The Helpful Yellow Spice

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WholeFoods Magazine Staff
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Turmeric is a widely known kitchen staple that is used in foods ranging from curry to ballpark mustard. Turmeric is derived from the rhizomes, or underground stems, of the Curcuma longa plant. Found within turmeric are powerful curcuminoids, which are fat-soluble polyphenolic pigments that give this spice its vibrant yellow color. Curcumin is the most prevalent curcuminoid found in turmeric, and has recently gained popularity in supplement form for its health benefits that stem from it acting as an antioxidant and fighting inflammation (1).

Curcumin and Absorption
Before proceeding with our discussion of turmeric, it is important to understand the issue of curcumin’s bioavailability. Bioavailability indicates how well a substance is absorbed in the body. When your run-of-the-mill curcumin is administered orally to patients, much of the curcumin is metabolized by the body or accumulated in the gastrointestinal tissues. The metabolites that are found in the blood plasma and serum are thought to have different biological activity than the parent compound, and therefore may not have the same effect on the body. Thus, many of curcumin’s advantages are not being utilized throughout the body.

However, several branded versions of curcumin have found ways to increase its bioavailability so that our bodies can benefit. Bioavailability has been increased, for example, by creating branded curcumin with added piperine, a black pepper extract, or by reducing the actual particle size of curcumin while increasing its solubility (1–3).

Benefits of Curcumin
Studies have shown that curcumin is a powerful antioxidant, and therefore can help fight free radicals and the damage they cause to the body (4). Several tests performed at MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas have shown that curcumin may help in fighting cancer, though much more evidence is required before the herb can be used as a treatment. In one study, 25 pancreatic cancer patients were given substantial doses of curcumin in place of chemotherapy. No tumor growth occurred in one patient for eight months and none in another patient for two and a half years. There was also tumor regression in one patient, where the tumor decreased in size by 73%, but later grew back (5).

Also, because curcumin is an antioxidant, it has also been shown to support healthy inflammation. According to the Linus Pauling Institute at the University of Oregon, a curcumin supplement was compared to a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug used by patients with rheumatoid arthritis. The patients that received the curcumin reported having less morning stiffness, improved walking time and less joint swelling after taking the supplement for two weeks (1).

Furthermore, evidence shows that curcumin may also help with triglyceride levels. In a study published in Phytotherapy Research, patients were given one gram of a branded form of curcumin for 30 days. After this time period, a significant decrease in the serum triglyceride concentrations of the patients was found (6). This same form of curcumin was also found to help with kidney disease. Kidney disease often becomes a debilitating secondary illness of diabetes. A laboratory study on rats revealed that ingestion of curcumin inhibited the progression of renal lesions, and also preserved proper kidney function. These benefits are suspected to be related to the fact that curcumin helps with lowering triglyceride levels (3).

Last, those with Alzheimer’s disease may benefit from curcumin. Those with this disease tend to have amyloid plaque that accumulates in the brain. Curcumin has been found in studies to interfere with amyloid beta oligomer formation in vitro (1).

While studies are still delving into the mechanisms behind curcumin, we can already see that this powerful antioxidant may be valuable to the human body in several ways.

Before You Start Taking It…
Although curcumin has many possible benefits, precaution must always be taken before starting a new supplement. Most importantly, get your doctor’s approval first and always follow the correct dosages. While turmeric and curcumin have both been found to be fairly safe, large amounts over a long period of time may lead to stomach discomfort in some individuals. Because curcumin can stimulate bile production, people with gallstones or obstructions of bile passages should talk to their doctors before taking curcumin. People taking medication for diabetes must be aware of the dangers of hypoglycemia, because turmeric has been found to lower blood sugar levels. Stop taking all turmeric and curcumin supplements two weeks prior to surgery because they can act as blood thinners. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take any turmeric or curcumin supplements before talking to a doctor, but it is safe for them to consume turmeric in food (4). WF

References
1. Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University, “Curcumin,” http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/phytochemicals/curcumin, accessed Oct. 20, 2012.
2. DoctorMurray.com, “Theracumin,” http://doctormurray.com/2012/06/theracurmin, accessed Oct. 20, 2012.
3. Sabinsa Corp., “Curcuminoides,” http://curcuminoids.com, accessed Oct. 20, 2012.
4. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Turmeric,” www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/turmeric-000277.htm, accessed Oct. 20, 2012.
5. M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, www.mdanderson.org, accessed Oct. 20, 2012.
6. A. Mohammadi, et al., “Effects of Supplementation with Curcuminoids on Dyslipidemia in Obese Patients: A Randomized Crossover Trial,” Phytother. Res. (May 21, 2012).

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2012