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Turmeric, a traditional culinary-medicinal spice in the ginger family, is the source of curcumin, an anti-inflammatory with anti-cancer potential

Turmeric, the source of curcumin, has been used in Asian cookery for thousands of years. Powder ground from the dried root is an ingredient in curry. Turmeric is one of the cheaper spices and makes a vivid splash of color, so it gets heaped into low-market curry blends as fill. Not such a bad idea.

Turmeric holds a high place in Ayurvedic medicine as a "cleanser of the body" and today science is finding a growing list of diseased conditions which turmeric's active ingredient heals. Broad interest in curcumin's anti-inflammatory effects is increasing.

Researchers are examining curcumin as a possible immune system stimulator. M. D. Anderson researchers G. C. Jaggetia and B.B. Aggerwal say, "curcumin's reported beneficial effects in arthritis, allergy, asthma, atherosclerosis, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and cancer might be due in part to its ability to modulate the immune system" (J Clin Immunol. 2007 Jan;27(1):19-35).

Tumeric powder is ground from the root of the plant called (Curcuma longa L., amember of the ginger family. The plant grows wild in the Himalayas and is cult8ivated across South Asia.

Turmeric powder is surprisingly bland, not hot, tangy or peppery. Actually, it tastes a little sour. The first time I put some on my tongue I suspected my jar, bought from a supermarket, was stale. Turmeric is pungent, bitter and astringent, not sweet like ginger.

Fresh root, which goes well in snacks and main meals, may be hard to find outside of stores in Asian neighborhoods. Turmeric capsules are sold through a number of suppliers. But why make this spice part of the diet?

Let's not romanticize South Asian nutrition today. Although India is doing relatively well, close to 50% of children there are underweight. South Asia's nutritional crises and disparities are harsh. Centuries of charcoal fires for home and industry have contributed to deforestation. Clean water, a cure for malaria, vaccinations and reproductive health care -- not more spices -- are what most of the citizens of those lands need to improve their health.

Yet at times the very survival of peoples in South Asia depended on informed use of a wide array of plants including turmeric root.

A Little Dab

Most North Americans consume only miniscule traces of turmeric, by way of mustard lavished on meats of iffy provenance. Bright yellow mustards like French's "classic American" contain, according to labels, "no more than 2 per cent" turmeric, paprika and other spices (as if more would adulterate the product).

Mustard itself is medicinal. But that gaudy, store-bought, hot-dog-stand glow comes from curcumin, the intense yellow pigment in turmeric. And curcumin protects the stomach against tainted foods. According to University of Chicago scientists, curcumin inhibits a cancer-provoking bacteria (H. pylori) associated with gastric and colon cancer (Magad GB, Anticancer Res. 2002 Nov-Dec;22(6C):4179-81).

On the margins, as biologists know, eco-diversity sprouts. Today curcumin is on a margin between ancient food customs and cutting-edge medicine.

  • In Asia the root and powder are used in cooking, on home remedies, and also in medicine: to gild and help preserve festive dishes and in drinks, in ointments and poultices to treat sore throat, sprains, inflammation and wounds.
  • In suburban cuisine it can brighten and glorify nutritious foods (white fish, cauliflower). At ballpark, beach and food mall a dab of "hidden" curcumin helps carnivore bellies lower risks from gorging over-handled broiled oddments.
  • In labs, scientists are dosing rats with curcumin to measure its effects on cancer.

Prostate Cancer Patients Go For the Gold

Turmeric fresh roots and ground powder, photo Simon EugesterTurmeric lore in recent decades drifted outwards from Asian diaspora communities in European cities like Leicester, UK. Local researchers and cancer patients listened up. Clusters of men on Internet prostate cancer support groups began seriously experimenting with turmeric to cope with a troublesome side-effect of androgen-suppression therapy, gynecomastia (sore swollen breasts).

