Can Turmeric Really Fight Cancer?

Turmeric has recently been in the media for a lot of potential health benefits, but what’s true and what’s a myth when it comes to the little orange root? Canstar investigates.

Turmeric: Can It Really Fight Pain & Cancer? | Canstar

In its powdered form, turmeric is a common ingredient in curries, and these days you can even get a turmeric latte at particularly trendy cafes!

But a quick search of the internet reveals that turmeric, or curmunioid curcumin to be specific, is touted as a cure for countless diseases and health conditions including:

Canstar takes a look at these conditions and the proposed benefits of turmeric for use in complementary therapies and alternative medicine.

Cancer

It’s easy to be convinced that some ordinary, household ingredient can cure cancer, and turmeric may be no different. However that being said, various studies have, to various degrees, shown that curcumin may:

  • Prevent the development of cancer cells
  • Slow the spread of cancer cells
  • Increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment
  • Protect healthy cells from damage caused by radiation therapy

It has long been observed that countries such as India, where people eat roughly 100-200mg of curcumin a day over a long period of time (2-2.5g turmeric), have very low rates of certain cancers.

The Cancer Research UK organisation cites a clinical trial that gave curcumin to 25 patients, all of whom had pre-cancerous changes in various organs. None of the patients ended up developing cancer, but the tiny sample size rendered the study nigh-on useless.

Cancer Research UK also points to an international study from 2013, in which curcumin was combined with chemotherapy in the treatment of bowel cancer. The combination was found to potentially be more effective than chemotherapy alone.

In addition, an American study from 2007 found that curcumin helped prevent the spread of breast cancer cells in mice.

While these studies are promising, the current consensus is that while curcumin may have anti-cancer properties, more clinical trials need to be done with larger sample sizes and control groups.

It’s also important to note that scientists suspect that, based on research and studies, curcumin is most effective on breast cancer, bowel cancer, stomach cancer, and skin cancer cells specifically. It’s not a “one root cures all” situation.

Considering cancer is among Australia’s leading causes of death, it’s not out of the question that research into curcumin’s anti-cancer applications may receive increasing interest over time. But until then, do keep in mind that it’s a whole lot easier to tweak your lifestyle to avoid certain forms of cancer than to cure cancer once you’ve got it.

Heart disease

Research using mice as test subjects has shown that curcumin may help to fight the clogging of arteries, a key risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. Over a 16-week period, mice fed a curcumin-supplemented diet had a 26% reduction in fatty deposits in their arteries compared to mice which had been fed a control diet.

Additionally, prior studies done on rats have shown that curcumin may be effective in preventing heart failure, and may even alter the genetic signalling involved in plaque build-up at the molecular level.

However, as with many of the studies we’ve already mentioned so far, these studies were done on animals, so the verdict is not yet in as to whether turmeric could be used to prevent or treat heart disease.

Diabetes

Different studies say varying things when it comes to treating diabetes with turmeric and curcumin, but what’s important is that studies have found evidence of curcumin intake being able to help with both the prevention of diabetes.

One study found that taking curcumin daily can help to prevent Type 2 Diabetes, by observing two groups of people exhibiting pre-diabetic symptoms (Diabetes Care). After 9 months, 16.4% of the group taking placebo capsules was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) and 0% of the group taking curcumin capsules was diagnosed with T2DM.

The curcumin group also ended up with better-functioning beta cells (the cells that control the release of insulin) and a lower c-peptide level, which in turn is linked to lower insulin levels.

Additionally, a study that tested the effect of curcumin on rats found that curcumin could reduce most of the leading aspects of diabetes, including insulin resistance, hyperglycemia, hyperlipidemia, and islet apoptosis and necrosis (Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine). The study also found that curcumin could help prevent other harmful deleterious complications of diabetes.

However, like many studies concerning the effects of curcumin, this study was done on animals and therefore can’t be taken as proof of effectiveness on humans.

