In India, it’s called “Indian saffron” because of its bright yellow color.
This seasoning has also been dubbed the “Spice of Life” and has a rich history of medicinal use in both Indian Ayurvedic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Western science now confirms the medicinal power of turmeric and its active ingredient curcumin. With benefits ranging from knocking out cancer to strengthening memory, this spice even appears to fight COVID-19.
And in case you’re thinking there’s nothing new to say about turmeric, it turns out there’s a lot. If you’re not supplementing with turmeric/curcumin already, I think you will, after reading this. . .
Curcumin is the most studied compound contained in turmeric, and the one most people take as a supplement. Research now shows that turmeric actually contains a large number of other valuable compounds – more on that later in this article, but for the moment let’s focus on curcumin because there’s such an abundance of evidence to back it up.
Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory effects are well documented in a number of studies.1,2 Its ability to fight inflammation helps in the management of metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, cancer, and more.
In fact, researchers believe curcumin’s anti-inflammatory benefits are one reason why it’s showing promise against COVID-19.
Curcumin acts against deadly cytokine storm
In particular, curcumin inhibits COVID-19-induced cytokine storms, which happen from the overproduction of immune cells and pro-inflammatory cytokines as the body struggles to fight the virus. In severe and critical COVID-19 infections, cytokine storms are what kill the patient.
A June 2020 scientific review showed that curcumin is beneficial in severe viral pneumonia cases, such as those associated with COVID-19.3
This is significant because coronavirus pneumonia causes massive inflammatory responses—the cytokine storm— in the lungs, which in turn cause other issues such as pulmonary edema, acute lung injury (ALI), and fatal acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
Curcumin also modulates immune responses, meaning it can upregulate or downregulate immune responses as needed, according to four separate studies performed over the past three years.4,5,6,7
This is important whether you’re fighting an acute infection such as COVID-19 or you’re battling cancer or a chronic autoimmune condition like rheumatoid arthritis.
Curcumin is anti-viral
What’s more, curcumin exhibits direct anti-viral activity, including against SARS.8 The journal Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology reported research that revealed several anti-viral mechanisms in curcumin, including how it:9
- Targets viral proteins
- Blocks viral attachment to cells
- Stops viral entry into cells
- Prevents viral replication
- Inhibits gene expressions
Curcumin may also help reduce airway inflammation and ease acute lung injury-induced pulmonary fibrosis.
Animal research suggests that curcumin could have both prophylactic and therapeutic effects on virus-induced pneumonia and mortality, although scientists haven’t yet completed human trials.10
Even though COVID-19 is the most urgent health issue facing most of us right now, cancer remains the second leading cause of death world-wide (the first being cardiovascular disease).11
A potent force against cancer of all kinds
Curcumin appears to be helpful for almost every type of cancer. This is rather odd, since cancers have a broad spectrum of molecular pathologies. You wouldn’t expect one single herb like turmeric to work against most of them, yet curcumin has more evidence-based literature to support its anti-cancer properties than any other nutrient, including well-loved vitamin D.
In fact, The National Cancer Institute spent 30 years testing over 1,000 possible anti-cancer substances.
In 2013, their researchers announced the use of curcumin in clinical trials for chemoprevention.12 Their studies show that curcumin is useful in treating many types of cancer including:
- Colon cancer13
- Pancreatic cancer14
- Amyloidosis, when amyloid protein builds up, interfering with organ function. It’s associated with certain cancers.15
- Breast cancer16,17
- Lung cancer18
- Liver cancer19
- Bladder cancer (per rat studies)20
- Esophageal cancer
- Head and neck tumors21
- Bowel cancer22
- Cervical cancer (when combined with ultrasound)23
- Prostate cancer24 (prevents metastasis)
Curcumin has many different actions against cancer
Curcumin works in different ways to affect the growth, replication, and death of cancer cells. For example, cancer cells can be “immortal,” which is one reason they grow like crazy. Curcumin turns on the apoptosis (cell death) signaling pathway, commanding cancer cells to die the way they’re supposed to.25
Curcumin also alters signaling via several pathways to stop replication of cancer under certain conditions,26 as well as hinders growth factors that promote the development and growth of cancer.27
In addition, curcumin helps shut down the formation of new blood vessels (the process called angiogenesis) that feed cancer cells.28
Then there’s curcumin’s anti-inflammatory benefits we talked about earlier. Cancer cells thrive amid inflammation. Curcumin blocks it and regulates cytokine levels in the body to help prevent the formation and growth of cancer.29
Curcumin stops cancer stem cells from replicating, reducing the risk of recurrence, too.30 This is critically important because cancer stem cells can survive chemotherapy and trigger new cancer formation.
