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Turmeric and its active ingredient, curcumin, have become top sellers in health food stores. What’s the buzz? The Indian curry spice is a leading way to reduce the inflammation that underlies ills, from joint pain and bad moods to indigestion and memory loss. Turmeric has a long history of use both as a spice and as a natural remedy. For more than 4,000 years, it has been used in traditional Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese systems of healing to treat a variety of ailments, including gas, menstrual difficulties, arthritis, skin diseases, and liver conditions, and to enhance energy.
In the early 1970s, Indian scientists discovered that the herb has anti-inflammatory properties, primarily from a specific component, curcumin. From that point forward, more and more scientists began examining its various characteristics, and have found that it also contains antioxidants and inhibits cancer growth.
In recent years, several patented forms of curcumin have also become available, and these, too, have been tested in studies. Found in various brands of supplements, they are designed to enhance the bioavailability of the supplement and speed up relief from symptoms.
Inflammation underlies the aging process, as well as chronic conditions from indigestion, heart disease, and diabetes to cancer, Alzheimer’s, and even bad moods. The anti-inflammatory nature of curcumin has been documented in more than 3,000 published articles.
As an example, research with type 2 diabetics, who are at high risk for atherosclerosis, found that daily curcumin supplements reduced their risk. The study, published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, found that the supplement helped improve specific metabolic markers, such as insulin resistance, which is a very common byproduct of eating a diet of processed food.
Athletes and fitness buffs are harnessing turmeric or curcumin to recover more rapidly and protect joints. And some believe that it enhances performance.
One study compared 2 gm daily of curcumin with 800 mg daily of ibuprofen among 107 people with osteoarthritis in the knee. Both groups saw equal improvement in symptoms at all points during a six-week period. The study, which was published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, concluded that compared to the drug, curcumin was “similarly efficacious and safe.”
Another study tested a patented formula, Curcumin C3 Complex with BioPerine (a black pepper extract), in a group of 40 people with mild to moderate knee osteoarthritis. Compared to those who took a placebo, participants who took a 500 mg dose, three times per day, of the supplement experienced significantly reduced pain and improved knee function. The study, published in Phytotherapy Research, concluded that curcumin is a “safe and effective alternative treatment” for osteoarthritis.
Other proprietary forms of curcumin that have been tested and found effective for osteoarthritis relief include Meriva, BCM-95, and Theracurmin.
Promise for Cancer
Many lab and animal studies, and some preliminary human trials, have shown that curcumin has anticancer properties as well. A pilot study at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center found that curcumin suppresses the growth of head and neck cancer tumors. Researchers gave either 1,000 mg of curcumin in chewable tablets, or a placebo, to 21 patients with such cancer. One hour later, they tested saliva for inflammatory and cancer markers. The only side effect was that people’s teeth and mouths turned yellow after taking the chewables.
“The curcumin had a significant inhibitory effect, blocking two different drivers of head and neck cancer growth,” said Marilene Wang, MD, senior author of the study, adding that curcumin could be combined with other treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, to treat these cancers.
Wang also sees broader application for curcumin. “It could perhaps be given to patients at high risk for developing head and neck cancers—smokers, those who chew tobacco, and people with the HPV virus—as well as to patients with previous oral cancers to fight recurrence.”
How to Benefit
Supplements: Both turmeric and curcumin are available as individual supplements, in formulas for specific benefits (such as joint health or pain relief), and in some multivitamins. Since formulations differ, follow product directions for your specific needs. Proprietary forms of curcumin include BCM-95, Curcumin C3 Complex, Meriva, and Theracurmin.
Tea: Turmeric is also found in teas, sometimes blended with other herbs (try Numi Organic Tea’s new line of Turmeric teas). Or make your own: Add ¼ teaspoon of turmeric powder per cup of boiling water, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Strain and serve, with stevia or honey if you prefer. Try adding ginger, which complements turmeric well.