What's as exotic as a spicy Indian curry and as all-American as French's Mustard? Turmeric. The bright orange-yellow spice, native to southern India and cultivated for more than 5,000 years, has long been utilized for its saturation of golden color, used to dye everything from textiles to the mustard on your ballpark dog. At the same time, it's been revered in ancient Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine for centuries as a spice with potent healing properties. Today, it's a hot topic among scientists, who are confirming in laboratory experiments what Eastern practitioners have known for decades: that a curry a day may keep the doctor away.
Curcumin is the Key
Certain diseases that are common in Western societies—such as prostate cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and colon cancer—are rare among Indian and other Eastern populations, a phenomenon which many scientists attribute to diet. Curcumin, the compound in turmeric that lends its signature yellow hue, may be the key. In one study, when curcumin was combined with quercitin, an antioxidant found in onions, the combination reduced the size and number of precancerous intestinal lesions in those with colon polyps. In another study, curcumin combined with a phytochemical found in cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower led to reduced tumor growth in prostate cancer sufferers. Since Indian diets are rich not only in turmeric but also in onions and cruciferous vegetables, they may offer natural protection against prostate and colon cancers. Preliminary research in lab mice also suggests that turmeric may slow the progression of Alzheimer's, which occurs at very low rates among the elderly Indian population.
Curcumin is known to have significant anti-inflammatory properties, making it as effective as anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals for conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis, without unpleasant side effects. A study among patients with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis showed that up to 1.7 grams of curcumin a day for two months reduced bowel symptoms and the need for medications. Curcumin has also been shown to lessen joint swelling and stiffness in arthritis sufferers.
Curcumin's antioxidant properties can protect cells from free radical damage, making it a promising remedy for cardiovascular disesase and a host of cancers. Since free radicals lead to the oxidation of cholesterol, curcumin may reduce cholesterol levels and protect blood vessels from the build-up of plaque responsible for heart attacks and strokes. Research at the University of Texas demonstrated that curcumin can block the growth of breast cancer cells and slow the spread of such cells to the lungs, likely due to free radical protection. Diets rich in turmeric are also associated with a reduced risk of developing childhood leukemia. In addition, researchers are studying curcumin's potential to prevent cystic fibrosis, a disease of the lungs afflicting 30,000 American children, by correcting a gene mutation.
Sprinkle, Mix, Spoon
Given all of curcumin's seemingly miraculous benefits, you might be tempted to skip turmeric altogether and take curcumin in supplement form. However, plain curcumin may not be as effective as the dietary intake of turmeric—or as delicious. Researchers caution that plain curcumin is not well absorbed (except in the colon); mixing it with a fat such as the coconut milk found in curry aids absorption. Also, much of the research on curcumin has been conducted in lab animals and test tubes, and further studies in human populations need to be done to confirm its benefits. In the meantime, it certainly can't hurt to sprinkle some turmeric on a dish of cauliflower and onions, into a lentil curry, or on some deviled eggs. After all, there's only so much mustard one can eat.