August 13, 2012

Coconut Oil vs Curcumin as Remedies for Alzheimer's and other Ailments -- Part 2

In my last post I took a look at the health benefit claims being made for coconut oil. In this post I'll do the same for curcumin. I'll start by repeating the introduction to the last post:

The two things that have surprised me the most this year in my blogging and health-related research are:
  • The coconut oil craze. I first became aware of this in February when I put up my first post about the  reports I'd seen touting coconut oil as a remedy for Alzheimer's. That post took off like a skyrocket in terms of the hits it got and it kept on going. It has attracted five times as much traffic as any other post I've  published. Yet all the research I've done on coconut oil has yet to turn up a valid study to substantiate the claims made for it.
  • Curcumin -- the "unsung hero." Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric, the curry spice that Indians call the "holy powder." I had never heard anything about curcumin until I began researching dietary supplements, and I was startled to find it has been the subject of over 500 scientific studies, almost all of which verify its potential for treating not just Alzheimer's but also other neurological disorders like Parkinson's and MS, as well as cancer, diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, depression... and the list goes on.
The contrast between the much-hyped coconut oil and the little-known curcumin says a lot about how we let ourselves get seduced by internet hype, YouTube videos, anecdotal stories of miracle drugs, and our reluctance to check the validity of the claims.

Curcumin is the only botanical whose clear efficacy has been demonstrated by science. Almost 5,000 peer-reviewed studies now exist to support curcumin's beneficial effects. Most of the studies were small and many of them were done with mice and rats, not humans. There's no question: we need more large-scale, peer-reviewed, clinical studies involving people, and a number of them are now underway.

Curcumin has powerful antioxidant properties, which means it can fight inflammation. Many diseases are accompanied by inflammation and, according to some research, prompted by it. Curcumin also appears to combat ongoing cellular damage. These dual attributes -- combating both inflammation and cellular damage -- could affect virtually all the body's tissues, including the brain. What's especially exciting to me (and millions of others) is curcumin's potential to fight Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other neurological disorders that are known to be related to inflammation.

One of the newer theories about cancer is that it is linked to inflammation in the body: if you reduce inflammation, you reduce cancer risk. Recent studies have suggested that the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin helps protect the cells in the pancreas that create insulin, making it more effective in preventing the onset of type 2 diabetes.

Other promising studies have shown that curcumin has the potential to treat cardiovascular disease, arthritis, depression, male-pattern baldness... and the list goes on.

Blood-Brain Barrier Problem
Most of the promising early research on this "holy spice" involved mice. An impediment to obtaining the same results with humans was the lack of product potency to cross the blood-brain barrier. Most commercial turmeric for culinary use contains only 2-8% active curcumin.

Recent research, however, has produced a curcumin derivative -- BCM-95 -- that has been shown in several studies to possess a bioavailability six times greater than conventionally prepared curcumin. So, a 400mg dose of BCM-95 delivers the same usable amount of curcumin as 2,700mg of the standard extract.

Although there is no RDA (Recommended Daily Allotment) for curcumin, a daily dose of 400-1,000mg is used in most studies. Up to ten times that amount has been used in some therapeutic studies.

Interview with Leading Researcher
One of the leading researchers on curcumin is Ajay Goel, PhD, director of epigenetics and cancer prevention at the Gastrointestinal Cancer Research Lab at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

For more than 15 years, Goel has studied the power of curcumin in preventing and fighting cancer, especially gastrointestinal cancers. He’s been intrigued that the rate of colon cancer in the United States is thirty times higher than in his native India. Diet plays a major role in this type of cancer, and one key dietary difference is the heavy use of turmeric – from which curcumin is derived – in South Asia.

Goel says that pharmacology can’t really boast any great success in preventing or fighting cancer over the past four decades. So far, drugs kill not only tumors, but healthy cells, too. They typically target single molecules or genes, whereas curcumin targets multiple pathways or genes to suppress cancerous growth. Curcumin reduces inflammation and oxidative stress: conditions that abet the development of tumors.

