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Turmeric and Curcumin: The Pros and Cons

Karen Alexander, Licensed Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

June 15, 2016

Widely known as “Indian saffron”, turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a spice with a very long history of medicinal use, dating back nearly 4000 years in Southeast Asia. India produces most of the world’s turmeric crop and consumes 80% of it. This is one of those herbs that has innumerable health benefits and it would take several pages to list all of them, so I will summarize some of the most relevant information for you here.

Turmeric contains yellow-orange pigments named curcuminoids, but in this review, we will refer to them as “curcumin.” Curcumin is better absorbed when eaten with fats, so traditional Indian and oriental recipes that include coconut milk and other ingredients help curcumin easily absorb in the digestive tract. The Food and Drug Administration has declared both turmeric and its active component curcumin as GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe). Thus, in the United States, turmeric and curcumin can be found in products like mustard, cereals, chips, cheese, butter, and many more.

Pros
In human studies, curcumin has been tested against various diseases and health conditions with many positive outcomes.

  • Stimulates the flow of bile into the gastrointestinal tract
  • Anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-bacterial, anti-septic, and anti-viral properties
  • Shown to reduce the prevalence of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Reduces abdominal pain and discomfort in patients with IBS
  • Safe and equally as effective as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug for the treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee
  • Reduces chronic inflammation

Curcumin & Cancer
Curcumin has been shown to enhance the body’s antioxidant ability to neutralize free radicals that so often cause DNA damage. It is able to inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells and can induce cancer cell death. It also reduces the ability of tumors to develop blood vessels and grow.

There is no doubt that the therapeutic effects of curcumin look promising for the oncology field. Some preliminary studies in cancer treatment confirm the potential therapeutic effects of curcumin. However, since most of these studies were performed in animal models, you should be very cautious when considering curcumin applications. What seems to be a clear cytotoxic effect on a cancer cell grown in vitro cannot be automatically considered a ‘healing effect’ in humans. More strong evidence is required in order to link the use of specific doses of curcumin with a therapeutic effect on human cancers.
Cons
While curcumin has some clear health benefits, there are also some negative side effects to consider. For example, curcumin may interfere with a long list of drugs including acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, dalteparin, enoxaparin, celiprolol, midazolam, norfloxacin, reserpine, indomethacin, celiprolol, midazolam and verapamil. It may also interfere with chemotherapy drugs for breast cancer such as camptothecin, mechlorethamine, doxorubicin, and cyclophosphamide. If you are undergoing chemotherapy, you should ask your doctor about eating turmeric and turmeric-containing foods.

Some other potential negative side effects of taking curcumin:

  • Increased risk of bleeding, particularly during and after surgery, due to slow blood clotting
  • Worsened gallbladder problems and GERD
  • Interferes with some laboratory tests due to its high absorptive and fluorescent properties
  • Male fertility problems due to reduced testosterone levels and decreased sperm movement (when taken as an oral supplement)
  • Prevents proper absorption of iron
  • Decreases blood sugar for people with diabetes

Before adding any supplement to your diet, you should consult with either your physician or a pharmacist. This includes curcumin supplements.

 

Recipe of the Week: Roasted Turmeric Black Pepper Fingerling Potatoes via FoodandNutrition.org

Ingredients 
1½ pounds fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise (about 4 cups)
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon fresh grated turmeric root, or substitute with a pinch of ground turmeric
3 cloves minced or pressed garlic
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
Salt to taste

Directions
Preheat oven to 425°F.
Combine ingredients in a large bowl and stir. Spread potatoes, flat side down, onto a baking sheet.
Roast until tender and golden, about 20 minutes.

*Recipe via FoodAndNutrition.org

Nutrition can be a critical part of recovery. Learn more about why Ackerman Cancer Center is a leader in Proton Therapy.

All my best!

Karen Alexander, MS, RDN, LD/N

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