Dr. Tom Jemison
Originating from India and south east Asia, Turmeric has now become a highly researched and readily available plant. It has been used for thousands of years for its color, spice, and health benefits. Traditionally turmeric has aided people suffering from stomach and digestives conditions, arthritis, and topically as an antimicrobial. The focus of this article will be on the powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and cancer fighting properties of Turmeric.
OXIDATION and INFLAMMATION
During the normal processes of keeping us alive, cells have to deal with innumerable insults. Some of which are a result from metabolism and some from our environment. Oxidation is one of those. Oxidation has been described as internal rust and is the result from what are called reactive oxygen species or ROS. ROS are molecules that are missing one electron and, like a toddler who has lost a beloved toy, will rampage until one is found - commonly stealing an electron from another molecule. Stealing of electrons creates oxidative damage which if left unquenched will lead to long term problems especially chronic inflammation.
Inflammation is a double edged sword, meaning it is beneficial when controlled and problematic when not. When the body is injured and needs repair, cellular signals will call in specialized cells to degrade and repair the damaged tissue. This process usually results in the affected area becoming hot, red, and swollen - inflammation. When repairs are complete the signal stops and inflammation resolves. Chronic inflammation results from continued oxidative damage, poor diet, stress, infections, tobacco use, allergies, drugs, immune system dysfunction, and lack of exercise. The inflammation signal never turns off creating cellular degeneration and damage ultimately leading to chronic disease, including cancer.
Cancer arises from cells that replicate uncontrollably. All cells have control mechanisms that manage growth, life and cellular death. Overwhelming oxidative and inflammatory damage can disrupt these controls to the point where a cell loses its normal function and shifts into "survival at all costs" mode. Research continues to uncover more molecules and signal proteins involved in cancer development and metabolism. Discovering new signal pathways is extremely beneficial because it allows us a better understanding of the process of cancer growth and development so we can target therapies. During this process however, we find that there are common signal proteins involved in cancer and inflammation. Examples include NF-kB, TNF, and STAT3. Preventing the damage from oxidation and inflammation is something that can be done outside of a doctor's office and does not involve a pharmacy.
Nature has provided in turmeric an extremely potent and promising spice that when taken often has significant health promoting actions. The root of the turmeric plant is what is used, usually dried and milled into a powder for spicing foods. Within the root are several phyto-constituents, one of which is curcumin and has been the subject of hundreds of research studies.[1, 2, 3, 4] Curcumin has been shown to provide antioxidant effects by helping cells to manage pesky ROS thus reducing oxidative damage. As an antioxidant curcumin works well with vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. Curcumin found in turmeric is a strong inhibitor of pro-inflammatory NF-kB, TNF, and STAT3.[3, 4] These cellular proteins, especially NF-kB are found to be highly active in inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, atherosclerosis, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease and NF-kB is highly active in cancer cells. Curcumin has been shown to reduce the activation of NF-kB and other inflammatory proteins and in turn has shown to have anti-cancer effects.[3, 4] Curcumin can even sensitize cancer cells to chemotherapy and radiation allowing for a lower dose of conventional interventions and less extreme side effects.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women and is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women in the United States. Curcumin has been shown to reduce breast cancer tumor formation and growth. Curcumin also works to inhibit the formation of new blood vessels to a tumor site, cutting off the food supply to cancer cells. Studies also show that curcumin helps to reduce chemotherapy resistance in breast cancers.
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men and is the second leading cause of cancer death in men. Several studies have shown that curcumin not only helps to prevent prostate cancer formation, but also is an important agent that reduces and prevents metastasis of prostate cancer cells.[7, 8, 9] Another study involved mice implanted with human prostate cancer cells. Four groups of mice were each given a separate therapy; chemotherapy, radiation, curumin, and no therapy. Researchers found that curcumin worked best at controlling the progression of prostate cancer. Using curcumin in combination with cruciferous vegetables like kale, cabbage, and cauliflower has shown an enhanced effect to stop and potentially reverse prostate cancer.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women in the United States. One of the greatest known risk factors for developing lung cancer is smoking tobacco. Turmeric can help the body to eliminate toxic products from smoking especially useful when an individual is quitting and reducing withdrawal effects. In lung cancer, curcumin once again has been shown to inhibit tumor progression and reducing metastasis. Curcumin used in combination with EGCG from green tea shows promising results in the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer, working together to stop cancer cell growth.
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in men and women and is also the third leading cause of cancer death for both sexes. Currently, the United States has the highest incidence of colorectal cancer. Dietary habits play an important role in the development and progression of colorectal cancer. Turmeric is one of several spices that are consumed in large amounts in populations where colorectal cancer has a very low incidence. Benefit is likely due to curcumin's strong anti-inflammatory actions as well as its ability to modulate cancer cell growth.[3, 9, 13]
Turmeric continues to be proven as a safe addition to any cancer treatment protocol. It is a promising spice that should be taken to reduce risk of developing cancer because of its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. Turmeric can be safely taken orally by mixing 1 heaping teaspoon of powder in water 1-2 times a day. Each teaspoon provides approximately 4 grams of turmeric. Stronger preparations are also available in extract form and refined to increase the concentration of curcumin per dose. Patients taking blood thinners should consult their physician about proper dosing of curcumin because of its blood thinning potential. The only other caution with turmeric use is that it can stain clothing!
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