A chapter in a forthcoming book, for instance, describes the biologically active components of turmeric–curcumin and related compounds called curcuminoids–as having antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties, with potential activity against cancer, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic maladies. And in 2005 nearly 300 scientific and technical papers referenced curcumin in the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed database, compared with about 100 just five years earlier.
Scientists who sometimes jokingly label themselves curcuminologists are drawn to the compound both because of its many possible valuable effects in the body and its apparent low toxicity. They ponder how the spice or its derivatives might be used, not just as a treatment but as a low-cost preventive medication for some of the most feared ailments. As a treatment, it also has some enticing attributes. Because curcumin targets so many biological pathways, it could have benefits for cancer therapy: malignant cells may be slow to acquire resistance to it and so might have to go through multiple mutations to avoid the substance’s multipronged attack.
Not surprisingly, some Indian researchers played (and continue to play) an active role in the research:
Known as HALDI in HINDI, jiang huang in Chinese, manjal in Tamil (and just plain “yuk” as the yellow stain on a white T-shirt from the splatting of ballpark mustard), turmeric has a medicinal history that dates back 5,000 years. At that time it was a key medicament for wound healing, blood cleansing and stomach ailments in India’s Ayurvedic system of medicine.
The first record in PubMed of research on the biological activity of curcumin dates back to 1970, when a group of Indian researchers reported the effects of the compound on cholesterol levels in rats. The pace of studies picked up in the 1990s; one of the leaders was Bharat Aggarwal, a former scientist at Genentech who, before turning to curcumin, had taken another approach to seeking cancer treatments. That work led him circuitously to the compound.
Here is Dr. Bharat Aggarwal’s page, in case you be interested.
However, the story is also about the modern medicinal research methodology. In Ayurveda and other traditional Indian medicinal systems, most of the times, medicine is administered as part of the food; hence, we tend to think that an increase in the quantity of the specific material in our food by itself will cure the disease. But, modern scientific studies tell us otherwise:
M. D. Anderson’s FAQs might convey the impression of certitude by prescribing an eight-gram dose. But the low presence of curcumin in the blood–and the corresponding need to elevate the amount consumed if the substance does indeed fight disease–is a challenge that will continue to nag curcumin researchers. The animal studies that investigators cite as suggestive of curcumin’s diverse benefits have generally used less than the equivalent of eight grams in humans, and blood concentrations have usually been in the nanomolar range. “We don’t know how to explain how such low concentrations of curcumin can be beneficial in animals tested,” Shaul states.
Dose is everything for a new drug–any therapeutic agent, including aspirin, turns toxic at high levels. For most new pharmaceuticals, the best dose for achieving the desired blood plasma levels is usually found through round after round of preclinical trials in cell cultures and mice. Yet drug companies are not battling one another to be the first to conduct these tests on curcumin. They have a preference for highly targeted therapeutics: hitting a specific receptor, for instance, may treat disease while lowering side effects, whereas a drug with multiple actions could, in theory, increase the chance that an unwanted effect will occur.
Thus, a pragmatic approach would be to use the traditional knowledge as a pointer, and make in-depth studies to come up with remedies which are effective with a little or no side effects. Till then, try some of these recipes in which turmeric figures, and its antioxidant properties would surely benefit you.