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Food, Health, and Eco-news
Turmeric Power, Part I: Colorful Spice Seen to Combat Cancer
Turmeric’s potent yellow pigment may curb cancer; zesty chemical cousins in ginger may bear comparable benefits 02/27/2006 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."

Key points

  • India, whose people consume lots of curry, enjoys rates of common cancers (prostate, colon, breast, lung) 10-20 times lower than those in the U.S.
  • As turmeric intake rises, cancer risks drop.
  • Curcumin, the potent antioxidant pigment in turmeric, is the active agent.
  • Ginger contains similar anti-cancer compounds.

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”.

Cabbage and Curcumin Combine to Give Prostate Cancer a Potent Counter-Punch

Results reported last month by Rutgers University researchers indicate that compounds in cabbage (PEITC) and turmeric (curcumin) hold powerful potential for the treatment and prevention of prostate cancer. And these beneficial effects get stronger when the two are consumed together.

The researchers injected curcumin or PEITC, alone or in combination, into mice implanted with human prostate cancer cells. The injections significantly retarded the growth of cancerous tumors, and using PEITC and curcumin in tandem produced even stronger effects.

Similar anti-cancer benefits should accrue from combining turmeric with other cruciferous vegetables—kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cress, cauliflower, kohlrabi and turnips—all of which contain the PEITC (phenethyl isothiocyanate) found in cabbage.

It's the pigment, pal
The deep-orange root of the turmeric plant contains a variety of polyphenol compounds called curcuminoids.

These are close cousins to the polyphenol-class antioxidants that provide the cardiac- and cancer-preventive properties 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:

  1. Interferes with all three stages of cancer formation: initiation, promotion, and progression
  2. Reduces the inflammation, oxidation, and amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease
  3. 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
  4. Exerts anti-inflammatory effects comparable to steroidal and non-steroidal drugs (e.g., aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen)
  5. Protects the cardiovascular system by lowering triglyceride and cholesterol levels, reversing cell-membrane damage, and inhibiting inflammation and platelet aggregation
  6. 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.


Turmeric and cancer:

