Curcumin is present in the spice turmeric, frequently used in Indian food. Its chemical makeup is responsible for the yellow coloring of turmeric, and is often used specifically to give color to foods. However, it may serve a more important purpose to humans. Medical researchers are fascinated by curcumin because it has been shown to have several properties that may fight specific forms of cancer.
An antioxidant, curcumin may also have anti-inflammatory benefits. Clinical studies in rats or mice exposed to carcinogens show that these animals, when given curcumin in their diets, had a much lower incidence of colon cancer, and that the substance actually caused colon cancer cells to die (apoptosis). Additionally, while curcumin created apoptosis in colon cancer cells, it did not cause cell death in the healthy noncancerous cells. One of the problems with most cancer medications used in chemotherapy today is that they not only kill cancer cells but also healthy cells as well.
The substance has also been studied for its possible benefits in delaying or slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. A study commissioned by the University of California-Los Angeles evaluated ingested curcumin’s effect on the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. It clearly broke up the plaque formations in the brain that are caused by Alzheimer’s, and may affect degree of symptoms.
Some scientists are also studying whether curcumin might have brain-boosting effects, promoting greater memory. These studies still require greater proof but preliminary results of surveys suggest that it may be good brain food.
Unfortunately, not all the evidence on curcumin suggests positive results. While it may fight colon cancer, it may also be a carcinogen, according to a 2005 medical study. This particular study suggests that the way in which curcumin acts means one can reasonably infer that it could also be responsible for cell damage elsewhere in the body. There is still little evidence about what degree of risk it might pose as a carcinogen.
It is known that the human body does not absorb very much curcumin when it is consumed. However, the body may not need to absorb it in order to derive benefits from it. When taken with black pepper, as it very well might be in Indian food, the substance is better absorbed and shows higher levels in people’s blood serum.
One can purchase curcumin in capsule and liquid form, but it might be best taken in food, particularly if one adds pepper. It is certainly less expensive when used as a spice.