Turmeric: A Yummy Spice That Fights Inflammation, Alzheimer's, and More

IstockphotoA bright-yellow spice has generated a big buzz in research labs all over the country. Its turmeric (Curcuma longa), a tropical plant that's related to ginger, and it's one of the many curative spices native to Asia, India, and China.

Indian cooks use turmeric powder liberally in cooking—its what gives curries that mellow yellow color. And for thousands of years Chinese and Indian healers have used turmerics dried root to treat conditions including digestive woes, wounds, arthritis, skin conditions, and menstrual problems. Those healers were onto something, say modern researchers and physicians.

Brand new research validates ancient science

Just last week, a press release from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign appeared in my inbox. A biochemistry professor there, Lin-Feng Chen, PhD, and his team discovered more about how a key protein, NF-kappa B, works: They actually deciphered the molecular code that controls its function.

NF-kappa B is known as the master regulator of the immune system, and when activated it triggers the process of inflammation (a process that's implicated in many chronic conditions that deteriorate health). "NF-kappa B, the protein central to the inflammatory process, has to be tightly controlled, otherwise things could go crazy within the body," says Chen in the press release.

Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD, professor of cancer research and cancer medicine at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, tells me that turmeric "absolutely plays a role in turning off NF-kappa B." And he should know. Aggarwal is one of the worlds leading turmeric researchers and has published 24 papers on the spice and its active compound, curcumin, since 1997.

According to Aggarwal, taking 2 grams of turmeric a day (about 1 1/2 teaspoons) can lessen the effects of inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and asthma. Turmeric, he says, is a potentially useful treatment for depression, fatigue, diabetes, neuropathic pain, and even lack of appetite (that's a problem?). What's more, "curcumin was recently shown to protect the heart," adds Aggarwal.

Aggarwal calls curcumin "curecumin" and says, "Healers who recommend turmeric to help prevent or ease arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, and Alzheimer's disease are absolutely justified."

"Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties that work similarly to medicines like Celebrex, which naturally inhibits COX-2," [an enzyme that hinders the production of chemicals called prostaglandins, which cause the pain and swelling of arthritis], agrees Neena E. Thomas-Eapen, MD, assistant professor of family medicine and associate director of the University of North Dakota Center for Family Medicine in Minot, North Dakota.

"For conditions like arthritis for which we usually use anti-inflammatory medicines, I recommend turmeric for patients who are interested in a natural option. And I encourage them to use turmeric liberally as a spice whenever they can," Dr. Thomas-Eapen tells me.

Targeting Alzheimers disease

Beta amyloid proteins play a role in Alzheimer's disease because they trigger toxic events that create 'tangles within the brain's neurons, says Greg Cole, MD, professor of medicine and neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Curcumin binds directly to these proteins and promotes their clearance," he says, adding that because its a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory curcumin also blocks other aspects of brain-damaging events.

"I don't yet know whether eating turmeric regularly in food will deliver enough of the drug to prevent Alzheimer's, but since turmeric in food is usually dissolved in hot milk or oil to make curry sauce, that should help with its absorption," says Dr. Cole.

Using turmeric

Add turmeric to egg dishes, cauliflower, salad dressing, couscous, pasta, and bean dishes—and add some extra turmeric when you make curry. To use it therapeutically, aim to get about 1 1/2 teaspoons of turmeric a day in foods; blend the spice with a little hot oil or milk, then stir into food. And here are some good supplements to try: Turmeric Force by New Chapter and Turmeric tinctures by Herbalist & Alchemist, both available at health food stores.

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