Turmeric: The Anticancer Spice

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  • Turmeric is a yellow to orange colored spice that is part of the ginger family and is mainly imported to the rest of the world from India. As a spice, it provides curry with its distinctive color and flavor. The health benefits of turmeric have been recognized by the Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic traditional medicine for hundreds of years. In the old days, turmeric was rare in Western civilizations as one had to travel a very long journey to find it and bring it back to Europe. Nowadays, we are indeed very lucky to have turmeric so widely available, especially when considering its amazing health benefits. Modern science has only recently started to unlock the secrets of turmeric. There are, by now, hundreds of scientific articles on the health benefits of turmeric, so it has rightfully gained its position among the top class super foods.

    Cancer Protection

    Cancer rates in India are much lower than in western countries, and daily turmeric consumption is believed to play a key role in the huge differences in cancer development. People in India have one eighth as many lung cancers, one ninth as many colon cancers, one fifth as many breast cancers and one tenth kidney cancers, when comparing people of the same age.

    Curcumin’s Health Benefits

    Over the last decade numerous studies have explored the potential prophylactic or therapeutic value of curcumin, the bioactive natural compound in turmeric. Curcumin is a polyphenol with proven strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It is believed that curcumin has over 150 potentially therapeutic activities within the body. Extensive research has shown that curcumin has the ability to:

    • Protect liver function

    • Prevent thrombosis

    • Protect the heart

    • Help in the treatment of arthritis

    • Help in reversing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

    • Help in the prevention and treatment of cancer.

    Breakthrough research on Curcumin

    Curcumin is the Golden Spice from Indian saffron, as characterized by Professor Bharat Aggarwal, head of the lab working on experimental cancer therapies at the M.D.Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Professor Aggarwal is a pioneer cancer researcher who strongly believes and extensively studies the anti-cancer effects of curcumin. He was the first to show that curcumin is very active against cancer in lab settings. Since then, curcumin has been studied extensively and we now have enough scientific data from lab and animal studies that show that curcumin kills cancer cells and slows tumor growth. Curcumin acts on hundreds of cellular pathways and appears to be useful for just about every type of cancer. More specifically, curcumin has been found to:

    1. Inhibit the reproduction of cancerous cells

    2. Decrease inflammation

    3. Inhibit the transition of cells from normal to cancerous cells

    4. Inhibit the synthesis of NF-κB, which is a protein thought to play a key role in cancer formation, as it protects cancer cells from the immune system and allows their survival

    5. Helps the body destroy cancerous cells so that they cannot spread throughout the body

    6. Helps prevent the development of the additional blood supply necessary for cancer cell growth (angiogenesis). 

    Curcumin works synergistically with Chemotherapy

    Another discovery that is extremely important is the ability of curcumin to sensitize many human cancers to chemotherapy and radiation, cancers that were considered to be resistant to therapy. The use of a curcumin-based, anticancer therapeutic strategy will hopefully allow the use of lower doses of chemotherapeutic drugs and radiation in the future, but still achieve much higher anti-cancer results. In animal models, curcumin was found to be very effective in protecting normal cells from the toxic effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This lower toxicity and enhanced protection was seen in a number of body systems as curcumin was effective in:

    • Preventing nephrotoxicity (toxicity of the kidneys),

    • Preventing oral mucositis and

    • Reducing intestinal damage. 

    Curcumin also enhanced the repair of wounds in mice exposed to whole-body radiation. Curcumin is a safe and highly effective compound that can be used both in the prevention and also in conjunction with standard cancer therapies. Two key curcumin researchers, A.Goel and B.Aggarwal, reported in the Journal “Nutrition and Cancer” in 2010: “Curcumin therapy may stop cancers before they become invasive and metastatic. These effects combined with its ability to prevent depression, fatigue, neuropathic pain, lack of sleep, and lack of appetite, all symptoms induced by cancer and cancer treatment, makes curcumin an ideal agent for cancer patients”.

    Tips for Increasing Curcumin Absorption

    Curcumin is unfortunately very poorly absorbed in the human body and doses used for animal studies cannot be easily achieved by supplementation. However, traditional wisdom again shows us the way. In traditional Indian cooking, curry is mixed with pepper or ginger, factors that greatly boost absorption from our intestinal walls through the blood. Mixing turmeric with black pepper and dissolving it in oil, preferably olive oil or linseed oil greatly increases curcumin absorption. Tips for using turmeric in your recipes: mix ¼ teaspoon turmeric powder with ½-1 teaspoon olive oil and a generous pinch of black pepper. Add to vegetables, soups, rice dishes and salad dressings.

    Benefit from Curcumin’s medicinal powers:

    • Add turmeric to your dishes, i.e. in rice, salad dressings, soups etc.

    • Add a pinch of black pepper to aid turmeric absorption by the body.

    • Curcumin supplements can be used by people suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. The anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin are well established and may play a significant role in reducing the risk of developing colon cancer. 


    1. Torisu, Motomichi, et al. "Significant prolongation of disease-free period gained by oral polysaccharide K (PSK) administration after curative surgical operation of colorectal cancer."Cancer Immunology, Immunotherapy31.5 (1990): 261-268.

    2. J.Ferlay et al. WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), IARC Cancer Epidemiology Database.Globocan 2000. Cancer Incidence, mortality and prevalence worldwide (Lyon, France: IARC Press; 2000).

    3. Ajay Goel & Bharat B. Aggarwal (2010) Curcumin, the Golden Spice From Indian Saffron, Is a Chemosensitizer and Radiosensitizer for Tumors and Chemoprotector and Radioprotector for Normal Organs, Nutrition and Cancer, 62:7, 919-930

    4. The Benefits of Curcumin in Cancer Treatment, http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/03/02/curcumin-benefits.aspx, accessed at 21/1/2015

    5. Ravindran, Jayaraj, Sahdeo Prasad, and Bharat B. Aggarwal. "Curcumin and cancer cells: how many ways can curry kill tumor cells selectively?." The AAPS journal 11.3 (2009): 495-510.

    6. Gao, Xiaohua, et al. "Curcumin differentially sensitizes malignant glioma cells to TRAIL/Apo2L-mediated apoptosis through activation of procaspases and release of cytochrome c from mitochondria." Journal of experimental therapeutics & oncology 5.1 (2004): 39-48.


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