The many healing properties of curcumin are some of the most exciting discoveries in the field of functional medicine. Curcumin counters inflammation, detoxifies excess estrogen, supports the body’s antioxidant system, helps deal with abnormal blood fat ratios (dyslipidemia) and offers protection against colds and flu. What’s more, a study published in 2010 reported the successful use of curcumin in West Bengal, India, to deal with DNA damage associated with arsenic toxicity, which is common in that region. In fact, curcumin has so many health-promoting properties that it rates a spot on your list of must-have supplements.
Considering the powerful effects of curcumin, you may be surprised to know it is not a prescription drug, nor is it considered an over-the-counter medication. Far from it. It’s simply a nutrient found in the herb turmeric; it’s used as a spice in cooking and is commonly found in mustard and cheese. It has been used for over 4,000 years to treat many medical conditions; in Chinese medicine specifically, curcumin has been used to treat wounds, skin diseases and digestive disorders.
Particularly interesting is that curcumin has been extensively researched in the area of preventing and treating many types of cancers, although the news has yet to appear much in mainstream media.
In a paper published in the August 2008 issue of the medical journal Cancer Letters, the authors found that curcumin could target cancers affecting such areas as the lungs, colon, breasts, stomach, ovaries, genitals and colon. Because cancer is often associated with old age, the authors concluded that one of the best ways to fight an “old-age disease such as cancer” was with an “‘age-old’ treatment” in the form of curcumin.
Especially promising are the effects of curcumin on breast cancer, as it targets cancer cells without affecting healthy breast tissue. One study on breast cancer patients published in the January 2010 issue of Cancer Biology and Therapy recommended dosages as high as 6,000 mg/day for seven consecutive days and concluded that the maximal tolerated dose could be as high as 8,000 mg/day. As a comparison, a typical dosage recommendation for healthy individuals would be about 900 mg/day.
For men in the US and Western Europe, the second leading cause of cancer death is prostate cancer. When a cancer spreads to other parts of the body (metastasizes), the results are often lethal. A study on prostate cancer published in 2012 in the journal Carcinogenesis found that curcumin may disrupt the chronic inflammation that is associated with the “development and metastatic progression of prostate cancer.”
The Inflammation Response
Chronic inflammation is associated with many other life threatening diseases besides cancer – and the word is getting out. A 2012 cover story in Time magazine was about inflammation, which the magazine named “The Secret Killer.” The cover line described the article content as “the surprising link between inflammation and heart attacks, cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.”
The takeaway points of the Time magazine article were about lifestyle behaviors and promising drugs available that can be used to fight inflammation, but we can’t ignore the fact that drugs, no matter how “promising,” often have serious side effects.
An estimated 30 million Americans take drugs to deal with inflammation. Specifically, the types of drugs we’re referring to are called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs.
There are three general types of NSAIDs. These are salicylates such as aspirin, traditional NSAIDs (common brand names include Advil and Aleve), and Cox-2 inhibitors, which have the most serious side effects and as such require a prescription. How serious are these side effects?
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), more than 2,700 deaths in the US were attributed to the use of NSAIDs during the first three months of 2008. Among the common side effects of NSAIDs are stomach and liver problems, blood disorders and problems with vision and hearing. One Cox-2 inhibitor, Bextra, was voluntarily withdrawn from the market in 2005 at the request of the FDA due to its possible link to serious cardiovascular complications.
Although NSAIDs have their place in medicine, the fact is that NSAIDs interfere with the healing process. One study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that NSAIDs wiped out entire acute-phase healing in 0-4 days. Further, important nutrients such as co-enzyme Q10 may not function properly when used with NSAIDs.
Here’s where curcumin is so useful. With its powerful ability to fight inflammation, curcumin can often be an effective substitute for NSAIDs because it doesn’t have the side effects associated with these drugs. It is even available now in topical form, so it can be applied directly to an inflamed area. Is the topical form as effective as the oral version? Consider that a 2012 study published in the Journal of Skin Cancer found that topical curcumin “….was as effective as oral curcumin at suppressing tumor growth in a mouse skin cancer model.”
Many other exciting findings are coming to light about the power of curcumin. There is strong evidence that curcumin can help reverse brain plaque, which is one of the main causative factors associated with Alzheimer's and senile dementia. Research published in the March 16, 2012, issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry found that curcumin helps prevent clumping of alpha-synuclein, a protein whose aggregation is one of the first steps in Parkinson’s disease. There is also research, including a review published in the January 17, 2013, issue of BioFactors, showing that curcumin can extend the lifespan in several species. For example, in a study on fruit flies, the mean lifespan increased from 64 days to 80 days after the flies were fed curcumin.
Regarding dosages, very broad recommendations can be found. However, most practitioners will agree that 4 to 6 capsules a day of 350 mg, in divided dosages, will provide the fastest results. For example, for elevated oxidized LDL levels, a drop of 30 percent in 8 weeks can be seen in patients using 1,800 mg to 2,400 mg daily of a standardized extract.
In the bestselling novel Dune by Frank Herbert, the most important product in the galactic empire was a “spice” that offered the promise of extending life. While no one is suggesting that the spice curcumin can do that, it is a nutrient that has untapped potential for keeping us healthy. Sometimes, and this certainly appears to be the case with curcumin, science fiction becomes science fact.