Goel has been personally involved with more than 100 of the 5,000-plus studies done on curcumin. Turmeric is the only spice whose study has entered mainstream, clinical trials, over 40 of which have been made on humans only. He says that 80 new clinical trials involving humans are underway. He is convinced that this botanical has “passed muster,” moving well beyond in-vitro and animal studies, showing in all cases some very real efficacy.

Goel is especially excited about a recent study of curcumin’s potential for treating rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the first clinical trial involving humans. The positive outcome didn’t surprise him, since he understands curcumin’s anti-inflammatory power. The study found that curcumin was as effective as prescription pain medication. In addition, curcumin doesn't produce the toxic side effects of the prescription pain killers.

He discusses this study -- and other curcumin research now underway -- in this radio interview:

Curcumin Studies vs. Coconut Oil Hype
The best and most authoritative site for research on scientific studies related to health issues is the National Health Institute's PubMD -- I went to that site and searched first on "curcumin" and then on "coconut oil."  I limited the search to reports published this year.

The searches yielded over 500 hits for curcumin and only 28 for coconut oil. Looking at the coconut oil listings, I found that most of them did not deal with studies relating to humans, but rather dealt with agricultural products and issues. For example, this was one of the topics: "Microbial population in the rumen of swamp buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) as influenced by coconut oil and mangosteen peel supplementation."

Several months ago, I set up Google Alert for both curcumin and coconut oil. These alerts zap messages to your inbox whenever new information about your topic appears on the internet. I've been amazed at the number of reports I get of new scientific studies dealing with curcumin. My alerts on coconut oil, on the other hand, are mostly about its use in cooking -- and in skin and hair care. There are also a few unsubstantiated claims for its purported broader health benefits if used internally rather than externally. I've not been alerted to any scientific studies finding such benefits.

Curcumin and Me
I don't want to sound like Dr. Powers, who has been promoting coconut oil based on the unique experience of her Alzheimer's-stricken husband. And I don't want to sound like Dr. Oz, who has touted coconut oil for everybody, in spite of the lack of scientific evidence. I am not an advocate for curcumin.

My experience is just that: MY experience. And, in any event, my encounter with curcumin hasn't been all that spectacular, or -- for all I know -- clearly based on cause and effect.

I want to emphasize a couple things:
  • Most of those promising 5,000+ studies -- especially the initial ones -- involved mice, not people.
  • The blood-brain barrier issue remains problematic with humans.
  • Most reputable authorities urge more large-scale, peer-reviewed, controlled clinical trials before they could responsibly recommend curcumin.
But this 83-year-old with Parkinson's, prostate cancer, and osteoarthritis has decided not to wait for these trials -- which will surely take years -- particularly since curcumin's reported side effects do not seem worrisome. Goel, the leading curcumin researcher, has said that he thinks the BCM-95 version of curcumin is the most effective in passing the blood-brain barrier. So, I went online and placed my order: Life Extension's Super-Bio Curcumin, 400mg.  

It's recommended that curcumin be taken with meals, so I take one pill with each of my three meals (the easiest plan for this often-forgetful old man to remember). That's a total of 1,200mg every day. Most of the clinical trials I've seen involved administering between 500 and 2000mg a day. Much larger dosages have been tested without serious side effects.

So, what happened for me? Nothing dramatic. I did almost immediately feel an uptick in energy. The low back pain attributed to arthritis seemed to abate a bit, but persists. And I've wondered if my recent "libido revival" is somehow related to the new curcumin regimen. 

But the main reason I decided to try curcumin was my hope that it might help ward off Alzheimer's or dementia, and slow down the progression of my Parkinson's and prostate cancer. There's no easy or clear way for me to know if curcumin is helping.

I mentioned before that I learned a lesson from my experience with the serotonin-booster 5-HTP. I began touting that supplement as a wonder-drug for dealing with depression and insomnia. Only later did I find that few -- if any -- others shared my favorable experience. But with curcumin, I'm beginning to hear some favorable reviews from friends who have tried it. Several people report feeling more energetic; others say it seems to reduce pain. My internet research has found other favorable anecdotal reviews. But those are not the same as scientific studies.

So, that's where I am. I'm not urging you to rush out and buy curcumin pills.

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