May 23, 2012

Curcumin and Me and Arthritis and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and Whatever: The Verdict Is In.

Earlier this month, I posted a report on the promising research on curcumin -- the active ingredient in the spice turmeric -- in fighting Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, MS, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis. I noted that researchers have found that turmeric / curcumin is not readily absorbed by the body. Happily, this obstacle can be overcome by adding piperine, a derivative of black pepper, which studies show greatly enhanced the body's ability to absorb curcumin. Other enhancers also are being tried.

We've talked a lot on this blog recently about how Americans spend billions of dollars on dietary supplements that -- according to the studies -- do not deliver the promised benefits and, in many cases, even cause harm. Persuaded by my own research, I stopped taking a multivitamin and several other supplements, determined to rely on a good diet instead.

But the curcumin research gave me cause for thought, since I'm currently dealing with Parkinson's, prostate cancer, and an arthritic back... not to mention my huge fear of Alzheimer's. My internal debate -- to take or not to take curcumin / piperine -- was described in another post. I started taking the supplement on April 6.

My Experiment with Curcumin
Not sure how to select ONE curcumin product from the many available, I experimented with a 1000mg pill, dissolving it in my morning cup of coffee (and staining the cup that distinctive turmeric yellow!). Then, as I reported last week, I came across an excellent interview with a leading researcher who recommended a specific variety of curcumin: "BCM-95." That same expert also described a promising study on the use of curcumin to treat rheumatoid arthritis, during which participants took 500mg pills twice a day.

I decided to order a 400mg version of the BCM-95 curcumin. I take one pill with each meal, because that plan is easy for me to remember. I've been following that regimen for about two weeks.

So what's the verdict?

First, Two Caveats
Before I report on my experiment with curcumin, two important cautions:
  • My experience is MY experience. Others may have completely different experiences. Too often these days, a slick YouTube video touting the magic powers of a new supplement can drive thousands of desperate sufferers to the nearest health food store to pick up their supply. Sadly, their hopes are dashed when the promised results do not materialize. Something similar happened to me: when I discovered that 5-HTP lifted my own depression better than the prescribed Elavil, I became an avid spokesman for the supplement. Several friends tried it after hearing my recommendations, but none of them experienced results like mine. It was a big lesson for me; every person is a different, unique bundle of chemistry.
  • During the two months I've been taking curcumin, I've also been experimenting with acupuncture and Reike. I've also increased my time with mindfulness meditation, focusing on my back pain. I've "muddied the waters" with factors other than curcumin, making it more difficult to attribute any therapeutic power to it alone. When you're eager for results, especially relief from pain -- and almost 83 years old -- you don't spend a lot of time thinking about scientific method!
The Preliminary Verdict: Curcumin Shows Great Promise
Within the first few days of starting curcumin, I noticed a significant increase in my general sense of well-being. My energy level felt much higher. Family and close friends would be surprised to learn I haven't taken my regular afternoon nap for days. I've been addicted to those naps since law school, eons ago.

Studies show that curcumin has potential to treat Parkinson's and cancer -- both of which I have -- but those reports didn't persuade me to try curcumin. My major impediment to quality of life today isn't Parkinson's or cancer. It's the lower back pain that has plagued me since the car crash last August and is constant when standing or walking. That pain was first attributed to the fractured vertebrae I had as a result of the crash. The vertebrae healed, but the pain remained. Doctors diagnosed arthritis as the cause.

Physical therapy had always seemed to relieve the general back pain I've experienced for many years. But it didn't address the pain from the new, specific site near my left hip. Then I worked with a doctor at Sibley Hospital's pain center. We tried steroid injections, but they didn't work. Skin patches worn to deaden the pain didn't help. Neither did the pain-killer injections. Though I don't like using OTC meds for pain, I was using them most mornings when my discomfort is most intense.  

So, especially after so many other approaches had failed, I was ready to give curcumin a try. Happily, I've noticed a slow, significant improvement, and I haven't used pain meds for over a week.

In the past, pain was often worst when I had to stand more than a few minutes. Last Saturday during the cocktail hour before dinner at the wedding reception for my Nepali housemates, I stood for at least an hour. I wasn't exactly comfortable by the end of that hour, but -- just a week or two earlier -- standing that long would have been unthinkable for me.

I still feel pain with every step I take. It's less intense now, but still my number one aggravation. I cross my fingers that this progress will continue. I even dare to hope that the pain will abate -- disappear? -- so that I can resume the walks that, while not as enjoyable as my former bike riding, gave me a lot of pleasure.

If the curcumin is impacting my Parkinson's or cancer, I didn't expect to see results quickly. But my research showed that one of curcumin's attributes was boosting both serotonin and dopamine. Parkinson's motor symptoms result from the death of dopamine cells, and the carbidopa / levodopa medicine most of us take for PD is designed to introduce more dopamine into the brain. The catch-22: long-term use of this medication typically results in dyskinesia -- the spells of uncontrolled thrashing of arms and legs we often see in long-time Parkinson's patients.

So, against that background -- and with my improved sense of well-being -- I'm experimenting with the carbidopa / levodopa, often taking it only three times a day instead of the usual four. So far, so good. I'm scheduled for one of my regular visits with my neurologist in a few weeks, and I'll be sure to let him know about my med "tweaks."

I'm also experimenting with something else -- not curcumin -- to address my fears of dementia. But that's an issue for another day.
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