May 23, 2013

Update on Curcumin, "Unsung Hero" among Nutrients

Last week, I reported on the curcumin-based compound J147. It's the most promising drug in the pipeline for treating Alzheimer's and other age-related diseases, including my Parkinson's.  

I've written several posts about curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, the curry spice Indians call the "holy powder." Curcumin/turmeric has a rich history in ancient cultures, both for it culinary and medicinal uses.

Today's researchers have called it "the unsung hero" among many more widely touted nutrients. While it hasn't received much publicity, curcumin has been the subject of more scientific study than any other compound. Most of those studies have been very encouraging about its potential to treat not only neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, but also diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, depression, and a variety of cancers.

I've set up a "Google alert" on curcumin that sends daily email links to new reports on the subject. I've been amazed by the continuing positive commentary, and astounded by the unwillingness to fund human trials for something with so much potential to treat our most serious diseases. 

Latest Research Reports  On Curcumin
Here are just a few of the recent curcumin research alerts I've received:

  • Curcumin may be just as effective as moderate exercise in preventing aging and boosting heart health, according to three different studies carried out by researchers from the University of Tsukuba in Japan. 
  • Curcumin, when taken as a supplement or applied topically, may reduce the risk of developing skin cancer after exposure to UV rays, according to a new study by scientists at Louisiana State University.
  • Curcumin may reduce pain related to diabetic neuropathy, which diabetics are at increasing risk of developing with age and disease duration, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Medical Sciences.
  • Confirming the brain-enhancing benefits of curcumin, a new study conducted at Sel├žuk University in Turkey found that curcumin supplements may be able to prevent the oxidative stress that leads to mental decline in older adults. In addition, the substance was shown to enhance spatial memory. 
  • Curcumin supplementation reduces serum fetuin-A, which is involved in metabolic disorders like obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, and fatty liver, according to a report published in the Journal of Physiology and Biochemistry.
  • Curcumin may facilitate the healthy healing of bone sprains, according to the online medical reference guide published by the University of Maryland  Medical Center.
Researchers Quoted on Curcumin's Potential
Here are a few of the recent quotes I've seen from scientists researching curcumin:
  • Dr. Saraswati Sukumar, a medical oncologist at Johns Hopkins, was quoted recently as saying: "The health benefits are many, many. For example, for those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, who have painful swelling in the knees, turmeric is a great way to suppress the inflammation. Beyond its anti-inflammatory powers, turmeric helps heal wounds, improve pancreatic functions and has offered significant hope to cancer researchers. We have close to 300 publications that cite turmeric for its anti-cancer effects. Many diseases, such as colon cancer and other types of cancer, are being traced to inflammation."
  • Researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center published a ground-breaking review of their work with curcumin in which they said: "Extensive research over the past five decades has indicated that curcumin reduces blood cholesterol levels, prevents low-density lipoprotein oxidation, inhibits platelet aggregation, suppresses thrombosis and myocardial infraction, suppresses symptoms associated with type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer's disease, inhibits HIV replication, suppresses tumor formation, enhances wound healing, protects against liver injury, increases bile secretion, protects against cataract formation, and protects against pulmonary toxicity and fibrosis."

But Two Major Problems Exist
1) Bioavailability of curcumin for humans. Most of the hundreds of encouraging research reports on curcumin resulted from experiments with mice or in-vitro dishes. Only a few of the studies have involved humans.

Researchers know that turmeric/curcumin works well when fed to or injected into mice but has trouble crossing the blood/brain barrier in order to be absorbed in the digestive tract. I've reported on this issue before (put "curcumin' and "bioavailability" in the search box). 

Lots of curcumin compounds are being developed to enhance their bioavailability to humans. I've opted to take the BCM-95 curcumin compound since my research indicated it showed the best potential for humans. 

Just last week, I saw a news report that the Indian Government had named Dr. Benny Antony as the "Spice Innovator of the Year" for his work developing the high-absorption BCM-95 curcumin. The report indicated that "BCM-95 shows up to 10 times better absorption and blood retention times than standard curcumin extracts. Because of this, BCM-95 has become the preferred curcumin in leading research around the world."

I'll continue taking my BCM-95. 

2) The money needed for big, expensive human trials isn't there. I mentioned this problem last week when I reported on J147, the curcumin-based compound with such great promise for treating Alzheimer's. Big Pharma has declined to fund the human trials.

It's a problem for all herbal medicines. Drug companies can't make money selling a curry spice that's available at the grocery store. Nor are they interested in an enhanced curcumin compound like BCM-95 that I buy for 35 cents a pill.

The herbal medicine problem is nicely summarized in this essay from the Nutrition Wonderland website:
So we have to leave this story where we have left so many before it. Turmeric and its flavonoid curcumin show massive therapeutic benefits for all sorts of diseases and maladies. Inflammatory pain from arthritis, elderly suffering from mental decline and women genetically predisposed to cancer would appear to benefit from this compound. But no doctor in his right mind would recommend such a protocol until it was rigorously studied against the barrage of unknown drug interactions, and, of course, amidst a minefield of malpractice litigation.

Here we wait, for additional study that will probably never come on the scale required to elevate curcumin to the echelon of a true pharmaceutical-type product. The advances are novel and interesting but remain in a medical gray area until the structure of the medical system is updated to take herbal medicine seriously. Let’s hope for a day when someone with a bit more training than the clerk at your local vitamin/herb store can legally guide you towards therapeutic herbal remedies. So there we are.
But it's too easy to put the blame solely on Big Pharma. My pal John Martin was right on target when he made this comment to last week's post on curcumin:
The federal government is equally to blame, having devised rules and standards for human trials (purportedly to protect the public) that essentially guarantee that no plant-based remedies will ever be approved for human use, & where only big Pharma with its seemingly-bottomless deep pockets (and exclusive interest in engineered materials that can be protected by patents) will ever be able to afford to conduct them. Insisting on high standards for science is of course admirable, but the underlying principle seems to be to set the bar at different levels depending on the needs of the industries represented by the lobbyists who keep our corrupt government's engine running. The emperor has no clothes, folks!!


Anonymous said...

Great blog and commitment. One thing I remember reading in TIME that some pharma tried to patent tumeric. The Indian Govt. objected and it had to be shelved. I use tumeric in cooking, for cough, sore throat, swellings etc. and it's effective. Waiting for big pharma to co-operate is wishful thinking. Tumeric is harmless when used sensibly. I'll check BCM-95 but the magic powder my mother 'prescribed' works wonders. Thx for your great interest that alligns with mine.

Joy said...

I make my own turmeric and black pepper capsules really helps painful dystonia