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  • Aggarwal BB, Shishodia S. Suppression of the nuclear factor-kappaB activation pathway by spice-derived phytochemicals: reasoning for seasoning. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2004 Dec;1030:434-41. Review.
  • Aggarwal S, Ichikawa H, Takada Y, Sandur SK, Shishodia S, Aggarwal BB.  Curcumin (diferuloylmethane) down-regulates expression of cell proliferation and antiapoptotic and metastatic gene products through suppression of IkappaBalpha kinase and Akt activation. Mol Pharmacol. 2006 Jan;69(1):195-206. Epub 2005 Oct 11.
  • Bharti AC, Donato N, Singh S, Aggarwal BB. Curcumin (diferuloylmethane) down-regulates the constitutive activation of nuclear factor-kappa B and IkappaBalpha kinase in human multiple myeloma cells, leading to suppression of proliferation and induction of apoptosis. Blood. 2003 Feb 1;101(3):1053-62. Epub 2002 Sep 5.
  • Brouet I, Ohshima H. Curcumin, an anti-tumour promoter and anti-inflammatory agent, inhibits induction of nitric oxide synthase in activated macrophages. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 1995 Jan 17;206(2):533-40
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  • Kang G, Kong PJ, Yuh YJ, Lim SY, Yim SV, Chun W, Kim SS. Curcumin Suppresses Lipopolysaccharide-Induced Cyclooxygenase-2 Expression by Inhibiting Activator Protein 1 and Nuclear Factor kappaB Bindings in BV2 Microglial Cells. J Pharmacol Sci. 2004 Mar;94(3):325-8.
  • Karunagaran D, Rashmi R, Kumar TR. Induction of apoptosis by curcumin and its implications for cancer therapy. Curr Cancer Drug Targets. 2005 Mar;5(2):117-29. Review.
  • Khor TO, Keum YS, Lin W, Kim JH, Hu R, Shen G, Xu C, Gopalakrishnan A, Reddy B, Zheng X, Conney AH, Kong AN. Combined inhibitory effects of curcumin and phenethyl isothiocyanate on the growth of human PC-3 prostate xenografts in immunodeficient mice. Cancer Res. 2006 Jan 15;66(2):613-21.
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  • Lambert JD, Hong J, Yang GY, Liao J, Yang CS. Inhibition of carcinogenesis by polyphenols: evidence from laboratory investigations. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Jan;81(1 Suppl):284S-291S. Review.
  • Leu TH, Maa MC. The molecular mechanisms for the antitumorigenic effect of curcumin. Curr Med Chem Anticancer Agents. 2002 May;2(3):357-70. Review.
  • Li L, Aggarwal BB, Shishodia S, Abbruzzese J, Kurzrock R. Nuclear factor-kappaB and IkappaB kinase are constitutively active in human pancreatic cells, and their down-regulation by curcumin (diferuloylmethane) is associated with the suppression of proliferation and the induction of apoptosis. Cancer. 2004 Nov 15;101(10):2351-62.
  • Liacini A, Sylvester J, Li WQ, Huang W, Dehnade F, Ahmad M, Zafarullah M. Induction of matrix metalloproteinase-13 gene expression by TNF-alpha is mediated by MAP kinases, AP-1, and NF-kappaB transcription factors in articular chondrocytes. Exp Cell Res. 2003 Aug 1;288(1):208-17.
  • Lim GP, Chu T, Yang F, Beech W, Frautschy SA, Cole GM. The curry spice curcumin reduces oxidative damage and amyloid pathology in an Alzheimer transgenic mouse. J Neurosci. 2001 Nov 1;21(21):8370-7.
  • Lin JK, Lin-Shiau SY. Mechanisms of cancer chemoprevention by curcumin. Proc Natl Sci Counc Repub China B. 2001 Apr;25(2):59-66. Review.
  • Lin JK, Pan MH, Lin-Shiau SY. Recent studies on the biofunctions and biotransformations of curcumin. Biofactors. 2000;13(1-4):153-8. Review.
  • Mohandas KM, Desai DC. Epidemiology of digestive tract cancers in India. V. Large and small bowel. Indian J Gastroenterol. 1999 Jul-Sep;18(3):118-21. Review.
  • Mohandas KM, Jagannath P. Epidemiology of digestive tract cancers in India. VI. Projected burden in the new millennium and the need for primary prevention. Indian J Gastroenterol. 2000 Apr-Jun;19(2):74-8.