Finally, curcumin supports your immune system so it can seek and destroy cancer cells.31 This is essential as you age, when your immune system becomes less active.
Best of all, curcumin does all of this without harming healthy cells, unlike many conventional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation.
Undergoing chemo or radiation?
Curcumin can protect you…
If you choose to undergo chemotherapy or radiation, curcumin can be of great benefit. Studies show it works alongside radiation and some chemotherapy drugs helping to sensitize cells to the drugs and decrease side effects.
In fact, studies suggest curcumin protects your body against a number of side effects related to cancer treatment and cancer itself including:32
- GI problems such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and anorexia
- Heart dysfunction or damage
- Liver toxicity
- Kidney damage
- Hearing loss
- Bone marrow suppression
- Brain fog and memory loss, sometimes called “chemo brain”
- Genetic damage
Research shows curcumin
fights many other problems of aging
Researchers have uncovered numerous additional benefits of curcumin. For instance, curcumin improves memory and mood. UCLA published a double-blind, placebo-controlled study on the spice in which folks with mild memory loss took 90 mg of bioavailable curcumin. This led to memory and attention benefits.33
Another study in 2018 evaluated 40 people, some healthy and some with the characteristic “plaques and tangles” of Alzheimer’s. All were 51 to 84 years old. Researchers assessed them at the beginning of the study and then every six months for a year and a half.
Thirty of them received PET scans at the beginning and end of the study. The scans showed their amyloid and tau levels before and after. At 18 months, those who took curcumin had significantly reduced levels of amyloid and tau compared to those who took the placebo.
In memory and attention tests, those taking curcumin improved their scores by 28 percent over 18 months versus their beginning scores. They also enjoyed mild improvements in mood.34
In addition, studies have shown that curcumin can help support healthy blood pressure, can support the heart muscle, and that it has the ability to repair stroke damage.35
The common clot-busting drug used for stroke victims is based on a curcumin hybrid. This is one example of a time when a drug can save your life and also prevent the debilitating outcomes of a stroke provided it’s delivered in a timely fashion.
Curcumin’s drawback… and what’s being done about it
Curcumin has so many incredible health benefits, so it’s disappointing that it also has a glaring disadvantage: its poor absorption rate.
The question of the day is how to help your body absorb this golden spice better so you can maximize its benefits. Here are four easy ways:
- Use the whole root. Turmeric is more bioavailable than curcumin. It’s the whole food, containing more than 100 compounds with pharmacological effects. Traditional medicine has long used whole foods rather than isolated compounds. Research seems to confirm that compounds work better together, which may aid absorption and produce more biological action.
- Mix curcumin with healthy fats. Curcumin is lipophilic (it attaches to fats). So, you can enhance it by mixing it with high quality healthy fats. Think eggs, coconut oil, coconut milk, or full-fat dairy.
- Activate its compounds with heat. Add one tablespoon of turmeric to a quart of boiling water. After ten minutes of boiling, you’ll have a 12 percent solution that should be immediately consumed.
- Mix it with black pepper. Piperine, a compound in black pepper, makes curcumin more bioavailable. Digestive enzymes try to remove curcumin from your bloodstream. Piperine protects curcumin from these digestive enzymes, allowing greater absorption.
If you choose curcumin as a supplement, choose one with piperine and consume it with food.
Not everyone should take curcumin
Curcumin is generally safe, with few known side effects. It’s not toxic in any amount, as far as we’ve been able to learn. But there are still a couple of cautions.
It acts as a blood thinner, so if you’re taking blood-thinning medication you should monitor your condition with a doctor’s help. It’s quite likely you can taper off the medication because turmeric may do the job.
The supplement is not recommended if you have a bleeding disorder or prior to surgery, when you certainly don’t want a tendency to bleed!
You should also avoid curcumin if you take stomach acid-reducing drugs, have GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease), or gallbladder problems.