Oregon State University (OSU) scientists recently identified a new reason why some curry dishes, made with spices humans have used for thousands of years, might be good for you. New research has discovered that curcumin, a compound found in the cooking spice turmeric, can cause a modest but measurable increase in levels of a protein that’s known to be important in the “innate” immune system, helping to prevent infection in humans and other animals.
This cathelicidin antimicrobial peptide (CAMP) is part of what helps the immune system fight off various bacteria, viruses or fungi even though they hadn’t been encountered before. Prior to this, it was known that CAMP levels were increased by vitamin D. Discovery of an alternative mechanism to influence or raise CAMP levels is of scientific interest and could open new research avenues in nutrition and pharmacology, scientists said.
The newest findings were made by researchers in the Linus Pauling Institute at OSU and published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, in collaboration with scientists from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
“This research points to a new avenue for regulating CAMP gene expression,” said Adrian Gombart, associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the Linus Pauling Institute. “It’s interesting and somewhat surprising that curcumin can do that, and could provide another tool to develop medical therapies.”
The impact of curcumin in this role is not nearly as potent as that of vitamin D, Gombart said, but could nonetheless have physiologic value. Curcumin has also been studied for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
“Curcumin, as part of turmeric, is generally consumed in the diet at fairly low levels,” he said. “However, it’s possible that sustained consumption over time may be healthy and help protect against infection, especially in the stomach and intestinal tract.”
In the study, Chunxiao Guo, a graduate student, and Gombart looked at the potential of both curcumin and omega-3 fatty acids to increase expression of the CAMP gene. They found no particular value with the omega-3 fatty acids for this purpose, but curcumin did have a clear effect, causing CAMP levels to almost triple.
There has been intense scientific interest in the vitamin D receptor in recent years because of potential therapeutic benefits in treating infection, cancer, psoriasis and other diseases, the researchers noted in their report. An alternative way to elicit a related biological response could be significant and merits additional research, they said.
The CAMP peptide is the only known antimicrobial peptide of its type in humans, researchers said. It appears to have the ability to kill a broad range of bacteria, including those that cause tuberculosis and protect against the development of sepsis.
In the U.S., turmeric is best known as a spice. It’s one of the main components of curry powder. In India and other parts of Asia, turmeric is used to treat many health conditions. It is believed to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and perhaps even anticancer properties.
Why do people take turmeric?
Curcumin, a substance in turmeric, may help to reduce inflammation. Several studies suggest that it might ease symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, like pain and inflammation. Other compounds in turmeric might also be medicinal.
In lab tests, curcumin seems to block the growth of certain kinds of tumors. One study showed that turmeric extract containing curcumin could — in some cases — stabilize colorectal cancer that wasn’t helped by other treatments. But more research is needed.
Other preliminary lab studies suggest that curcumin or turmeric might protect against types of skin diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, colitis, stomach ulcers, and high cholesterol. Based on lab studies, turmeric and curcumin might also help treat upset stomach, scabies, diabetes, HIV, uveitis, and viral infections.
But it’s important to keep in mind that most of these studies have been done in the laboratory. Researchers haven’t yet conducted significant studies on the benefits of turmeric and curcumin. So it’s too early to say what health benefits turmeric might have.
How much turmeric should you take?
Turmeric is an unproven treatment, though it has years of traditional use and some preliminary convincing research. There is no standard dosage. Ask your health care provider for advice.
Can you get turmeric naturally from foods?
Turmeric, as a spice, is a common ingredient in Indian cooking. The spice (and supplement) comes from the underground stems (rhizomes) of the turmeric plant.
What are the risks of taking turmeric?
- Side effects. Turmeric is generally safe. It can cause nausea and diarrhea, especially in high doses or after long-term use. It might also pose a risk of ulcers in high doses. As a topical treatment, it can cause skin irritation. Caution is advised when turmeric is taken by people known to have gallstones; consult your health care provider first.
- Risks. Pregnant women should not use turmeric supplements. Talk to a doctor before using turmeric supplements regularly if you have any medical conditions, like gallbladder or kidney disease, bleeding disorders, diabetes, or immunity problems. Since turmeric can potentially increase bleeding, stop taking it at least two weeks before any surgery.
- Interactions. If you take any medicines regularly, talk to your doctor before you start using turmeric supplements. They could interact with medicines like aspirin, NSAID painkillers, statins, diabetes drugs, blood pressure medicines, and blood thinners. They might also interact with supplements that decrease clotting, like ginkgo, ginseng, and garlic.
Given the lack of evidence about its safety, children and women who are breastfeeding should only use turmeric if a doctor recommends it.
SOURCES of CURCUMIN:
Curcumin is responsible for the yellow color of the spice turmeric. Beneficial for health, this active component has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. According to the Arthritis Foundation, curcumin can prevent and reduce joint inflammation. It has also been linked to reduced blood cholesterol and protection against Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, curcumin is being explored as a cancer treatment because of its anti-oxidant activity. Foods with curcumin are those that contain turmeric.
Turmeric is added to prepared mustards, and the curcumin it contains gives it the familiar, bright yellow color. This includes store-bought, standard yellow mustard commonly used as a condiment for hamburgers or hot dogs, and in potato salads and salad dressings. Check the ingredient label of the mustard to ensure that turmeric is listed. Most brown, spicy and Dijon mustards do not contain turmeric for flavor or color.
Turmeric is an essential ingredient in Indian cooking, which makes the cuisine especially rich in curcumin. Turmeric is used in curry powders that flavor common dishes in South Asian and Indian cuisines. The spice is used in multiple Indian dishes, but some examples include Dal Fry, a lentil soup, Chicken Tikka, Baigan Ka Bharta, an eggplant curry, and mango chutney. Worlds Healthiest Foods, a nonprofit health organization, suggests using turmeric instead of premade curry powders when cooking these foods at home because of the higher concentration of curcumin.
Commonly used in cooking throughout Indonesia, turmeric adds color, flavor and the health benefits of curcumin to many dishes. Fried chicken is a traditional dish in the area, and Ayam Goreng Kuning is a variety of fried chicken that is flavored with turmeric. Turmeric is also used in Javanese Kare Jawa, a beef curry, and in the lamb curry Kari Kambing. Nasi Kuning is a rice dish simmered in coconut milk with turmeric and lemongrass.
The cuisine of Thailand is also known for curry that contains curcumin from turmeric. Thai curries are different from Indian curries as they are often flavored with coconut milk and scented with kaffir lime leaves. In addition, not all Thai curries contain turmeric. You may consider green, red and yellow Thai curry to be very similar, but it is only the Thai yellow curry that includes turmeric, and therefore, curcumin. In addition, coconut curry and fish curry also contain turmeric. Remember that curcumin is responsible for a deep yellow color, so the more yellow the broth or sauce the more likely the food is to contain it.
Curry is a popular spice blend in Caribbean food and cooking. Many foods include curry powder that contains turmeric and curcumin such as Curried Goat and Jamaican Beef Patties. Others require turmeric powder, which ensures that you will get a more concentrated source of curcumin. Curry Pumpkin Soup is one dish common in the Caribbean that uses turmeric powder.