  • Narayan S. Curcumin, a multi-functional chemopreventive agent, blocks growth of colon cancer cells by targeting beta-catenin-mediated transactivation and cell-cell adhesion pathways. J Mol Histol. 2004 Mar;35(3):301-7. Review.
  • Onoda M, Inano H. Effect of curcumin on the production of nitric oxide by cultured rat mammary gland. Nitric Oxide. 2000 Oct;4(5):505-15.
  • Pan MH, Lin-Shiau SY, Lin JK. Comparative studies on the suppression of nitric oxide synthase by curcumin and its hydrogenated metabolites through down-regulation of IkappaB kinase and NFkappaB activation in macrophages. Biochem Pharmacol. 2000 Dec 1;60(11):1665-76.
  • Park JM, Adam RM, Peters CA, Guthrie PD, Sun Z, Klagsbrun M, Freeman MR. AP-1 mediates stretch-induced expression of HB-EGF in bladder smooth muscle cells. Am J Physiol. 1999 Aug;277(2 Pt 1):C294-301.
  • Phan TT, See P, Lee ST, Chan SY. Protective effects of curcumin against oxidative damage on skin cells in vitro: its implication for wound healing. J Trauma. 2001 Nov;51(5):927-31.
  • Plummer SM, Holloway KA, Manson MM, Munks RJ, Kaptein A, Farrow S, Howells L. Inhibition of cyclo-oxygenase 2 expression in colon cells by the chemopreventive agent curcumin involves inhibition of NF-kappaB activation via the NIK/IKK signalling complex. Oncogene. 1999 Oct 28;18(44):6013-20.
  • Ramirez-Tortosa MC, Mesa MD, Aguilera MC, Quiles JL, Baro L, Ramirez-Tortosa CL, Martinez-Victoria E, Gil A. Oral administration of a turmeric extract inhibits LDL oxidation and has hypocholesterolemic effects in rabbits with experimental atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis. 1999 Dec;147(2):371-8.
  • Rao CV, et al. Antioxidant activity of curcumin and related compounds. Lipid peroxide formation in experimental inflammation. Cancer Res 1993;55:259.
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  • Satoskar RR, Shah SJ, Shenoy SG. Evaluation of anti-inflammatory property of curcumin (diferuloyl methane) in patients with postoperative inflammation. Int J Clin Pharmacol Ther Toxicol. 1986 Dec;24(12):651-4.
  • Shah BH, Nawaz Z, Pertani SA, Roomi A, Mahmood H, Saeed SA, Gilani AH. Inhibitory effect of curcumin, a food spice from turmeric, on platelet-activating factor- and arachidonic acid-mediated platelet aggregation through inhibition of thromboxane formation and Ca2+ signaling. Biochem Pharmacol. 1999 Oct 1;58(7):1167-72.
  • Sharma RA, Gescher AJ, Steward WP. Curcumin: the story so far. Eur J Cancer. 2005 Sep;41(13):1955-68. Review.
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  • Sinha R, Anderson DE, McDonald SS, Greenwald P. Cancer risk and diet in India. J Postgrad Med. 2003 Jul-Sep;49(3):222-8. Review.
  • Siwak DR, Shishodia S, Aggarwal BB, Kurzrock R. Curcumin-induced antiproliferative and proapoptotic effects in melanoma cells are associated with suppression of IkappaB kinase and nuclear factor kappaB activity and are independent of the B-Raf/mitogen-activated/extracellular signal-regulated protein kinase pathway and the Akt pathway. Cancer. 2005 Aug 15;104(4):879-90.
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  • Surh YJ, Chun KS, Cha HH, Han SS, Keum YS, Park KK, Lee SS. Molecular mechanisms underlying chemopreventive activities of anti-inflammatory phytochemicals: down-regulation of COX-2 and iNOS through suppression of NF-kappa B activation. Mutat Res. 2001 Sep 1;480-481:243-68. Review.
  • Surh YJ, Han SS, Keum YS, Seo HJ, Lee SS. Inhibitory effects of curcumin and capsaicin on phorbol ester-induced activation of eukaryotic transcription factors, NF-kappaB and AP-1. Biofactors. 2000;12(1-4):107-12.
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Turmeric and cardiac health:

