April 6, 2012

Why Is Turmeric / Curcumin -- While So Promising -- So Little Studied?

Let's wrap up our turmeric / curcumin / piperine series. To review:

Turmeric was dubbed "the spice of life" in ancient times. It's called "the holy powder" in India today and figures prominently in the millions of curries served up every day on the Indian Subcontinent. Ayurveda medicine attributes life-enhancing qualities to turmeric.

Those of us in the West might dismiss these claims as folklore, but over the past decade clinical studies have shown that curcumin -- the active ingredient in turmeric -- has great promise as a remedy for:
  • Alzheimer's
  • Parkinson's
  • MS
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • Depression
The Research Obstacle
But there's a major obstacle, turmeric is not easily absorbed into our bodies. Clinical tests showing its potential were mostly based on injecting curcumin into mice. Oral consumption by humans -- even in large amounts -- doesn't show much therapeutic benefit.

Researchers are working on this absorption problem. They're developing compounds designed to provide curcumin with a delivery vehicle to survive the brutal human GI tract -- a pathway that usually destroys natural curcumin. Several synthetic methods in development include nano-particle engineering.

A more natural approach to the absorption problem involves combining turmeric with piperine, found in black pepper. Studies suggest that this addition may increase curcumin absoption by almost 2000%. 

Elderly, rural Indians -- with their traditional diets -- have among the world's lowest incidence of Alzheimer's. Their curries are prepared with complex spice combinations, including black pepper, that may enable their bodies to absorb more curcumin.

The Bigger Obstacle from Our Health System
Given turmeric's gigantic promise, why is research so limited?

Bharat Aggarwal, professor of cancer research at the University of Texas and a leading curcumin researcher, says that big, expensive human trials haven't happened because the drug companies can't make money selling a curry spice that's available at your local grocery store. But anecdotally, he says, "I have a thousand patients who correspond with me, and the response [to curcumin] has been overwhelming."

Reviewing the mounting evidence of the powerful role this substance can play as an anti-inflammatory agent, an essay on the Nutrition Wonderland website concluded:
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.

On a happier note, while it may be just another example of the powerful placebo effect, I feel like my arthritic back pain has eased after just two days on my new curcumin-piperine supplement.


DH said...

John - what curcumin-piperine supplement do you take?   Thanks for your blog as I'm learning a lot in hoping to help a family member!  

Michael said...

I am open to what you have to say, and am just as interested as the next PWP [Person with Parkinson's] to 1) reduce the dependency on big pharma meds, and 2) stay healthy as I can; but can you elaborate on an apparent contradiction in the blog.
It refers to " Oral consumption by humans, even in large amounts, doesn't show much therapeutic benefit." .  And yet goes on to quote a Dr/Researcher ""I have a thousand patients who correspond with me, and the response to curcumin has been overwhelming.",
The information seems to lay the issue at the door of big pharma for lack of validation, and yet presupposes the results that the big pharma tests are expected to yield. 

John said...

I should have clarified this.  Oral consumption of curcumin by itself  doesn't get into our systems readily. Scientific researchers refer to this as "poor bioavailability."  Virtually all of the studies I cite on the therapeutic potential of curcumin were based in injecting into mice.  The comments and anecdotal report by the doctor who is a leading curcumin researcher were based on oral consumption of curcumin buttressed by piperine or other add-on designed to enhance its "bioavailability"
P.S.  I'm on my 3rd day of a curcumin/piperine supplement and my arthritic back pain is considerably lessened.  But don't rush out and buy it,  I may be experiencing the placebo delusion.  I plan on reporting on my blog  any progress after a week of trying this.  And this of course has nothing to do with Parkinson's.  It's easier to tell whether the pill is helping a bad back than it is to tell whether it's doing anything for my PD or prostate cancer or my potential for dementia.    

John said...

I'm experimenting at the outset.  I started with one brand but someone recommended another.As evidence of why you shouldn't rush out and buy something just because I take it, your inquiry reminded me that I didn't check the Consumer Lab website (www.consumerlab.com) for reviews on curcumin products. My first choice wasn't even listed! But the one recommended to me -- Life Extension Super Curcumin -- was and was approved.  For what it's worth, which may be little.

Anne Goodwin said...

John, this is so helpful! Thanks for sharing. Do you know if this supplement interacts negatively with prescription medications?  

Anon said...

Any update on how this is working?

John said...

The jury is still out but I expect it to come in with at least a preliminary verdict next week which I'll post on the blog.

Monda Mantha said...

I don't believe Dr. Mercola just sells things. He is a natural health guru, isn't he? I got some of his products especially this: http://organicindia.mercola.com/herbal-supplements/turmeric.aspx Had been using it for years already and it has never failed me.