Turmeric comes from the root of the Curcuma longa plant that has a very long history of medicinal use, dating back nearly 4,000 years. In Southeast Asia, turmeric is used not only as a spice but also as a component in religious ceremonies. Due to its brilliant yellow colour, turmeric is also known as ‘Indian saffron’. In Ayurvedic herbal medicine, turmeric is known to be strengthening and warming to the whole body. Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of natural healing that is still practiced today.
Ayurveda translates to ‘science of life’ – ‘ayur’ meaning ‘life’ and ‘veda’ meaning ‘science or knowledge’. Traditional uses for turmeric in India include: relieving symptoms of arthritis, improving digestion, cleansing and strengthening the liver and gallbladder, promoting proper metabolism and as an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal treatment. It is thought that the Ancient Hawaiians also used turmeric for many things, including the prevention and treatment of sinus infections, ear infections and gastrointestinal ulcers. Lets take a closer look at some of its’ amazing health benefits.
Research shows that curcumin inhibits multiple processes in the inflammatory pathways at a molecular level. These studies, based on a curcumin dosage of 1,125–2,500 milligrams per day, showed evidence that various inflammatory mediators are inhibited.(1) Research has also shown that curcumin is a potent inhibitor of Nuclear Factor Kappa B (NF-kB).(2) This is an inflammatory pathway through which it sends signals to other cells to produce and activate a raft of inflammatory molecules. It is essentially the master switch for the inflammatory engine. For example, increased NF-kB has been found in the airways of asthmatic patients, which is a chronic inflammatory disorder. NF-kB activity is also observed in rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which are also all chronic inflammatory conditions. Curcumin can turn off the inflammatory engine by inhibiting NF-kB.
Helps to Prevent Prostate Cancer
In 2015 there were 220,800 new cases of prostate cancer in the US alone.(3) This study shows that when turmeric is teamed up with cauliflower, or more specifically, when curcumin is consumed with phenethyl isothiocyanates (PEITC), they significantly reduce both tumour growth and the ability of the prostate cancer cells to spread.(4)
The PEITCs are phyto-chemicals that are abundant in cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale and turnips. The researchers believe that the combination of cruciferous vegetables and curcumin are an effective way to help prevent prostate cancer and also prevent the spread of cancer cells. In the US, the incidence of prostate cancer is high, whereas, in India, it is low. This could be attributed to the consumption of large amounts of plant-based foods that are rich in phyto-chemicals and anti-oxidants as well as spices such as turmeric.
My good friend Kevin McNamara, who is the founder of Turmeric Heals, was diagnosed with prostate cancer some years back. Kev decided against clinical intervention, invasive surgery or chemotherapy. Instead, he chose to use natural foods as his medicine to get rid of the cancer. He changed his diet and started eating lots of natural, wholesome foods such as rolled oats and flaxseed. He also included lots of natural anti-inflammatory foods in his diet, including turmeric and ginger. Kev is now completely free of cancer, and these natural foods with their potent anti-inflammatory properties in conjunction with his healthy lifestyle and positive mindset were the medicine that killed the cancer cells. It’s a fantastic story and you’ll find a link to more information on Kev’s journey at the end of the article.
Beneficial Effects on Arthritis
Turmeric is also known for it’s beneficial effect on osteo arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. In arthritic joints, a family of enzymes called MMPs (Matrix metalloproteases) are known to cause cartilage degradation. Research shows that the accelerated turnover of collagen associated with joint diseases may result from a number of factors, including increased synthesis and activation of MMPs and potentially, an imbalance in the levels of MMPs and their inhibitors.
MMPs are produced by activated chondrocytes and other cell types in an arthritic joint. Among the MMPs, MMP-1 and MMP-13 levels are found to be significantly elevated in both OA and RA arthritic joints.(5) Research has shown that curcumin inhibits these MMPs and slows down the progression of arthritis.(6)
Pain Management and the Replacement for NSAIDs
In a randomised pilot study published in 2012, researchers set out to ascertain the effectiveness of curcumin as treatment for rheumatoid arthritis compared with a typical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Typically, the treatment for RA involves the use of NSAIDs for pain management, as well as the use of disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs). Unfortunately, the majority of these drugs are associated with undesirable side effects including gastrointestinal bleeding, increased blood pressure, accelerated osteoporosis, hepatotoxicity, hypersensitivity, allergic reactions, as well as increased risk of infections.
In this study, forty-five patients diagnosed with RA were placed into three groups. The first group was given 500 mg of curcumin; the second group received 50 mg of diclofenac sodium and the third group was given a combination of both treatments over a period of 8 weeks. Diclofenac is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug used to reduce inflammation and pain.
The patient’s arthritis symptoms were assessed and scored before and after treatment using two systems: ACR and DAS28. ACR is the American College of Rheumatology criteria for reduction in tenderness and swelling of joint scores. DAS28 is a measure of disease activity in RA. DAS stands for ‘disease activity score’ and the number 28 refers to the 28 joints that are examined in this assessment. The results of the trial showed that the group taking just curcumin had the highest percentage of improvement in overall DAS and ACR scores and these scores were significantly better than those in the group taking diclofenac on it’s own. This study provides evidence for the safety and superiority of curcumin treatment in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis.(7)
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
In patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it is thought that low-grade inflammation of the intestinal mucosa is responsible for some of the symptoms. In an eight-week randomised pilot study published in 2005, researchers assessed the effects of turmeric extract on IBS symptomology in otherwise healthy adults.
