My favorite comfort food is a very simple dish consisting of fried onions, chicken, and rice. It’s seasoned with turmeric. LOTS of turmeric. It’s a dish that I make fairly often and, based on many internet articles, the amount of turmeric I use should stave off cancer, inflammation, diabetes, headaches, among many other things. But is it true? Is turmeric a medical cure? Is the amount of healthful compounds found in the spice sufficient or do you need to buy turmeric supplements?
What are turmeric and curcumin?
Turmeric is a spice that is commonly used in many different Middle-Eastern and Asian cultures. It is yellow, and one of the main ingredients in the mixture of spices that make up yellow curry. It comes from the root of a plant that is related to ginger.
Turmeric’s flavor can be difficult to describe. It’s fairly mild and a bit bitter, but the bitterness only becomes apparent when you use too much of it. It’s main feature is its color, which it owes to a compound called curcumin.
Curcumin is one of the chemical compounds found in turmeric. It’s also known as diferuloylmethane and 1,7-bis(4-hydroxy-3-methoxyphenyl)-1,6-heptadiene-3,5-dione. Studies that have examined the amount of curcumin in turmeric have found that there’s only about 3% curcumin in turmeric (by weight). Curcumin is thought to have many medicinal properties. Due to its low abundance in turmeric, it has been extracted to be more concentrated and is now found in many teas, supplements, oils, and cosmetics in the health food aisle.
The FDA has categorized curcumin as “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS). This means that experts believe it poses negligible risk when used as intended, as we have previously explained in more detail. But what about the health benefits?
Curcumin and Cancer
In the last few years, clinical trials have been performed to examine whether curcumin supplements could help stop the progression of cancer. I looked at the clinical trial records for those studies that had completed and had shared their findings. I found only one trial with posted results looking at the impact of curcumin in preventing cancer. That trial, which examined patients with a familial history of a specific type of colorectal cancer, found no difference in patient outcomes. There have also been a number of clinical trials examining whether curcumin can prevent some of the side effects of cancer treatments. One study examined the severity of radiation dermatitis between patients taking curcumin supplements and patients taking placebo and found no impact, while an earlier trial found modest improvements. Another study found no difference in radiation dermatitis when curcumin was applied as a gel.
So why is it that there are so many recipes, cookbooks, and supplements premised on the idea that curcumin can fight cancer? Well, even though there are many papers published about the mechanisms whereby curcumin could help inhibit cancer, most of these studies have only taken place in cells in petri dishes. Consequently, we can’t really conclude that curcumin can fight cancer based on these limited results.
The lack of any significant success in clinical trials has been thought to be due to curcumin’s poor bioavailability. Bioavailability refers to the amount of a compound that actually makes it to where it’s needed in our bodies and cells in order to be effective. Curcumin’s poor bioavailability is thought to be caused by its “poor absorption, rapid metabolism, and rapid elimination”. Consequently, while there are many reviews outlining curcumin’s potential as an anti-cancer fighting drug, typically when you take a curcumin supplement or drink curcumin tea, only a small amount of the compound will actually make it to the places in your cells where it could have a beneficial effect. Researchers are working on improving curcumin’s bioavailability with delivery methods such as nanoparticles and solvents, but much work remains to be done.
Curcumin and arthritis or joint pain
A number of studies suggest that curcumin can help alleviate joint pain or arthritis. This includes one small study (only 45 patients) that found patients with rheumatoid arthritis improved when receiving curcumin supplements. Another trial found that patients with knee pain receiving a modified form of curcumin had improved pain scores. There are several other trials with similar findings; however, all of these trials have been small. Larger studies need to be designed to verify these promising preliminary results.
Turmeric or Curcumin side effects
In recent years, alternative health practitioners have begun offering highly experimental and risky turmeric treatments. Some of these treatments are offered intravenously, for example, and, as a result, some patients have even died. Under no circumstance should anyone take turmeric treatments intravenously. Experimental and unproven treatments like these can be deadly.
As with all supplements, it is important to talk to your doctor before starting turmeric or curcumin. This is particularly important if you take other medication. Curcumin has been known to interfere with blood thinners. Studies testing human ability to tolerate increasing amounts of curcumin suggest that most people can tolerate the compound pretty well without experiencing side-effects. However, the Arthritis Society of Canada warns that high doses or long-term use might cause gastrointestinal problems.
There are many products containing turmeric or curcumin that claim to treat all sorts of different diseases. Claims like this should be a red flag. It is highly unlikely that multiple complex diseases such as cancer, arthritis, and diabetes could all be cured with a single compound. As we’ve highlighted before in our comic, if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.