Turmeric is having a moment. If you’re wondering why this brilliant yellow spice seems to be everywhere — in golden lattes, tea blends and even chocolate bars — you need to know that for centuries this member of the ginger family has been used in Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese medicine to treat conditions like digestive problems, skin conditions and headaches. These days, scientists are finding that the spice may help to prevent numerous diseases, including certain types of cancer.
Turmeric owes its disease-fighting powers to the compound curcumin, a phytochemical that has been shown to have therapeutic value in preventing chronic illness and promoting overall health. Now scientists are actively engaged in identifying the biological mechanisms responsible for these results. Here’s a brief run-down on some of the beneficial ways curcumin works in your body, with a focus on its cancer-protective effects.
Curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Any wellness strategy should involve keeping inflammation under control. Chronic inflammation has been linked with numerous conditions, including heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis and dementia. Inflammation supports the growth of cancerous tumors and has been shown to promote the growth of specific cancers.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are a class of pharmaceuticals (including common drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen) often used to control inflammation. Unfortunately, these drugs can have side effects like stomach upset. Long-term use may raise the risk of serious conditions such as hypertension or stroke.
When researchers investigated almost a dozen NSAIDS, focusing on a cellular pathway linked with inflammation and tumor growth, they found that curcumin was better at fighting inflammation and preventing cancer than most of the drugs. The exceptions were celecoxib (used to treat arthritis and other joint pan diseases) and tamoxifen (a breast cancer treatment.)
Curcumin fights free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage your DNA, setting the stage for oxidative stress and cancer. Fortunately, your body has ways to neutralize these troublemakers, including the Nrf2 pathway, a signalling system in your cells. Curcumin is a free-radical scavenger that upregulates the Nfr2 response, protecting your body from oxidative stress.
Curcumin supports liver detoxification. Your liver is your body’s main detoxification tool. Liver detoxification is a complex process that takes place in two steps; curcumin has been shown to influence both stages. Its cancer-protective value is most obvious in Phase II, where it supports the production of various enzymes that can detoxify potential carcinogens.
Curcumin improves gene expression. The process of gene expression underlies many of curcumin’s health benefits. Thanks to the science of epigenetics, we know that genes are not static. They interact with their environment, turning their volume up or down in response to environmental cues. Curcumin has been shown to positively affect numerous genes, including some involved in inflammation and/or cancer. For instance, it slows down the DNMT gene, improving DNA methylation. This epigenetic process has been linked to numerous diseases in addition to cancer.
Turmeric has earned its “superfood” stripes. But no single food has the range of nutrients you need to stay healthy. Long-term wellness depends upon consuming a balanced diet built around a variety of nutrient-dense whole foods. For instance, research shows the Mediterranean Diet (focused on plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, fish and olive oil), which lowers the risk of certain cancers, also reduces inflammation and positively influences gene expression.
That said, even the most nutritious diet can benefit from the occasional shot in the arm. While turmeric is loaded with powerful plant compounds, it provides only a small amount of curcumin (as little as 3 percent.) However, you can find fresh turmeric root in the produce section of well-stocked grocery stores and using the whole spice in its natural form has advantages. For instance, the rhizome contains natural oils, which help your body to absorb its medicinal compounds. It also contains other nutrients that may act synergistically with curcumin to enhance its effectiveness.
If you decide to take a supplement do some research to make sure you are purchasing the best product .(Curcumin is poorly absorbed in the body and requires additional substances to do its job.) And check with a medical professional as curcumin supplements can interact with medications.
Takada, Y et al. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents differ in their ability to suppress NF-kappaB activation, inhibition of expression of cyclooxygenase-2 and cyclin D1, and abrogation of tumor cell proliferation. Oncogene 2004
Reason, W. et al. Curcumin: A review of anti-cancer properties and therapeutic activity in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Molecular Cancer 2011.
Link, A. et al. Curcumin Modulates DNA Methylation in Colorectal Cancer Cells. PLOSOne 2013.
Liu, R.H., Health benefits of fruit and vegetables are from additive and synergistic combinations of phytochemicals. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 200
Judith Finlayson is the author of You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics, and the Origins of Chronic Disease