristic of curcumin—is important if an anti-cancer agent is to work well: "Cells look at everything in a global way, and inhibiting just one pathway will not be effective."
This propensity to attack cancer from multiple angles—an anti-cancer attribute curcumin shares with marine omega-3s from fish—was also proved in a study by researchers at the University of Florida, who tested curcumin against colon cancer cells (Narayan S, 2004): “One of the widely sought approaches… uses natural agents to reverse or inhibit the malignant transformation of colon cancer cells and to prevent invasion and metastasis. Curcumin (diferuloylmethane), a natural plant product, possesses such chemo-preventive activity that targets multiple signaling pathways in the prevention of colon cancer development.”
And it appears that a little turmeric goes a long way. In a cell test whose results showed that curcumin inhibits skin cancer (melanoma), the Texas team found that it didn't matter how much curcumin was used. As they reported, "The [inflammatory, cancer-promoting] NF-kB machinery is suppressed by both short exposures to high concentrations of curcumin as well as by longer exposure to lower concentrations of curcumin."
And eating turmeric-infused foods with a little fish or fish oil will help your body absorb the maximum amount of curcumin, as noted in the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s patient-encyclopedia entry on turmeric, “A lipid base of lecithin, fish oils or essential fatty acids may also be used to enhance absorption.”
Next week, we'll delve into turmeric's tremendous potential as an anti-Alzheimer's food and drug, and discover how it might help if you ever take up boxing... stay tuned.
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