Add Some Spice to Your Life

Sanjay So1465338_10151720952422245_1645595350_nod, third year, reviews the therapeutic potential behind turmeric spice.

For many of us, turmeric is synonymous with the flavour of a warm curry; its vibrant yellow colour makes it instantly familiar in modern cuisine. It is a spice native to Southeast India and comes from a plant related to ginger.


The most extensively studied component of turmeric is curcumin, which only makes up about 3% [1]. Whilst many may recognise turmeric’s distinctive physical properties in the kitchen, it may be surprising to learn the miraculous anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant qualities curcumin possesses [2]. It can be argued that every known chronic disease carries with it some level of inflammation: arthritis to heart disease; cancer to Alzheimer’s, they all involve an inflammatory cascade at some point in the timeline of the disease [3, 4]. So the potential positive implications for a low cost, highly potent anti-inflammatory without known side-effects are limitless.


Curcumin is an extremely versatile structure, capable of interacting with a diverse range of inflammatory targets. It down-regulates many well-known inflammatory molecules like COX-2, Nitric Oxide Synthase, Tumour Necrosis Factor-alpha, Migration Inhibitory Protein and many more [5].

Curcumin also blocks NF-kB, a transcription factor that turns on genes related to inflammation. NF-kB is believed to play a major role in many chronic diseases [6].

Carcinogenesis is known to be more favourable in high inflammatory states [7]. Preclinical research has found curcumin to reduce carcinogenesis by down-regulating inflammatory molecules in a wide range of cancer types including prostate, breast and hepatic [8].

Curcumin has also yielded promising results when used to treat gastrointestinal disorders. Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome found a 25% reduction in pain scores [9]. Further, when used to treat Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, curcumin led to a significant reduction in pain and morbidity[10].

Brain Function

As curcumin is able to cross the blood brain barrier, another application has been in the treatment of brain-related disease, including Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. In a trial of 60 patients suffering from depression, curcumin led to the same degree of change as those taking Prozac. A combination of the two drugs led to the most marked improvements [11].

Brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) is a protein that supports the survival of neurones in the brain as well as the growth of new ones. A reduced BDNF is implicated in common conditions including depression and Alzheimer’s. Interestingly, animal trials have shown curcumin to increase the levels of BDNF and therefore help delay/reverse the aforementioned diseases [12].

Currently, the only limitation is curcumin’s poor bioavailability, due to a high plasma clearance and conjugation rate. Research into synergistic compounds and analogues of curcumin are being developed.

In summary, curcumin is proven to be a safe molecule, with a diverse spread of molecular targets. More large-scale human trials are needed to reveal the huge therapeutic potential that this spice possesses.


  1. Tayyem RF, Heath DD, Al-Delaimy WK, Rock CL (2006) “Curcumin content of turmeric and curry powders” Nutr Cancer 55 (2): 126–131.
  2. Menon VP1, Sudheer AR (2007) “Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin” Adv Exp Med Biol. 595:105-25.
  3. Libby P (2002)” Inflammation in atherosclerosis” Nature. 420(6917):868-74.
  4. Coussens LM, Werb Z (2002) “Inflammation and cancer” Nature. 19-26;420(6917):860-7.
  5. Abe Y, Hashimoto S, Horie T (1999) “Curcumin inhibition of inflammatory cytokine production by human peripheral blood monocytes and alveolar macrophages” Pharmacol Res;39:41-47.
  6. Sanjaya Singh , Bharat B. Aggarwal (1995) “Activation of Transcription Factor NF-κB Is Suppressed by Curcumin (Diferuloylmethane)” The Journal of Biological Chemistry, doi: 10.1074/jbc.270.42.24995
  7. Bennett A (1986) “The production of prostanoids in human cancers, and their implications for tumor progression” Prog Lipid;25:539-542
  8. Aggarwal BB, Kumar A, Bharti AC (2003) “Anticancer potential of curcumin: preclinical and clinical studies” Anticancer;23:363-398
  9. Bundy R, Walker AF, Middleton RW, Booth J. (2004) “Turmeric extract may improve irritable bowel syndrome symptomology in otherwise healthy adults: a pilot study.” J Altern Complement Med;10:1015- 1018.
  10. Hanai H, Iida T, Takeuchi K, et al. (2006) “Curcumin maintenance therapy for ulcerative colitis: randomized, multicenter, double-blind, placebo- controlled trial.” ClinGastroenterol Hepatol;4:1502-1506
  11. Sanmukhani J1, Satodia V, Trivedi J, Patel T, Tiwari D, Panchal B, Goel A, Tripathi CB (2014) “Efficacy and safety of curcumin in major depressive disorder: a randomized controlled trial”. Phytother;28(4):579-85. doi: 10.1002
  12. Laura L. Hurleya, Luli Akinfiresoyea, Evaristus Nwuliab, Atsushi Kamiyac, Amol A. Kulkarnid, Yousef Tizabi(2013)“Antidepressant-like effects of curcumin in WKY rat model of depression is associated with an increase in hippocampal BDNF” Behavioural Brain Research Volume 239, Pages 27–30

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