By VIRGINIA WINDER
THERE’S a possible wonder drug hiding in your spice drawer.
It’s that warm, earthy, golden-orange powder, which tends to stain your bench and clothes, and turn your fingers tobacco-yellow after you’ve been dipping naan bread into Indian curry.
Yes, it’s turmeric.
And scientists the world over are hailing it as a preventative and a cure for, well, just about anything.
The list is long. Research shows that it’s an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and digestive aid. It’s also a potential weapon in the battle against breast, prostate, lung, colon and skin cancers, along with Alzheimer’s, arthritis, heart disease and peptic ulcers. Other studies show it prevents blood clots and lowers harmful cholesterol.
Its main ingredient, curcumin, is the “miracle” component of the spice. That’s also what provides that almost day-glo yellow hue to foods such as American mustard and Maggi chicken stock cubes.
Turmeric spice is derived from the roots of the Curcuma longa. This is an herbaceous perennial plant of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae, and is native to tropical South Asia. It needs temperatures between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius and a high rainfall to thrive. With climate change, Taranaki could soon be an ideal spot for a turmeric plot.
In medical terms, this spice is hot.
A Google search on “turmeric research” brings up 772,000 results – a daunting task for any online spice-truth seeker.
It mostly comes down to rats and mice, which are the “guinea pigs” in most of the turmeric studies.
At the University of Arizona researchers found that joint inflammation in rats was reduced by the spice.
The scientists did further studies to find what part of the turmeric root was the active anti-inflammatory ingredient. Like most research, the key was found to be curcumin.
The study revealed that an extract containing the colouring agent, but free of essential oils, was the most effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis in lab rats.
The researchers believe that curcumin triggers a reaction that causes a joint-attacking protein to remain dormant in the body. The spice extract also blocks a pathway in the body that had previously been linked to bone loss. This has led researchers to believe it could also be used to treat osteoporosis.
Lead researcher Janet Funk says curcumin may also work in the treatment of other inflammatory conditions such as asthma, multiple sclerosis and bowel disease.
At this stage, the scientists say new drugs may be developed as a result of the research, but more clinical trials will be needed before they recommend turmeric supplements for treatment.
The bad news is they say that eating more of the spice is unlikely to have an effect on the diseases investigated in the study.
But cancer researchers in Houston are more optimistic about the positive effects from ingesting turmeric.
“Curcumin, as you know, is very much an essential part of the Indian diet,” says research leader Bharat Aggarwal, from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre.
Aggarwal says earlier studies suggest that people who eat diets rich in turmeric have lower rates of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer.
The centre’s latest tests, carried out on mice, show that curcumin helps stop the spread of breast cancer tumour cells to the lungs.
Studies are also being carried out on people because there are no fears about safety using the spice, which has been used in India for about 2500 years.
“What's exciting about this agent is that it seems to have both chemo preventive and therapeutic properties. If we can demonstrate that it is efficacious in humans, it could be of tremendous value, but we’re a long way from being able to make any recommendations yet,” Aggarwal says.
The Harvard Medical School in Boston has also been testing curcumin.
“In animal models, curcumin and its derivatives have been shown to inhibit the progression of chemically induced colon and skin cancers,” an extract from research being done by the department of dermatology says.
“The genetic changes in carcinogenesis in these organs involve different genes, but curcumin is effective in preventing carcinogenesis in both organs. A possible explanation for this finding is that curcumin may inhibit angiogenesis.”
In person-on-the-street speak, carcinogenesis means the creation of cancer, while angiogenesis is a normal bodily process that helps wounds heal through the growth of new blood vessels from existing vessels. But it’s also a fundamental step in the transition of tumours from a dormant state to a malignant or aggressive state.
The Harvard study, therefore, indicates that turmeric can stop tumours growing and spreading through the body.
Turmeric also gets the big tick from the University of Maryland, which reports that laboratory studies suggest that curcumin may reduce the destructive activity of parasites or roundworms.
Conclusion of the online seeker: Add the golden girl of spice to your daily diet, but don’t go overboard. Too much of a good thing can definitely turn bad. Just know that turmeric is of huge interest to the scientific world and 1.13 billion Indians can’t be wrong. Eat curry.
Sunday, 26 August 2007
By VIRGINIA WINDER