Most men who take antiandrogen drugs like Flutamide (Eulexin) or Casodex experience this breast swelling, which can be painful. Gynecomastia can occur also with use of finasteride (Proscar), prescribed for BPH (benign growth of the prostate) and now under discussion as a chemopreventive for prostate cancer. Before starting Casodex some patients opt to receive a brief course of radiation to the breasts. Other men tried low-dose tamoxifen, which raises levels of circulating estradiol. Then there are the turmeric warriors, who report that eating fresh turmeric root (in salads, soups and sandwiches) and use of curcumin paste externally brings some relief.

No less intriguingly, University of Leicester began investigating dietary agents including curcumin, genistein, and the vitamin A analogue 13-cis retinoic acid for tumor-suppressing properties (Br J Clin Pharmacol 1998 Jan;45(1):1-12; update Toxicol Lett 2000 Mar 15;112-113:499-505). They observed that curcumin slows the rate at which hormone-responsive prostate cancer cells become resistant to hormonal therapy.

Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties of turmeric and curcumin are undergoing intense research. In 2003 German researchers reported that "All fractions of the turmeric extract preparation exhibited pronounced antioxidant activity" and turmeric extract tested more potent than garlic, devil's claw, and salmon oil [ J Pharm Pharmacol. 2003 Jul;55(7):981-6].

Biochemists in China reported January 2007 that curcumin “downregulates homeobox gene NKX3.1 in prostate cancer cell LNCaP” and could also dampen the androgen receptor's sensitivity to this gene. Independent studies have found that the Nkx3.1 homeobox gene has a key role in the prostate and may be implicated in startup of prostate cancer.

Overdose is a Risk

Does this mean, the more the better? Not necessarily. Some studies find no ill effects from large doses while others (listed in references below) disagree. Of note, a study of curcumin to prevent cataracts found, unexpectedly, that in rats low doses indeed did lower cataract rates but heavy doses raised the rate of cataracts (Molecular Vision 2003; 9:223-230, full text free online).

Another study found that rats fed large amounts of turmeric for 14 days developed enlarged, damaged livers.

Several studies indicate that curcumin slows the development and growth of a number of types of cancer cells. In Japan in 2003 researchers defined curcumin as a broad-spectrum anti-cancer agent. Its induction of "detoxifying enzymes," the researchers say, indicate its "potential value ... as a protective agent against chemical carcinogenesis and other forms of electrophilic toxicity. The significance of these results can be implicated in relation to cancer chemopreventive effects of curcumin against the induction of tumors in various target organs" (Iqbal M, et al. Pharmacol Toxicol. 2003 Jan;92(1):33-8).

Since India won a claim against the two US scientists who shamelessly patented turmeric (see sidebar), the tide of interest might well be driven by Asian pride in phytomedicinal heritage. But as scientists at M. D. Anderson, Texas, wrote in January 2003: "Extensive research over the last 50 years has indicated [curcumin] can both prevent and treat cancer." In one of a series reports on curcumin M. D. Anderson researchers say: "Curcumin can suppress tumor initiation, promotion and metastasis. Pharmacologically, curcumin has been found to be safe. Human clinical trials indicated no dose-limiting toxicity when administered at doses up to 10 g/day. All of these studies suggest that curcumin has enormous potential in the prevention and therapy of cancer." [Aggarwal, BB et al, Anticancer Res. 2003 Jan-Feb;23(1A):363-98].

Several breast tumor cell lines, "including hormone-dependent and -independent and multidrug-resistant (MDR) lines," respond to antiproliferative effects of curcumin. Aggarwal's team examined cell lines "including the MDR-positive ones," and found they were all "highly sensitive to curcumin. The growth inhibitory effect of curcumin was time- and dose-dependent.... Overall our results suggest that curcumin is a potent antiproliferative agent for breast tumor cells and may have potential as an anticancer agent." (Anticancer Drugs 1997 Jun;8(5):470-81).

Other laboratories offer varying explanations but confirm the activity level of curcumin against breast , prostate and other cancers. See e.g., Ramachandran C, Breast Cancer Res Treat. 1999; Hidaka H, Japan, Cancer 2002 (human pancreatic cell lines); Elattar TM, University of Missouri-Kansas City, Anticancer Res. 2000 (oral cancer cells).

