Sanjay Sood, 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% . 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 . 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 .
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 .
Carcinogenesis is known to be more favourable in high inflammatory states . 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 .
Curcumin has also yielded promising results when used to treat gastrointestinal disorders. Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome found a 25% reduction in pain scores . Further, when used to treat Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, curcumin led to a significant reduction in pain and morbidity.
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 .
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 .
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.
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