There were 207 participants in the study who were split into two groups and given either 72 mg or 144 mg of a standardised turmeric extract for eight weeks. After treatment with the turmeric extract those in the 72 mg group experienced a 53% reduction in IBS symptoms, while the 144 mg group experienced a 60% decrease.(8)
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
A pilot study published in 2005 was undertaken to examine the effect of curcumin therapy in ten patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Five of these patients had Crohn’s disease and the other five had ulcerative colitis. The patients with ulcerative colitis received 550 mg of curcumin twice daily for one month and then 550 mg three times daily for another month. Blood analysis, biopsies and inflammatory markers were assessed both at the beginning and the end of the study. In addition, symptoms were assessed by questionnaire and by maintaining a daily symptom diary. The five patients with Crohn’s disease received 360 mg three times daily for one month and then four times daily for a second month. Crohn’s Disease Activity Index (CDAI), blood analysis and inflammatory markers were assessed both at the beginning and at the end of the study. In the ulcerative colitis group, all five patients improved by the end of the study, as indicated by a global score calculated by the researchers based on factors such as general wellbeing, bowel movement and abdominal pain. In addition, those with limited ulcerative colitis demonstrated normal levels of inflammatory markers after two months. In the Crohn’s disease group, the CDAI scores decreased by an average of 55 points at the end of the study, and the inflammatory markers decreased in four of the five patients.9 While this was only a pilot study and not a randomised, placebo-controlled study, it does provide encouraging results for the use of curcumin supplements in the treatment of IBD.
Anti-cancer Properties of Turmeric
Cancer is usually treated by chemo-therapeutic agents that are toxic not only to tumor cells but also to normal cells, so these agents produce major side effects. Moreover, these agents are used to treat cancer and cannot be used for cancer prevention. Mother Nature has provided us with a safer alternative that is very effective in preventing cancer and also in killing cancer cells. Curcumin modulates the growth of tumor cells through regulation of multiple cell signaling pathways including the following:
Wow, that’s a whole load of pathways! Curcumin selectively kills tumor cells, and not normal cells. Curcumin has been shown to suppress multiple signaling pathways and inhibit cell proliferation, invasion, metastasis, and angiogenesis.
The chemo-preventive action of curcumin might be due to its ability to induce apoptosis by several pathways. Many studies indicate the selective role of curcumin towards cancer cells than normal cells. Research shows more than 40 biomolecules that are involved in cell death induced by curcumin. Because curcumin mediates its effect through multiple cell signaling pathways, the likelihood of developing resistance to it is less. Why curcumin kills tumor cells and not normal cells is not fully understood, but several reasons have been suggested. First, cellular uptake of curcumin is higher in tumor cells than in normal cells. Second, the glutathione levels in tumor cells tend to be lower than normal cells, thus enhancing the sensitivity of tumor cells to curcumin. Third, most tumor cells, but not normal cells, express constitutively active NF-κB and mediate their survival. Curcumin can suppress the survival and proliferation of tumor cells by suppressing NF-κB-regulated gene products. Overall, our review shows that curcumin can kill a wide variety of tumor cell types through diverse mechanisms.
Tips on buying and storing
Fresh turmeric looks a bit like ginger but has a more vibrant orange flesh. The most widely used form is ground turmeric, but this is highly susceptible to light so it usually comes in an airtight jar or tin. Look for organic turmeric where possible and also check that the brand you plan to buy is actually certified as organic by a known third party agency.
For example, in the US, genuine organic products are certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the product is labelled accordingly. In Australia, this might be Australian Certified Organic (ACO) or NASAA Certified Organic (The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia), etc. In the UK, there are a number of approved organic control bodies, such as the Organic Food Federation, the Soil Association, the Organic Trust etc.
Avoid ground turmeric that has added chemical preservatives or artificial flavours. It is best to stored in a cool, dark place. Turmeric will begin to lose its potency after approximately six months, even sooner if exposed to light or heat. Fresh turmeric can be stored in the refrigerator and will keep for a few weeks. It should be peeled before using it. You’ll find it much easier to grate than ginger because it is less fibrous. Turmeric is also used as a natural dye, so be prepared for a yellow cutting board and fingers!
In the next article on Turmeric, we'll take a look at the various turmeric supplements, the active ingredients (curcumin) and the best type for quality and bio-availability.
Turmeric Heals article on Prostate Cancer.
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1. Safety and Anti-Inflammatory Activity of Curcumin: A Component of Tumeric ( Curcuma longa ). J Altern Complement Med. 2003;9(1):161-168.
2. Activation of transcription factor NF-kappa B is suppressed by curcumin (diferuloylmethane) [corrected]. J Biol Chem. 1995;270(42):24995-25000.
3. American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Prostate Cancer. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/prostate-cancer/about/key-statistics.html.
4. Combined inhibitory effects of curcumin and phenethyl isothiocyanate on the growth of human PC-3 prostate xenografts in immunodeficient mice. Cancer Res. 2006;66(2):613-621.
5. Proteases involved in cartilage matrix degradation in osteoarthritis. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2012;1824(1):133-145.
6. Curcumin inhibits pro-inflammatory mediators and metalloproteinase-3 production by chondrocytes. Inflamm Res. 2009 Dec;58(12):899-908.
7. A Randomized, Pilot Study to Assess the Efficacy and Safety of Curcumin in Patients with Active Rheumatoid Arthritis. Phyther Res. 2012;26(11):1719-1725.
8. Turmeric Extract May Improve Irritable Bowel Syndrome Symptomology in Otherwise Healthy Adults: A Pilot Study. J Altern Complement Med. 2004;10(6):1015-1018.
9. Curcumin Therapy in Inflammatory Bowel Disease: A Pilot Study. Dig Dis Sci. 2005;50(11):2191-2193.
Sports & fitness nutritionist, researcher and author on a mission to improve the human condition. Focusing on evidence-based and outcome-based nutrition, training, mindset & environment