By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Put a little spice in your life and add some amazing benefits to your health with one simple culinary trick --- add curcumin.
Curcumin is the secret ingredient in turmeric, the popular spice that gives curries that lovely golden color. Besides using the spice to flavor curry, people in Indian have been using turmeric for centuries as a medicine.
And now the active component in turmeric, curcumin, has shown promise as an anti-inflammatory remedy that may even help to prevent cancer. Find out why curcumin offers so much, and why you need to put turmeric on your kitchen shelf.
What Exactly is Curcumin?
Curcumin is an active component of turmeric. In the United States, turmeric is used as a spice on its own or in curry powder to flavor dishes. Turmeric is a member of the ginger family and its stalk is used to add color and flavor to dishes.
How Does Curcumin Affect Your Health?
In the traditional Indian medicine system called Ayurveda, turmeric has long been used to relieve gas and improve digestion, help relieve arthritis, get rid of gallstones, and provide the body with general strength and energy.
Modern interest in turmeric peaked when scientists found out that curcumin had anti-inflammatory properties. Interest really started to heat up when scientists discovered that curcumin was actually an antioxidant (1996, College of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Manipal, India).
This was exciting because it meant that curcumin acted at the cell level to scavenge free radicals in the blood stream, which otherwise would cause DNA damage, disrupt the smooth functioning of the cardiovascular system and more.
Curcumin may help to ease symptoms of arthritis, and help protect against Alzheimer’s disease, stomach ulcers, colitis, and skin diseases.
Curcumin could also block the growth of certain types of cancer cells, and help to treat indigestion, diabetes, and uveitis among others.
Does Curcumin Come Naturally in Foods?
Curcumin is found in turmeric, which is a common spice you can find in the herbs and spices section of the store. You can also find curcumin as a supplement.
Now, for a measure of caution, it is worth remembering that most of the studies completed into the effectiveness of curcumin have been undertaken in the lab, and the effects of a diet high in turmeric have not yet been fully investigated.
Is Curcumin Safe?
Curcumin and turmeric are considered by the FDA to be generally recognized as safe. However, if you take curcumin over a long period of time or in high doses you could risk damaging your liver, according to a 1998 study from the Cancer Research Institute at the Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai, India.
We looked at the recent scientific studies to find out exactly how curcumin can benefit your health – in often surprising ways.
1. Eating Curcumin in Curry Twice a Week Could Prevent Dementia
A 2009 study from the Duke University Medical Center, Carolina suggests that eating a curry with turmeric could prevent the spread of amyloid plaques, which are believed to contribute to the destruction of brain cell wiring that in turn leads to Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists report that curcumin binds to the plaques, preventing their growth. The researchers also pointed out that populations eating curry two or three times a week have a lower risk for dementia, although the benefits of a curry twice a week need to be taken with a generally healthy diet and plenty of exercise.
2. Curcumin Helps Treat Dyspepsia
Curcumin seems to stimulate the gall bladder, and according to a 1989 Thai study from Thamlikitkul V, Bunyapraphatsara N, Dechatiwongse T, et al, curcumin does seem to reduce the symptoms of stomach distress.
This study compared 500mg of curcumin four times a day with placebo, and against an over-the-counter treatment, in a total of 116 people.
Here's the shocker. After one week, 87 percent of the curcumin patients experienced full or partial relief from symptoms.
3. Curcumin May Help Your Arteries and Heart
Another major benefit of curcumin -- it helps your arteries to relax and can help prevent heart failure.
A 2008 study from the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre of the Toronto General Hospital says curcumin can reverse the process of an enlarged heart and may have benefits for the arteries, too. More research is needed to see how the compound can help humans, as research has up until now been undertaken on mice.
4. Treat Ulcerative Colitis with Curcumin
Ulcerative colitis is a condition affecting the lower digestive system and causes inflammation and pain.
Curcumin can help to prevent relapse and put the diseases into remission more readily, according to a 2006 study from Hamamatsu South Hospital, Hamamatsu, Japan.
The study looked at 89 people who were either given curcumin or a placebo. Over six months the people taking curcumin had a significantly lower relapse rate than those in the placebo group.
5. Osteoarthritis Eased By Curcumin
Curcumin is defined as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant substance and in trials it has been shown to treat conditions like osteoarthritis.
A 2009 study by researchers at Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand looked at the effectiveness of curcumin for treating knee arthritis.
Surprisingly, when the scientists tested curcumin against standard ibuprofen treatment, they discovered something remarkable. Both remedies improved arthritis symptoms ( pain, inflammation and stiffness) but curcumin did not have ibuprofen’s negative effects on the stomach.
6. Curcumin May Have Cancer Treatment Benefits
A 2012 study from the University of Leicester, UK, demonstrates that curcumin helps to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy (which include severe nerve pain and tingling) in patients undergoing treatment for bowel cancer.
In this way, curcumin helps patients persist with the treatment for longer, which has benefits for their survival rates and their general health.
And a 2012 study by Jefferson's Kimmel Cancer Center shows curcumin can help slow tumor growth in prostate cancer patients who are on androgen deprivation therapy – curcumin acts with this therapy to better target cancer cells.
7. Can Curcumin Prevent Cancer?
What’s more, scientists even think that curcumin could help prevent cancer.
A 2009 study from the Cork Cancer Research Centre, University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland found that curcumin kills esophageal cancer cells in the lab.
In addition, a 2007 study from the Calcutta Improvement Trust Scheme VII M, Kolkata, India demonstrates that curcumin helps restore key immune cells that are used by the body to fight off cancer.