This earthy, golden spice comes from the root of a plant in the ginger family and is the main ingredient in curry powder. Turmeric has been used for medicinal purposes for nearly 4,000 years and is billed as being able to cure a dazzling array of ailments, from arthritis to erectile dysfunction, largely thanks to its main ingredient, curcumin.
But most clinical trials featuring humans have not shown clear benefits from consuming turmeric. Curcumin is difficult to study because it is not terribly stable and does not dissolve easily in water, which means it cannot be used by the body. In fact, research suggests that most curcumin is likely to travel straight through the digestive system, without being absorbed. Pharmaceutical researchers often refer to curcumin as a ‘false lead’ because it looks amazing on paper but is ineffective in reality.
The key lies in adapting the structure of curcumin, or attaching it to a chemical transporter. In 2011, stroke researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, US, found that an adapted curcumin structure was able to repair stroke damage in rabbits. At the University of Illinois, a team of researchers have found a way to smuggle curcumin to targets in the body
using platinum-based compounds. The result is a complex that appears to be effective at treating various cancers, including melanoma and breast cancer.
Similarly, in lab tests at the University of Florida, scientists have attached curcumin to nanoparticles to destroy cells from neuroblastoma, a cancer that is most commonly diagnosed in children. The research suggests that the nanoparticles kill the cancer cells, although more study is needed to discover if the treatment would work in humans.
There is also evidence that curcumin can help with memory problems. A team at the University of California, Los Angeles, selected a widely available curcumin supplement called theracurmin for their study on 40 adults with mild memory complaints. Participants took a placebo or 90 milligrams of theracurmin twice daily for 18 months. The supplement gave the participants a significant memory boost, while PET scans showed lower levels of protein plaques in their brain. “We think that the anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin may be protecting the brain,” explains lead researcher Dr Gary Small. “We are currently in the planning stage for our next study, which will attempt to replicate these findings and determine if curcumin’s moodelevating effects contribute to the cognitive benefits.”