The Last Word

Michael Mosley on turmeric

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents - Dr Michael Mosley is a science writer and broad­caster. His lat­est book is The Clever Guts Diet

Tumeric has now be­come in­cred­i­bly trendy, thanks to claims that it can im­prove ev­ery­thing from al­ler­gies to de­pres­sion.

When it’s fresh, turmeric looks a lit­tle bit like gin­ger root (in fact, they be­long to the same fam­ily), but when it’s ground down you get a dis­tinc­tive yel­lowy-orange pow­der that’s very pop­u­lar in South Asian cui­sine. There are at least 200 dif­fer­ent com­pounds in turmeric, but there’s one that sci­en­tists are par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in. It’s called cur­cumin. Thou­sands of pa­pers have been pub­lished look­ing at turmeric and cur­cumin in the lab, and some have had promis­ing re­sults. But the tests have mainly been done in mice, us­ing un­re­al­is­ti­cally high doses.

Yet there have been some ex­cit­ing hu­man stud­ies too. There was, for ex­am­ple, one with the de­light­ful ti­tle, Curry Con­sump­tion And Cog­ni­tive

Func­tion In The El­derly. In this study, the sci­en­tists looked at just over 1,000 Asian sub­jects, be­tween the ages of 60 and 93, and com­pared their lev­els of curry con­sump­tion with their cog­ni­tive per­for­mance, as mea­sured by their Mini-Men­tal State Ex­am­i­na­tion (MMSE) score. The re­searchers found that those who con­sumed curry ‘oc­ca­sion­ally’ or ‘of­ten’ had sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter cog­ni­tive scores than those who ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ con­sumed curry. For the BBC se­ries

Trust Me, I’m A Doc­tor we also did a turmeric ex­per­i­ment. We re­cruited nearly 100 vol­un­teers who rarely ate curry and di­vided them into three groups. We asked one group to con­sume a tea­spoon of turmeric every day for six weeks, ideally mixed in with their food. Another group swal­lowed a sup­ple­ment con­tain­ing the same amount of turmeric, and a third group took a placebo pill.

To see what ef­fect the turmeric had, we used a novel test de­vel­oped at Univer­sity Col­lege London by Prof Martin Wid­schwendter. His test looks at methy­la­tion, which is a process by which changes hap­pen to the DNA of cells. It is a bit like a dim­mer switch that can turn the ac­tiv­ity of a gene up or down. To see if eat­ing turmeric made any dif­fer­ence to genes, we got him to test our vol­un­teers’ blood be­fore and after the ex­per­i­ment. So what did he find?

“We didn’t see any changes in the group tak­ing the placebo. The sup­ple­ment group also didn’t also show any dif­fer­ence,” he says.

“But the group who mixed turmeric pow­der into their food – there we saw quite sub­stan­tial changes,” he con­tin­ues. “It was re­ally ex­cit­ing, to be hon­est. We found one par­tic­u­lar gene which showed the big­gest dif­fer­ence. And what’s in­ter­est­ing is that we know this par­tic­u­lar gene is in­volved in three spe­cific dis­eases: de­pres­sion, asthma and eczema, and can­cer… so this is a re­ally strik­ing find­ing.”

But why did we see changes only in those eat­ing turmeric, not in those tak­ing the same amount as a sup­ple­ment? Dr Kirsten Brandt, a se­nior lec­turer at New­cas­tle Univer­sity who helped run the ex­per­i­ment, thinks it may have some­thing to do with the way the turmeric was con­sumed. “It could be that adding fat or heat­ing it up makes the ac­tive in­gre­di­ents more sol­u­ble, which would make it eas­ier for us to ab­sorb the turmeric,” she says.

There is more re­search that needs to be done, in­clud­ing re­peat­ing this ex­per­i­ment to see if these find­ings can be con­firmed. But I’m al­ready ex­per­i­ment­ing with adding it to tea and my morn­ing omelette.

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