So the jury is still out when it comes to turmeric as a diabetes treatment, but it’s definitely not out of the question that turmeric could be used to help prevent diabetes.

Inflammation

Empirical scientific research has conclusively shown turmeric to help with inflammation.

While a certain level of inflammation is natural and healthy in the body (it’s actually a defence mechanism against things like bacteria and viruses) your body’s inflammatory response can occasionally trigger by accident, or to a greater degree than is needed.

This is what can lead to pain, redness, and swelling – what most of us think of when we hear the word ‘inflammation’.

So where does turmeric come in? Well curcumin has rather potent anti-inflammatory properties.

Turmeric can also inhibit the activity and creation of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX2) and 5-lipooxygenase (5-LOX), along with a handful of other enzymes thought to play a part in inflammation.

Turmeric was even found to be effective in the treatment of osteoarthritis symptoms, with one study finding that osteoarthritis patients benefited from taking 200mg of curcumin a day (Alternative Medicine Review). Those who took curcumin daily reported lessened pain and increased mobility, while the study’s control group did not take any curcumin and reported no change or improvement.

A separate study found that swelling and pain could be prevented through use of a turmeric extract, which blocked inflammatory pathways to prevent the movement of a pain-causing protein (Arthritis & Rheumatology).

Several meta-analyses have also concluded that curcumin may have some efficacy in treating inflammation (Pharmacological Research, Journal of Medicinal Food).

Curcumin can be used as an anti-inflammatory either orally – with turmeric lattes and turmeric tea being a popular option among the health crowd – or topically, by applying a paste made from turmeric powder and warm water to the inflamed area.

Of course, osteoarthritis sufferers should also make themselves aware of other natural and medical ways to treat their condition.

It’s worth noting that high doses of curcumin (up to 12g/day) can lead to unhelpful complications such as diarrhoea, skin rashes, headaches, and more (BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine).

Brain conditions such as depression and Alzheimer’s

Depression

Various studies have found turmeric to have effects which can potentially help to treat symptoms of depression, but most of these studies were done on animals so we cannot conclude that the same would be true for humans.

One study with mice found that an 80mg/kg dose of curcumin reversed feelings of behavioural despair brought on by reserpine. Curcumin also inhibited the activity of the MAO enzymes responsible for the degradation of serotonin and dopamine (chemicals responsible for feelings of happiness and pleasure) in the mice.

The study also found that curcumin increased the potency of certain anti-depressant medications including fluoxetine, bupropion, and venlafaxine when taken with curcumin (but not desipramine or imipramine).

However, a meta-analysis of studies testing turmeric as an anti-depressant concluded that curcumin of up to 1,000 mg/day for 5–8 weeks had questionable or no antidepressant benefits for patients with major depressive illness (Journal of Clinical Psychiatry).

The analysis included studies where turmeric was used as ‘monotherapy’ (where turmeric is used as the single form of treatment) and as ‘antidepressant augmentation therapy’ (where turmeric is used in addition to an antidepressant).

Turmeric should never be used on its own as a treatment for depression, but might be included in a balanced Mental Health Plan that also includes other proven forms of treatment.

Alzheimer’s

Curcumin has previously been shown to have anti-amyloid properties, being able to break down the amyloid-beta plaques that can cause Alzheimer’s.

Turmeric also contains another chemical named turmerone, which has been shown to stimulate the creation of new brain cells (Stem Cell Research & Therapy).

However, these studies have only been done on animals, and it’s unclear whether turmeric would have the same effect on human stem cells. It’s also unclear whether or not this effect would actually help to treat Alzheimer’s.

Most current research has concluded that at this stage it’s unlikely that turmeric can be used as an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s, but that it may form an important part of future Alzheimer’s research and treatment.

So in the end it doesn’t look like turmeric is the panacea that some are hailing it as, but as evidenced by the studies we cited, the orange little root may have potential. Only time will tell if the world’s best and brightest researchers can find a way to unlock that potential, but we can certainly hope.

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