April 4, 2012

Turmeric / Curcumin: Great Promise for Alzheimer's, Cancer, Parkinson's, Arthritis, and More. The Problem? Inadequate Absorption

I've been running across reports about the spice turmeric's promise for dealing with a variety of ailments. When I saw the list of conditions the spice might help, I decided some research was in order. I already have cancer (prostate), Parkinson's, and arthritis. Getting Alzheimer's is my biggest fear. What I found was very interesting and intriguing.

Turmeric and Curcumin
Spices are found around the world, especially in Southeast Asia. One of them -- turmeric -- has been called "the spice of life" since ancient times. In India today, it is called "the holy powder."

Turmeric is the essential spice in curry, a diet staple on the Indian Subcontinent. It not only jazzes up the food, but also helps prevent spoilage and protects nutritive value. So, if turmeric protects foods, can it do the same for our bodies which, after all, are built upon the foods we eat?

The chemical compound primarily responsible for turmeric's antioxidant power is curcumin. It belongs to a broad class of compounds called polyphenols, many of which have been found to have major health benefits for humans.

In herbal medicine, curcumin has been found to have these effects:
·         Antihepatotoxic -- it has a protective effect on the liver
·         Antihyperlipidemic - it inhibits the excessive buildup of lipids (such as cholesterol) in the blood
·         Anti-inflammatory --it reduces inflammation
·         Antioxidant -- it scavenges free radicals and inhibits lipid peroxide formation, especially in the liver
·         Antitumoral -- it inhibits the formation of tumors including cancerous ones
·         Antimicrobrial  -- it inhibits the action of microorganisms such as bacteria
·         Antifertile -- it has a contraceptive effect
·         Anti-insect -- as a bonus to all of the above, it even acts as an insect repellant!

The Promise of Turmeric / Curcumin
Extensive research over the past decade has suggested the potential for this compound's preventive and therapeutic value against a variety of diseases. Here are some of the findings:

Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other Neurodegenerative Diseases:  Elderly (aged 70-79) residents of rural India who eat large amounts of curry appear to have the lowest incidence of Alzheimer's disease in the world: 4.4 times lower than in America (http://1.usa.gov/Hj69L9 ). Though dramatic, this finding doesn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

But there is some compelling evidence of the spice's efficacy.

Several recent studies have indicated that prolonged use of NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) dramatically reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease. But the chronic use of NSAIDs -- such as ibuprofen -- carries a high risk of severe irritation or ulceration of the stomach, as well as possible kidney or liver damage.

Looking for a safer NSAID than ibuprofen, researchers turned initially to vitamin E, but it bombed out. Then researches at  UCLA decided to look at curcumin, which is an NSAID. They concluded:
Curcumin is not only efficacious at multiple levels but may have fewer side effects and toxicity than many other NSAIDs, including ibuprofen. Together, the multiple beneficial effects of curcumin make it a promising agent for controlled clinical trials to establish its safety and efficacy as a chronic antioxidant and NSAID prophylactic for prevention or treatment of Alzheimer's and possibly other neurodegenerative diseases of aging such as Parkinson's disease.
Just last month, a team of researchers at Michigan State University announced results of a study showing curcumin as effective in preventing clumping of a protein involved in Parkinson's and other debilitating diseases.

Cancer:  Here's what the Mayo Clinic says about the possibility that curcumin could slow the growth of cancer cells:
Curcumin is thought to have antioxidant properties, which means it may decrease swelling and inflammation. It's being explored as a cancer treatment in part because inflammation appears to play a role in cancer. 
Laboratory and animal research suggests that curcumin may prevent cancer, slow the spread of cancer, make chemotherapy more effective and protect healthy cells from damage by radiation therapy. Curcumin is being studied for use in many types of cancer. 
Studies of curcumin in people are still in the early stages. Clinical trials are under way to investigate curcumin as a way to prevent cancer in people with precancerous conditions, as a cancer treatment, and as a remedy for signs and symptoms caused by cancer treatments.
Research is ongoing, and there isn't enough evidence to recommend curcumin at this time
Arthritis:  The anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric have generated the greatest interest in the medical community. Arthritis is one of the most common types of inflammation, and turmeric is widely used, particularly in India, to ease pain for sufferers of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Type 2 Diabetes:  Researchers at McGill University published a report last month in the British Journal of Pharmacology finding that curcumin ameliorates hepatic fibrosis in type 2 diabetes AND suggesting that this "opens the door to the evaluation of curcumin therapeutic effects in liver conditions of different aetiology and in other disorders... such as obesity and atherosclerosis."

Substantiating this suggestion, researchers at a Chinese university recently reported that curcumin could ameliorate chronic alcoholic liver disease.

And The List Goes On
I've listed only those diseases where current medical standards show evidence of the beneficial effects of turmeric / curcumin. Other conditions that  herbalists say it may help include gastrointestinal problems, intermittent fever, edema (swelling), bronchitis, colds, worms, leprosy, kidney inflammation, cystitis, headaches, chest infections, and menstrual problems. Externally, it is used for bruises, leech bites, festering eye infections, inflammation of oral mucosa, inflammatory skin conditions, and infected wounds.

Bhawana, my new Nepali-in-residence, tells me her family grows turmeric in their vegetable garden and when anyone has a cold or runny nose, they use it mixed in warm milk.

But There's A Big Problem:  Delivery
Preliminary clinical trials have shown that curcumin is safe even at doses as high as 12 grams a day. But even at that level, curcumin is not readily absorbed into the body. Many of the studies mentioned above were based on trials involving injections of curcumin into mice. The challenge in developing it for clinical efficacy is its low oral bioavailability, which is attributed to its poor absorption and high rate of metabolism in the intestines and its rapid elimination from the body.

This issue has been the main obstacle in curcumin's progress from lab to clinic. Researchers are creating cutting-edge experiments to develop synthetic curcumin compounds to survive the brutal GI tract that usually destroys natural curcumin.

But a more natural approach might also fix the curcumin absorption problem. The addition of piperine (a compound of black pepper) may allow the body to absorb more curcumin, perhaps by as much as 2000% more.

While medical authorities warn that we need more studies before ingesting megadoses of curcumin, the marketing of curcumin is moving full-steam ahead at health food stores, in vitamin aisles of drug stores, and on internet sites. So, we are confronted with an all-too-common quandary: listen to advice of our doctors and medical researchers and wait for better proof of both efficacy and safety... or gamble on popping a pill or two or more?

A piece on curcumin in the LA Times came to this conclusion:
The bottom line: If you require hard evidence for your remedies, you may want to keep your curcumin in the spice rack. For the most part, the tantalizing possibilities are still unproven, says Greg Cole, a UCLA professor-in-residence of neurology and associate director of the university's Alzheimer Disease Center who has been studying curcumin for several years. "It does a whole lot of things in a test tube," he says. "For people, the data are pretty weak."
So how does an 82-year-old man with Parkinson's disease, prostate cancer, arthritic back pain and a fear of Alzheimer's deal with this dilemma? Tune in tomorrow.



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