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People’s Pharmacy: Turmeric’s health value high

Most Americans have never heard of the spice turmeric. And yet millions consume it on a regular basis without realizing it. That’s because this Asian spice provides the color in yellow mustard.

Turmeric also is a critical ingredient in curry powder, giving it both color and flavor. It has been part of traditional medicine on the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years.

Modern science is now beginning to uncover just why turmeric has been treasured for so long. The yellow powder comes from the dried rhizome, or underground stem, of a plant (Curcuma longa) in the same family as ginger.

Among its active ingredients is curcumin, which is being actively studied for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial and cancer-fighting properties. It also appears to help normalize blood sugar and prevent blood-clotting. In addition, curcumin promotes wound healing (Life Sciences, Oct. 22, 2014). Also intriguing is the potential for curcumin to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease (CNS and Neurological Disorders Drug Targets, 2014).

Research into the anti-cancer effects of curcumin is surprisingly robust. In well-conducted cell culture studies, curcumin has the ability to increase the sensitivity of colorectal cancer cells to the chemotherapy drug 5-fluorouracil (Carcinogenesis online, Feb. 4). This means that cancer cells are more vulnerable to this combination than to the chemo drug alone.

Researchers also are using cell culture studies to investigate the power of curcumin against melanoma and cancers of the breast, lung, ovaries, pancreas and prostate (Anticancer Research, February).

Most of the anti-cancer research is still preliminary, and some oncologists are justifiably skeptical. Nevertheless, compared with standard treatments, curcumin is well-tolerated and may be especially helpful as part of a multi-agent regimen.

There are certain drawbacks to curcumin. Some people report digestive distress. Others develop allergic reactions to turmeric or curcumin that may show up as a rash. Curcumin has anticoagulant activity that could make it dangerous in combination with drugs such as warfarin (Coumadin) and clopidogrel (Plavix) (Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management online, March 19). Turmeric is high in oxalates, so excess consumption could increase the risk for kidney stones.

Another problem is that curcumin is not absorbed into the bloodstream very well. Some experts have recommended combining it with black pepper, because piperine found in black pepper enhances curcumin absorption (Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine, July 2014).

One dietary supplement that is quite well-absorbed is a proprietary formula called BCM-95 (Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, July-August 2008). It is available under several brand names.

Readers have reported success using curcumin or turmeric supplements for psoriasis. One person wrote: “My psoriasis comes and goes, but when it hits it drives me crazy with itching. I scratch until my skin bleeds. I started taking turmeric capsules. After the first day, the redness, heat and itching began to abate. It has been five days, and the symptoms are gone!”

Others find turmeric beneficial against arthritis pain. One testimonial reads: “I have been taking turmeric capsules for almost a year since my doctor suggested them. I no longer have tendinitis or knee pain. I’m 63 and haven’t felt this good in years.”

With thousands of research articles about the healing potential of curcumin, scientists are finally catching up to what people in many Asian regions have known for millenniums.

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