Can an ancient spice prevent and treat cancer? That's the question researchers are trying to answer.
Turmeric is known as a golden gift from God, a sacred spice that has been used for centuries in Indian Ayurvedic and Asian medicine to treat fevers, digestion problems and cuts.
Indians sprinkle the powder on cuts to help them heal, gargle with it to soothe sore throats and mix it with warm milk for sick kids to sip.
Madhu Sharma, owner of the Green Chili Indian Bistro in St. Petersburg uses turmeric in almost all of her dishes.
She says it's also an important ingredient in other aspects of Indian culture.
"We use turmeric when the baby is born. We use turmeric when we get married. We use turmeric when we cook everyday and we use turmeric to worship God and offer to God," says Sharma.
People in India eat turmeric everyday in curry dishes. They cook with fresh turmeric root (a bright yellow herb from the ginger family) or they use the dry powder, adding about one teaspoon to every meal.
Daily turmeric consumption is one of the reasons cancer researchers suspect India's rate for breast, colon, prostate and lung cancer is 10 to 50 times lower than in people in the United States.
Dr. Bharat Aggarwal, Ph.D, Professor of the Department of Experimental Therapeautics, Division of Cancer Medicine at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas has been studying the spice for several decades.
"It has enormous potential. It is very safe. It has been around for a long, long, time and for the first time, I think we have evidence that it may be working as well," he says.
Hundreds of laboratory and animal studies have shown that a substance in turmeric, called curcumin, kills a wide variety of cancer cells including colon, breast, prostate, pancreatic, brain and melanoma and slows tumor growth.
The preclinical research has taken the spice from the lab to the clinic.
"We have shown that a wide variety of tumor cells can be selectively killed by curcumin and it does not kill the normal cells but will kill only cancer cells. There are no known side effects in people," he says.
Dr. Aggarwal says he has gradually given cancer patients up to 8 grams of curcumin supplements (500 mg each) a day without any side effects. He says in addition to eating turmeric in his food, he also takes 500 mg a day.
Click here to read about supplement amount used in studies.
While phase I and plase II clinical trials involving people have been small, 40 have been completed and 40 more are ongoing, Dr. Aggarwal says the spice has a promising future as an inexpensive, non-toxic cancer preventative agent and treatment.
"We are of the opinion that inflammation causes cancer and if you can inhibit inflammation you can prevent or even treat cancer. We found that spices are some of the best anti-inflammatory agents available" says Dr. Aggarwal.
Dr. Aggarwal and researchers at John Hopkins, UCLA School of Medicine and other cancer centers that have studied curcumin, suspect it fights disease including cancer, alzheimers, arthritis and heart disease by shutting down a powerful protein that promotes chronic inflammation in the body.
Chronic inflammation can be triggered by sugary, processed foods, cigarettes, stress and alcohol.
But critics say the human trials are too small and don't last long enough. They wonder how much is actually absorbed by the body.
Dr. Aggarwal says he is still impressed, but agrees, more research is needed.
Dr. Aggarwal says funding for large, randomized double-blind studies may be tough to find because curcumin can't be patented on a broad scale. He doubts it will attract the interest and funding from pharmaceutical companies. It's an inexpensive spice. A kilo sells for about $20.00.
90 Curcumin capsules (500mg), 3 month supply, sell at the health food store for $18.00.
In the meantime, Dr. Aggarwal suggests adding more turmeric to your food. Make sure you add a healthy oil (fat) and black pepper. He says your body will absorb turmeric better.
He says people who want to take more than one curcumin pill a day, need to start slowly. He says taking too many too quickly can cause nausea and gas.
People, like Madhu Sharma, won't wait for 21st century labs to prove the power of something that's been handed down from generation to generation.
"It's been an essential ingredient in all aspects of our lives for thousands and thousands of years."
Try these easy curry/turmeric recipes:
Curry Coconut Soup
Heather's Chicken Curry in a Hurry
Indian Side Dish: Aloo Gobi
Traditional Chicken Curry
OncoLog/M.D. Anderson Cancer Center
Can turmeric relieve pain? Time Magazine
Out of the spice box, into the lab/UCLA
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Heather Van Nest