The health benefits of turmeric have been touted far and wide, but after research last year found that the spice’s superpowers may have been exaggerated, some have been wary. Now, a newly released study has the potential to repair turmeric’s rep and solidify the evidence in favor of the spice once and for all.
Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, in cooperation with scholars from Peking and Zhejiang Universities, recently revealed that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is able to bind to an enzyme known as dual-specificity tyrosine-regulated kinase 2 (DYRK2) at the atomic level, impairing cell proliferation and reducing cancer burden.
Sourav Banerjee, PhD, UC San Diego School of Medicine postdoctoral scholar and first author on the study, notes that while the 2017 study “was indeed hard for curcumin researchers to digest [… The researchers] also provided a good guideline of how state-of-the-art curcumin research should be carried out.”
“Owing to a lot of chemical drawbacks, curcumin indeed comes up as a false-positive in many screens,” says Banerjee. “Hence a thorough and diligent effort is required to prove whether it is a true hit or a promiscuous waste-of-time. We were very cautious initially when it came up in our screen too and in fact asked a lab in Dundee, UK to repeat our data with a different system altogether to be absolutely sure.”
The study, which was published in the July 9 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that, in combination with the FDA-approved multiple myeloma drug carfilzomib, curcumin could reduce cancer in mice.
"Although curcumin has been studied for more than 250 years and its anti-cancer properties have been previously reported, no other group has reported a co-crystal structure of curcumin bound to a protein kinase target until now," Banerjee says in a press release.
Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com, notes that this research certainly reinforces other research that has been conducted with regards to turmeric's anticarcinogenic properties.
“A multitude of in vitro studies have shown that curcumin could be effective against many types of cancer, including lung, pancreatic, colorectal and breast cancers," Dr. Axe says. "The anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin have also been well-documented and, in addition to fighting cancer development, may also be beneficial in the prevention of chronic disease and inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, IBD and asthma.”
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Of course, researchers caution not to jump to conclusions with regards to the results of this animal study – more work is needed.
“Our current work throws light on an important and novel mechanism of how curcumin functions biologically,” says Banerjee. “Yes, this research is promising but one needs to be cautious before calling this a miracle drug.”
Specifically, Banerjee notes that curcumin is expelled from the body quite quickly, which could reduce its efficacy.
"For curcumin to be an effective drug, it needs to be modified to enter the bloodstream and stay in the body long enough to target the cancer,” Banerjee says. “Owing to various chemical drawbacks, curcumin on its own may not be sufficient to completely reverse cancer in human patients."
This also means that just upping your consumption of turmeric might not be enough – and for more than one reason.
“Curcumin constitutes 2-6% of turmeric,” he says. “So dietary turmeric may not have a high enough curcumin content to target cancer. Moreover, the bioavailability of curcumin is poor in general so ideally one needs to utilize curcumin as a template to generate better derivatives with better bioavailability for use in therapeutics.”
“Fermentation increases the bioavailability of curcumin in your body to maximize the potential health benefits, helping you get more bang for your buck,” says Dr. Axe. “Additionally, look for a supplement that also contains piperine, a compound found in black pepper that has been shown to boost absorption by up to 2,000 percent.”
While this research certainly isn’t the last word on turmeric, it is a fantastic start.
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