Despite the slew of advances in cancer treatment modalities over the past decade, a sad fact remains: Neither the incidence of the disease nor the mortality due to cancer has changed in the last 30 years.
It’s more than clear that available anti-cancer drugs are limited in what they can do and cause dreadful side effects. Plus, they’re ridiculously expensive.
So it pleases me to see that researchers are starting to look for treatments that don’t have those disadvantages. That mostly means turning to natural treatments. And that’s one of the reasons curcumin, a polyphenolic compound that comes from the spice turmeric, is finally getting some of the attention it deserves from mainstream medicine. Here’s what they’re saying. . .
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The gentlest search-and-destroy compound you’ll find
A study published in the journal Molecules, published earlier this year, praised the vast benefits curcumin brings to both cancer prevention and treatment. But first, a little backstory on the compound itself.
Turmeric comes from Indonesia and South India. It’s a well-known, yellow-pigmented curry spice commonly found in Indian food, usually either in curry powder or yellow mustard.
Curcumin is an extract from the turmeric root. (In case you’re wondering, curcumin is not related to cumin—that’s a spice made from the seeds of a different plant.) If you had pure turmeric powder, curcumin would make up only about three percent of it.
Both turmeric and curcumin extract have anti-inflammatory properties and potent antioxidant properties. They’ve traditionally been used for treating liver disease, skin problems, respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments, sprained muscles, joint pains, and basic wound healing.
I’ve seen some evidence that it might be more beneficial to consume whole turmeric rather than the extract because turmeric contains other healthy compounds besides curcumin. But the bulk of the recent research has focused on curcumin, so that’s what this article is mostly about. And it’s a fact that you’d have to consume an awful lot of turmeric to get the dose of curcumin that produces therapeutic results in clinical studies.
Curcumin in particular is credited with anti-cancer properties, including the ability to reduce pain and slow down any deterioration in the body. That makes it better in my book than morphine or NSAIDs, which are not antioxidants! I don’t think curcumin is as strong a painkiller as the drugs, but used long-term it can greatly reduce your need for the drugs.
One of the greatest things about this anti-inflammatory herb is its ability to search for and destroy free radicals in your body that cause pain. According to a study by the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Center in New York, turmeric proved to be more precise and safer than aspirin when it came to stopping inflammation. It works by shutting down the COX2 enzyme that causes pain.
But along with prompting these well-known anti-inflammatory effects, few people know that curcumin can make chemo more toxic to cancer cells while helping to protect the normal cells.
The universal, anti-cancer fighter that doesn’t discriminate
That’s where this recent study published in the journal Molecules comes into play. It turns out there’s a lot we didn’t realize about the benefits of curcumin. And it’s all good. For starters, curcumin is able to suppress initiation, progression, and metastasis of several types of tumors, according to the authors of this study.
The herbal extract does this through negative regulation of various transcription factors, including growth factors, inflammatory cytokines, protein kinases, and other molecules that promote cancer. Curcumin also nullifies the spread of cancer cells by arresting them at various phases of the cell cycle, and from there inducing apoptosis (natural cell death).
One of the reasons it’s so powerful as a treatment is that curcumin has so many different mechanisms of action. It can modulate around 700 of your genes and more than 160 different physiological pathways. It also keeps your cell membranes in order, and can directly affect signaling molecules.
Curcumin even interacts directly with DNA and RNA, different carrier proteins and metal ions, any inflammatory molecules in your body, and histone (proteins that package and order your DNA into structural units).
Beyond that, curcumin and other bioactive compounds in turmeric work together to inhibit platelet aggregation, suppress symptoms of multiple sclerosis, protect against cataracts, suppress symptoms from Type II Diabetes, and—important for those going through traditional cancer treatment—can protect against radiation-induced damage and heavy metal toxicity.
Curcumin is even capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier, making it a potential neuroprotective agent against disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Curcumin can boast a great deal of evidence-based literature supporting its use as a cancer treatment. Best of all, it appears to be universally useful against pretty much every type of cancer. This is surprising, given the wide variety of molecular pathologies among various cancers. Researchers believe curcumin works as a universal anti-cancer fighter because it can affect multiple molecular targets using multiple pathways.
There are only benefits once you get it in your body
Curcumin is non-toxic and amazing in its ability to target cancer cells without affecting healthy cells. It appears to have no adverse side effects, other than prompting the occasional bowel movement for certain individuals.
In general, curcumin does a good job of substituting for NSAIDs. I take a curcumin supplement and I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to drastically reduce my use of ibuprofen for the occasional sinus headache and for general body achiness.
One way to give your body ideal levels of curcumin is to eat a moderate amount of turmeric. If you like Indian food, then eating lots of curried dishes is a good way to do it. Some people also recommend turmeric tea, which I haven’t tried.
Of course, supplements are a good source, too – and more practical when it comes to making sure you’re getting a steady, consistent dose every day