Wednesday, February 15, 2012

From building a better brain to reducing joint pain, curcumin’s got potential by Jerry Brainum

   Various spices contain active ingredients that have potent effects on health and well-being. Ginger, for instance, not only prevents morning sickness in pregnant women but also provides potent antioxidant and anticancer effects through its active ingredient, gingerol. Capsaicin, the active factor in hot peppers, stimulates metabolism and provides anti-inflammatory effects. Cinnamon not only tastes good but also increases insulin sensitivity. Perhaps the most versatile of all is turmeric.

   Turmeric is cultivated in India, China and other Asian countries, and its active factor is curcumin. Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional medicine of India, suggests that it’s an effective treatment for maladies as diverse as arthritis, inflammation, skin diseases, fever, infections and jaundice. Traditional Chinese medicine uses turmeric to treat liver and gallbladder disorders, to control bleeding and to treat chest congestion.

   Modern Western medicine has confirmed the effectiveness of curcumin’s many traditional uses. Studies show that it’s a potent natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and has anticancer and antibiotic effects. It also helps treat peptic ulcers.

   Curcumin helps prevent the spread of cancer by blocking substances that tumors use to produce new blood vessels. Without new blood vessels tumors shrivel up and die. Research shows that curcumin appears to work against breast, colorectal and prostate cancers. Its effects in preventing new blood vessel formation also make curcumin useful against diabetic retinopathy, the major cause of blindness in diabetics.

   Other studies show that curcumin helps protect the liver from toxic substances that would otherwise destroy liver cells. Whether that effect would be useful to those who take oral anabolic steroids, which can be toxic to liver cells, isn’t known. One property that has been established, however, is its ability to increase the flow of bile in the liver. That’s important because excessive use of oral anabolic steroids causes swelling in the liver, which impedes normal bile flow, and curcumin’s naturally occurring anti-inflammatory behavior may help counteract that.

   One way that curcumin provides anti-inflammatory, as well as anticancer, effects is by inhibiting an enzyme called cyclooxygenase type-2, or COX-2. Drugs that inhibit the enzyme are used to treat inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. They recently attained notoriety from reports that they promoted cardiovascular disease.

   The COX-2 enzyme works by promoting the synthesis of prostaglandins, hormonelike substances made from dietary fat. When COX-2 activity is blocked, inflammatory properties of some prostaglandins are reduced, resulting in an analgesic, or pain-killing, action. COX-2 drugs replaced COX-1 inhibitors, which caused problems because they attacked the mucosal barrier that protects the gastrointestinal lining. COX-2 drugs were supposed to prevent that side effect.

   As it turned out, however, COX-2 drugs inhibited synthesis of a protective prostaglandin in blood vessels called prostacyclin, which prevents clotting in blood vessels, a major cause of heart attacks and strokes. Even worse, COX-2 drugs didn’t oppose the synthesis of thromboxane, a prostaglandin that promotes blood clotting. That meant COX-2 drugs could promote heart attacks and strokes in some people.

   Curcumin is a natural COX-2 inhibitor but doesn’t appear to adversely affect prostacyclin. It follows that curcumin helps prevent cancer and inflammation throughout the body.

   Alzheimer’s disease has an inflammatory component, and related studies of curcumin are the most interesting of all. The major cause of Alzheimer’s is thought to be an increase of beta-amyloid protein in the brain. In excess it potently causes inflammation in the brain, resulting in the destruction of neurons, especially in the portions of the brain that govern intellectual activity. Recently published studies show that curcumin appears to not only prevent the buildup of toxic beta-amyloid in the brain but also remove excess already present. Although the finding is preliminary, anyone concerned about developing Alzheimer’s might well consider taking some form of curcumin, which is nontoxic, before the disease manifests itself—in short, as a preventive.

As an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory agent, curcumin has some exercise-related benefits. A recent study involving mice showed that giving them curcumin led to a decrease in markers of muscle damage, such as creatine kinase and various inflammatory cytokines.1 The mice got curcumin three days before they were put on a regimen of downhill running, which, as a largely eccentric exercise, causes extensive muscle damage. Those mice recovered more rapidly than a group that didn’t get curcumin.

   Curcumin may prove useful for treating any condition associated with inflammation, such as joint pain and muscle aches. In combination with other natural joint remedies, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, it makes sense and should provide synergistic benefits. While all the supplements aid in reducing inflammation (the major cause of joint pain), glucosamine helps heal injured joints, and curcumin reduces the inflammation that delays the long-term healing process in connective tissue.

   The only problem with curcumin is that it’s hard for the body to absorb it. That said, judging from the numerous studies attesting to its benefits, some of it must get absorbed. A few studies show that taking curcumin with piperine, a substance extracted from black peppers (sold as Bioperine), significantly increases the absorption of curcumin and other nutrients, such as coenzyme-Q10 and beta-carotene.

   You can use curcumin as a spice or take it in supplemental form. Some curcumin supplements also contain piperine to enhance absorption (by 2,000 percent!). A good dose for both protective and anti-inflammatory effects is 2,000 milligrams daily in divided doses. That will also extend the activity of other antioxidants you take, such as vitamins E and C.

1 Davis, J.M., et al. (2005). Curcumin enhances performance recovery after exercise-induced muscle damage. Med Sci Sports Exer. 37:S128.

©,2012 Jerry Brainum. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited

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