Some researchers say curcumin inhibits angiogenesis, i.e. formation of new blood vessels, which tumors use to nourish themselves as they spread (Mol Med 1998 Jun;4(6):376-83). As an anti-inflammatory, turmeric triggers heat-shock stress response, stimultating the immune system. "The mechanism of the stimulation by curcumin of the stress responses," Japanese researchers say (Cell Stress Chaperones 1998 Sep;3(3):152-60), "might be similar to that of salicylate [active in aspirin, derived from willow bark], indomethacin [a nonsteroidal anti inflammatory drug] and nordihydroguaiaretic acid [an anti-oxidant, antiflammatory, lipoxegenase inhibitor found in chapparel, that interferes with arachidonic acid metabolism].

To sum up -- regular healthy folks may benefit from adding turmeric to the spice rack and using it more liberally on adult and children's foods. Kids love bright colors. And turmeric is an ideal brightener for rice and for steamed or gently fried tofu.

For cancer patients, until curcumin has been shown in well-designed, well-conducted human clinical trials to have measurable effects on existing disease, it remains just another interesting home remedy with a lot of promise. Research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering a few years back indicates that it might make sense to drink green tea along with a meal spiced with turmeric for double-boosted anti-cancer protective effects: "EGCG and curcumin, were noted to inhibit growth by different mechanisms, a factor which may account for their demonstrable interactive synergistic effect." For new developments with curcumin, M. D. Anderson is another place to watch. So far all this work has been done on cells in dishes. But it's tantalizing.


Curcumin May Weaken or Undo Effects of Chemotherapy for Cancer. Cancer Research 62, 3868-3875, July 1, 2002, Dietary Curcumin Inhibits Chemotherapy-induced Apoptosis in Models of Human Breast Cancer S. Somasundaram et al, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

If you are taking medications or undergoing radiotherapy or chemotherapy to treat cancer, be extremely cautious about possible interactions and effects of turmeric/curcumin on your liver and other organs. Talk to your oncologist and oncology nurse. One study, available free online, says curcumin inhibits desired effects of chemotherapy for breast cancer: Cancer Research 62, 3868-3875, July 1, 2002, Dietary Curcumin Inhibits Chemotherapy-induced Apoptosis in Models of Human Breast Cancer Sivagurunathan Somasundaram et al, The Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Department of Medicine [R. Z. O.], Division of Hematology/Oncology, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. By Jacqueline Strax.
Reference links last checked May 2015


link to book at
Heaven's Banquet:
Vegetarian Cooking for
Lifelong Health
the Ayurveda Way

Miriam Kasin Hospodar



Lentils With Turmeric (Tarkha Dal)

1/2 cup split red lentils
1/4 cup split yellow lentils
2 1/2 cups water
1" piece ginger, minced
2 green chilies, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 or more teaspoons turmeric
1 onion, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
4 teaspoon mustard seeds
4 dried red chilies
1 Tbs. olive oil
salt to taste
Few cilantro leaves (or other herbs, like basil) to taste, chopped.

Method: Boil the lentils in water salt and turmeric for 15-20 minutes or until soft. Mash the lentils till creamy. If the lentil mixture looks too dry, add some water. Heat the oil in a pan. Add the mustard seeds and red chilies. Add the onion, ginger, garlic and green chilies fry for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the lentils and mix thoroughly. season if necessary. Cook for a while. Garnish with cilantro. Serve hot. (recipe adapted from A Taste of India in Bitu's Vegetarian Cafe (no longer online).

Patenting, piracy and perverted promises

In 1995, two US scientists from the University of Mississippi were granted a US patent (No. 5,401,504) on the use of turmeric for healing wounds, claiming this to be novel. In their application, they acknowledged that 'turmeric has long been used in India as a traditional medicine for treatment of various sprains and inflammatory conditions.' However, they claimed that there was no research on the use of turmeric as a healing agent for external wounds. The Indian government challenged the patent, which it considered a form of blatant thievery, and provided many research papers predating the patent application proving that turmeric has been used in India specifically to heal wounds. Finally, the US Patent and Trademark office gave the reason to India, by rejecting all 6 patent claims.

From Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN), Barcelona, Spain (article no longer accessible online).


Some perspectives on dietary inhibition of carcinogenesis: studies with curcumin and tea. Rutgers, 1997

Curcumin is an in vivo inhibitor of angiogenesis. Harvard Medical School, 1998

Curcumin and genistein ... show synergistic inhibitory effects on the growth of human breast cancer MCF-7 cells induced by estrogenic pesticides.Ver ma SP, et al. Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston

Curcumin down regulates homeobox gene NKX3.1 in prostate cancer cell LNCaP1. Acta Pharmacologica Sinica 2007 March; 28 (3): 423-430

"Spicing up" of the immune system by curcumin. (J Clin Immunol. 2007 Jan;27(1):19-35 )

Curcumin prevents or slows prostate and lung cancer cells in a lab dish, but dietary consumption of turmeric so far shows no effect on those organs and failed to inhibit tobacco-induced tumors (Cancer Lett 1999 Apr 1;137(2):123-30)

Curcumin has a dose-dependent chemopreventive effect in rats during promotion/progression stages of colon cancer (Cancer Res 1999 Feb 1;59(3):597-601). It has similar preventive effects against skin cancer, oral cancer and forestomach and other intestinal tumors (J Surg Res 2000 Apr;89(2):169-75)

Tufts researchers say "a mixture of curcumin and isoflavonoids is the most potent inhibitor against growth of human breast tumor cells. These data suggest that combinations of natural plant compounds may have preventive and therapeutic applications against the growth of breast tumors induced by environmental estrogens" (Environ Health Perspect 1998 Dec;106(12):807-12)

Curr Pharm Des. 2002;8(19):1695-706. Chemotherapeutic potential of curcumin for colorectal cancer. Chauhan DP. Division of Gastroenterology, Department of Medicine, The University of California, San Diego, CA 92093-0688, USA

Turmeric compares with soy, licorice, red clover, and thyme in binding to progesterone and estrogen receptors in breast cancer cells (Proc Soc Exp Biol Med 1998 Mar;217(3):369-78)

References Ctd.

Kentucky researchers report curcumin "inhibited proliferation of a variety of B lymphoma cells" (Clin Immunol 1999 Nov;93(2):152-61)

Curcumin may or may not protect against cellular damage from radiation, perhaps depending on dose. It appears to protect against damage to certain organs brought about by some chemotherapy agents. In hamsters it protects the kidneys from Adriamycin (Br J Pharmacol 2000 Jan;129(2):231-4). If you are taking radiation or chemotherapy, it is very important to discuss your diet and use of any antioxidants with your oncologist

Typical dietary amounts of turmeric have an antioxidant effect that protects rats from cataracts. But in one study rats heavily dosed developed more cataract signs (Molecular Vision 2003. 9:223-230)

Curcumin protects rats from liver-damage caused by toxins (J Pharm Pharmacol 2000 Apr;52(4):437-40; Carcinogenesis 2000 Feb;21(2):331-5) But in one experiment, mice fed anti-cancer doses of curcumin for 14 days developed enlarged, damaged livers

Curcumin prevents formation of skin and forestomach tumors in mice but not lung and breast tumors: J Cell Biochem Suppl 1997;27:26-34 Inhibitory effects of curcumin on tumorigenesis in mice. Huang MT, Newmark HL, Frenkel K Department of Chemical Biology, College of Pharmacy, Rutgers-State University of New Jersey, Piscataway, NJ 08854-8020, USA

Arousal of the human system through "heat shock" response: Curcumin induces the stress response

Green tea and turmeric have synergistic effect on oral cancer cells: "EGCG and curcumin were noted to inhibit growth by different mechanisms, a factor which may account for their demonstrable interactive synergistic effect." Memorial Sloan- Kettering 1998

Therapeutic potential of curcumin in human prostate cancer. III.Dorai T... Katz AE. Prostate 2001 Jun 1;47(4):293-303
"Curcumin could be a potentially therapeutic anti-cancer agent, as it significantly inhibits prostate cancer growth... and has the potential to prevent the progression of this cancer to its hormone refractory state."