October 19, 2012

Coconut Oil vs. Curcumin: The Verdict

After months researching the claim that coconut can treat Alzheimer's disease, I posted a wrap-up report yesterday. Most of the hype comes from anecdotal reports, not careful science. Even the Alzheimer's Association concludes that the coconut oil assertion is bogus.

I've highlighted before the stark difference between the unsubstantiated hype for coconut oil and the proven -- but unheralded -- benefits of curcumin, the active ingredient in the Indian curry spice turmeric. For milliennia, curcumin has played a role in ayurvedic medicine, and in recent years nearly 5,000 peer-reviewed studies have confirmed its usefulness in treating many conditions. (The case for curcumin isn't without its weaknesses, too, which I explain below).

But in today's media-obsessed world, a slick video about Dr. Mary Newport's personal story of treating her husband's Alzheimer's has generated much more interest in coconut oil than thousands of scientific studies have done to promote the potential benefits of curcumin.

In yesterday's post, we reviewed the coconut oil claims using the helpful guide developed by Dr. Dominic Carone in Five Ways To Evaluate Suspicious Medical Treatment Claims. Coconut oil flunked all five tests. How does curcumin fare?

Testing the Claims for Curcumin
Here are Dr. Carone's five criteria:
  1. Search the peer-reviewed medical literature.  I first checked a key scientific reference site, NIH's PubMed. If you enter "curcumin" into the search box, you get over 4,000 links to peer-reviewed studies involving curcumin. If you narrow the search using "curcumin Alzheimer's," you get over 400 hits. (In sharp contrast, a search using "coconut oil Alzheimer's" generated ZERO hits.) As I did with coconut oil, I set up a Google alert about six months ago so I'd receive a daily email recap of news about curcumin. I've been amazed to see all the regular reports of new curcumin studies. In all that time, I haven't seen a single study involving coconut oil.
  2. Evaluate the quality of peer-reviewed medical literature.  The main issue with curcumin studies so far? They involve rodent subjects, not humans. Eager to match rodent results in humans, researchers found a problem with curcumin's ability to pass the blood-brain barrier, i.e., there were problems getting the compound's active ingredients into the human brain. But recently, scientists have found ways to combine curcumin with other compounds to greatly enhance its "bioavailability" for humans. See http://bit.ly/KGGpx3
  3. Research who is promoting the treatment.  Popular TV and internet boosters of supplements, like Dr. Oz and Dr. Mercola, have mentioned curcumin but haven't promoted it the way they did coconut oil. It's no wonder scientists have dubbed curcumin "the unsung hero."
  4. Be skeptical of suspicious claims.  More than any other supplement, curcumin has been studied and deemed to have scientifically-demonstrated potential health benefits. It's been used without ill effects for over 6,000 years in India, where it is called the "holy powder."
  5. Research what respectable organizations devoted to the condition say about the treatment.  When I put "curcumin" into the search box on the Alzheimer Association's website, I got one hit, a profile of an AA nutritionist who is studying curcumin. 
A similar search on the National Parkinson's Foundation's website also yielded only one hit, a list of "Ten Nutrition Tips To Living Well with Parkinson's Disease." Number 4 on the list was:
TURMERIC - Contains a substance, curcumin,which has been recommended by some groups as useful in treatment of diabetes, heart disease,cancer, and liver damage; it is currently being investigated as a possible treatment for PD.
The Michael J. Fox Foundation website has provided a funded grant to study how to get curcumin more effectively from the blood and into the human brain.
The American Cancer Society's site provided references to several studies involving curcumin and cancer. I got no hits about curcumin on the American Diabetes Association's website.
The Verdict and The Big Question
The curcumin vs. coconut verdict:  Curcumin is the clear winner. Its use is supported by thousands of peer-reviewed studies, and by 6,000 years of use as a "holy power." In stark contrast, the case for coconut oil depends on limited anecdotes, not science. Some of coconut's oil most vocal proponents -- like Mary Newport -- have financial stakes in the issue. The more the anecdotal hype grows, the more books Newport sells. Sadly, for Alzheimer's sufferers whose hopes are greatly raised by the hype (then horribly dashed by the scientific reality), the more books she sells, the more the unfounded hype grows.

A personal note:  I regret raising the hopes of others when I rapturously described the many benefits I'd experienced using 5-HTP (a product in which I have ZERO financial interest). It worked for me but had no similar effects on others I know who tried it because of my recommendation. I only meant to share my own experience -- as Mary Newport might also say -- but I'm sorry for creating false hope, and I have certainly STOPPED promoting 5-HTP, as a result. If there's one thing on this blog I wish I could "take back," that's it. I wonder if Mary Newport -- in moments of quiet reflection, wondering about the gigantic hopes she has raised -- has similar thoughts.

The Big Question:  In light of the science and history behind curcumin, I wonder why more isn't being done to turn all the promise into reality. The question brings into play some heavy hitters, including Big Pharma, the Food and Drug Administration and -- as always -- $$$$.

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