Various Traditional cultures have always known that food can be medicine, when used wisely. For instance, the Chinese and East Indian cuisine is loaded with heavenly spices that not only taste good but are also good for many common ailments. In addition, science is now suggesting that these very spices may actually prevent many chronic disease as well as possibly some cancer.
Turmeric, also known as cumerin, has a long history of use in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Used for centuries to treat inflammation and swelling, it was incorporated into East Indian cuisine as a major component of curries and spices of the region. Having a rather strong, pungent, peppery flavor, it is popular even today in western cultures. Western medicine has only recently begun to study this yellow spice.
Turmeric and Arthritis
Turmeric contains curcumin and curcuminoids, which are powerful anti-inflammatory phytochemicals that act as natural cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) inhibitors in the body, and inhibit the production of the prostaglandins that cause inflammation and swelling. Indian researchers found that tumeric relieved joint pain and swelling in people with arthritis every bit as well as prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) without side effects such as abdominal bleeding or stomach upset. Unlike the drugs, which are associated with significant toxic effects (ulcer formation, decreased white blood cell count, intestinal bleeding), curcumin produces no toxicity.
Clinical studies have substantiated that curcumin also exerts very powerful antioxidant effects. As an antioxidant, curcumin is able to neutralize free radicals, chemicals that can travel through the body and cause great amounts of damage to healthy cells and cell membranes. This is important in many diseases, such as arthritis, where free radicals are responsible for the painful joint inflammation and eventual damage to the joints. Turmeric’s combination of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects explains why many people with joint disease find relief when they use the spice regularly. In a recent study of patients with rheumatoid arthritis, curcumin was compared to phenylbutazone and produced comparable improvements in shortened duration of morning stiffness, lengthened walking time, and reduced joint swelling.
Turmeric and Cholesterol
Curcumin may be able to prevent the oxidation of cholesterol in the body. Since oxidized cholesterol is what damages blood vessels and builds up in the plaques that can lead to heart attack or stroke, preventing the oxidation of new cholesterol may help to reduce the progression of atherosclerosis and diabetic heart disease. In addition, turmeric is a good source of vitamin B6, which is needed to keep homocysteine levels from getting too high. Homocysteine, an intermediate product of an important cellular process called methylation, is directly damaging to blood vessel walls. High levels of homocysteine are considered a significant risk factor for blood vessel damage, atherosclerotic plaque build-up, and heart disease; while a high intake of vitamin B6 is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.
In research published in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, when 10 healthy volunteers consumed 500 mg of curcumin per day for 7 days, not only did their blood levels of oxidized cholesterol drop by 33%, but their total cholesterol droped 11.63% , and their HDL (good cholesterol) increased by 29%! (Soni KB, Kuttan R).
Turmeric and Neurodegenerative Disease
Growing evidence suggests that turmeric may afford protection against neurodegenerative diseases. Epidemiological studies show that in elderly Indian populations, among whose diet turmeric is a common spice, levels of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s are very low. Concurrently, experimental research conducted recently found that curcumin does appear to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s in mice. Preliminary studies in mice also suggest that curcumin may block the progression of multiple sclerosis. While it is still unclear how it may afford protection against this degenerative condition, one theory is that it may interrupt the production of IL-2, a protein that can play a key role in the destruction of myelin, the sheath that serves to protect most nerves in the body.
Turmeric and Cancer
Epidemiological studies have linked the frequent use of turmeric to lower rates of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer; laboratory experiments have shown curcumin can prevent tumors from forming; and research conducted at the University of Texas suggests that even when breast cancer is already present, curcumin can help slow the spread of breast cancer cells to the lungs in mice.
Curcumin, a phytonutrient found in the curry spice turmeric, and quercitin, an antioxidant in onions, reduce both the size and number of precancerous lesions in the human intestinal tract, shows research published in the August 2006 issue of Clinical Gasteroenterology and Hepatology.
Previous observational studies in populations that consume large amounts of curry, as well as animal research, have strongly suggested that curcumin, one of the main ingredients in Asian curries, might be effective in preventing and/or treating cancer in the lower intestine. Similarly, quercetin, an anti-oxidant flavonoid found in a variety of foods including onions, green tea and red wine, has been shown to inhibit growth of colon cancer cell lines in humans and abnormal colorectal cells in animals.
Prostate cancer-the second leading cause of cancer death in American men with 500,000 new cases appearing each year-is a rare occurrence among men in India, whose low risk is attributed to a diet rich in brassica family vegetables and the curry spice, turmeric. There is even evidence that a diet rich in turmeric may decrease the risk of childhood leukemia.
While simply consuming curry, broccoli, cauliflower and onions may not be a diet for everyone to enjoy, you can now reap the benefits of turmeric by taking it as a supplement. Because it is a spice, it can be safely consumed in supplement form.
This spice is delicious on healthy sautéed apples, and healthy steamed cauliflower and/or green beans and onions. Or, for a flavor-rich, low-calorie dip, try adding some turmeric and dried onion to creamy yogurt.