  • Arafa HM. Curcumin attenuates diet-induced hypercholesterolemia  Kempaiah RK, Srinivasan K. Beneficial influence of dietary curcumin, capsaicin and garlic on erythrocyte integrity in high-fat fed rats. J Nutr Biochem. 2005 Oct 25; [Epub ahead of print]
  • Kempaiah RK, Srinivasan K. Influence of dietary spices on the fluidity of erythrocytes in hypercholesterolaemic rats. Br J Nutr. 2005 Jan;93(1):81-91.
  • Rukkumani R, Aruna K, Varma PS, Rajasekaran KN, Menon VP. Comparative effects of curcumin and its analog on alcohol- and polyunsaturated fatty acid-induced alterations in circulatory lipid profiles. J Med Food. 2005 Summer;8(2):256-60.
  • Wang S, Chen B, Sun C. [Regulation effect of curcumin on blood lipids and antioxidation in hyperlipidemia rats] Wei Sheng Yan Jiu. 2000 Jul;29(4):240-2. Chinese.

Ginger and cancer:
  • Abdel-Aziz H, Nahrstedt A, Petereit F, Windeck T, Ploch M, Verspohl EJ. 5-HT3 receptor blocking activity of arylalkanes isolated from the rhizome of Zingiber officinale. Planta Med. 2005 Jul;71(7):609-16.
  • Dias MC, Spinardi-Barbisan AL, Rodrigues MA, de Camargo JL, Teran E, Barbisan LF. Lack of chemopreventive effects of ginger on colon carcinogenesis induced by 1,2-dimethylhydrazine in rats. Food Chem Toxicol. 2006 Jan 25; [Epub ahead of print]
  • Grzanna R, Phan P, Polotsky A, Lindmark L, Frondoza CG. Ginger extract inhibits beta-amyloid peptide-induced cytokine and chemokine expression in cultured THP-1 monocytes. J Altern Complement Med. 2004 Dec;10(6):1009-13.
  • Kim EC, Min JK, Kim TY, Lee SJ, Yang HO, Han S, Kim YM, Kwon YG. [6]-Gingerol, a pungent ingredient of ginger, inhibits angiogenesis in vitro and in vivo. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2005 Sep 23;335(2):300-8.
  • Lee E, Surh YJ. Induction of apoptosis in HL-60 cells by pungent vanilloids, [6]-gingerol and [6]-paradol. Cancer Lett. 1998 Dec 25;134(2):163-8.
  • Liu H, Zhu Y. [Effect of alcohol extract of Zingben officinale rose on immunologic function of mice with tumor]. Wei Sheng Yan Jiu. 2002 Jun;31(3):208-9. Chinese.
  • Manju V, Nalini N. Chemopreventive efficacy of ginger, a naturally occurring anticarcinogen during the initiation, post-initiation stages of 1,2 dimethylhydrazine-induced colon cancer. Clin Chim Acta. 2005 Aug;358(1-2):60-7.
  • Murakami A, Takahashi D, Kinoshita T, Koshimizu K, Kim HW, Yoshihiro A, Nakamura Y, Jiwajinda S, Terao J, Ohigashi H. Zerumbone, a Southeast Asian ginger sesquiterpene, markedly suppresses free radical generation, proinflammatory protein production, and cancer cell proliferation accompanied by apoptosis: the alpha,beta-unsaturated carbonyl group is a prerequisite. Carcinogenesis. 2002 May;23(5):795-802.
  • Nagasawa H, Watanabe K, Inatomi H. Effects of bitter melon (Momordica charantia l.) or ginger rhizome (Zingiber offifinale rosc) on spontaneous mammary tumorigenesis in SHN mice. Am J Chin Med. 2002;30(2-3):195-205.
  • Park KK, Chun KS, Lee JM, Lee SS, Surh YJ. Inhibitory effects of [6]-gingerol, a major pungent principle of ginger, on phorbol ester-induced inflammation, epidermal ornithine decarboxylase activity and skin tumor promotion in ICR mice. Cancer Lett. 1998 Jul 17;129(2):139-44. Erratum in: Cancer Lett 1998 Sep 25;131(2):231.
  • Surh YJ, Lee E, Lee JM. Chemoprotective properties of some pungent ingredients present in red pepper and ginger. Mutat Res. 1998 Jun 18;402(1-2):259-67. Review.
  • Surh YJ, Park KK, Chun KS, Lee LJ, Lee E, Lee SS. Anti-tumor-promoting activities of selected pungent phenolic substances present in ginger. J Environ Pathol Toxicol Oncol. 1999;18(2):131-9.
  • Takada Y, Murakami A, Aggarwal BB. Zerumbone abolishes NF-kappaB and IkappaBalpha kinase activation leading to suppression of antiapoptotic and metastatic gene expression, upregulation of apoptosis, and downregulation of invasion. Oncogene. 2005 Oct 20;24(46):6957-69.


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