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Curcumin: Mechanism, Medicinal Uses and Health Benefits

What is Curcumin?

Curry PowderCurcumin is one of the active constituents of the popular South Asian spice turmeric (a natural substance available in curry powder). Botanically, it is a member of the ginger family. The chemical structure of this principal compound of turmeric can exist in several forms. It contains phenol groups in its structure and is responsible for the bright yellow color of turmeric.

Curcumin is the most-widely studied phytochemical ingredient in modern science. Over the past three decades, hundreds of studies have done to evaluate its medicinal benefits. In many studies, it is shown to possess various medicinal and health benefits, including analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antiarthritic, antioxidant, anti-diabetic, anti-atherosclerosis, anticancer, and antiamyloid properties. Researchers often mention this potential phytonutrient as a natural immune system booster and a preventive agent against countless diseases.

How Curcumin Works in the Body?

As like many other potential medicinal ingredients, the exact mechanism of action of curcumin is still unknown. Yet, several ongoing studies have been performed to find out how it actually works. An ongoing study, published on march 03, 2009 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, done by the researchers of the University of Michigan revealed that curcumin works as a disciplinarian in the body. According to the study findings, when curcumin enters into the cell membranes, it helps organize them more orderly. This change in movement is believed to improve the resistance of cells against infection and malignancy. (1)

Although no specific explanation is claimed on curcumin's activity, but many scientists believed it might perform its health-promoting activity by directly interacting with the membrane proteins. Nevertheless, the findings of the researchers in University of Michigan didn’t agree with the above thought. They reported that curcumin changes the physical properties of the cell membranes and this changing indirectly controls the activity of membrane proteins.

Medicinal Uses and Health Benefits

Curcumin for Pain

Curcumin can progressively help relieve pain. Unlike the analgesic drugs, it doesn’t neutralize the pain sensation only for a few hours. Instead, it gradually helps the body to return in a tolerable level. The mechanism of curcumin's activity is also different compared with the pharmaceutical drugs. While synthetic drugs work on a single pathway of inflammation, curcumin has reported to work on multiple inflammation producing pathways.

In clinical trials, curcumin also proved to be a potential antiarthritic agent. It is shown to improve mobility in patients with osteoarthritis. A clinical study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, on the comparison of efficacy and safety between curcumin and ibuprofen (a pharmaceutical drug for patients with arthritis and osteoarthritis) for pain relief reported that curcumin was successful in improving mobility and easing pain nearly as same as ibuprofen without arising gastric acidity. The study took one hundred and seven volunteers with knee osteoarthritis. (2)

Curcumin to Treat Cancer

Scientific studies have revealed that curcumin can stop the initiation as well as slow the progression of cancer cells in our body. Although no human trial is done to evaluate the effectiveness, but the results from both animal and test tube studies suggested that curcumin might be an ingredient with significant importance in preventing or treating several types of cancers, including brain, skin, breast, blood and prostate cancer. In addition, many researchers believe that daily intake of curcumin may help prevent cancer growth in our body.

Human bodies have a natural ability to kill or destroy cancerous cells via the action of tumor destroying genes. However, throughout the lifespan of a human, the ability of these genes are often reduced by the environmental factors and aging. As a result, the chances of growing cancer cells are increased. In chemotherapy, both cancerous and normal cells are killed. To stop this side effect (sometimes fatal), scientists are researching for more than two decades to develop better chemotherapeutic agent with which they can only kill cancer cells not harming the healthy cells.

Interestingly, on April 21, 2011, the researchers of MD Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Texas released a surprising paper on their curcumin study. The study outcome described that curcumin have the ability to differentiate between cancerous and non-cancerous healthy cells. More interestingly, according to the study paper, it was also able to create apoptosis (cell death) only in cancer cells. However, more researches are still ongoing on this fact. (3)

Curcumin for Heart Disease

Because of curcumin’s potential antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, many early researchers predicted it as a promising ingredient in several heart diseases. Moreover, as Curcumin halts platelets from clumping together, it is thought to inhibit blood clots from building up in arteries. Surprisingly, in recent years, the prediction came true.

A study published in the Molecular Nutrition and Food Research is now suggesting that long-term curcumin administration can effectively help prevent atherosclerosis by lowering plasma and hepatic cholesterol. The study compared the cholesterol lowering effect of curcumin with the synthetic drug lovastatin (an antihypertensive drug used to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease). According to the study findings, it was shown to lower the cholesterol level nearly as effective as lovastatin. (4)

Another recent study by the researchers of Chiang Mai University, Thailand involved 121 bypass surgery patients of heart. One gram of curcumin pills were given four times in a day, 3 days before and 5 days after the bypass operation. The study result outlined that 65% of patients were at a lower risk from post-surgery heart attacks. (5)

Curcumin for Diabetes

Curcumin is a natural immune system booster and a protector of our cells. It is also a potential ingredient against diabetes. Researchers believe it helps restore damaged pancreatic cells (cells that are responsible for insulin production in our body). Daily intake of curcumin supplements can provide better insulin response and a decreased blood glucose level in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus.

Several recent researches have indicated that curcumin may work as a vital ingredient for preventing type 2 diabetes mellitus. A clinical study (randomized, double blinded, placebo controlled trials), published in the Journal of Diabetes Care, involved 240 Thai volunteers with prediabetes who were randomly chosen to consume either curcumin supplements or a placebo for nine months. According to the study result, 16.4% volunteers of the placebo group developed type 2 diabetes mellitus, whereas none was found to develop diabetes in the curcumin group. In addition, the volunteers of the curcumin group also showed a better performance of the pancreatic beta cells. (6)

Another experimental study done to compare the effectiveness of curcumin with the pharmaceutical compound rosiglitazone suggested that its effects are similarly as effective as rosiglitazone. (7)

Curcumin for Alzheimer’s disease

According to several recent researches, curcumin is also proved as a promising ingredient in Alzheimer’s disease. As curcumin can act on the blood-brain barrier to exert its therapeutic effect, it is also speculated that it might inhibit the formation of amyloid plaque. Based on the results of a study, scientists have already suggested that the occurrence of Alzheimer`s disease among the senior residents of India, where turmeric powder is regularly used in most foods, is considerably lesser than their western relatives. (8)

Another experimental study done to evaluate the effectiveness of curcumin in Alzheimer’s disease found that curcumin was successful in reducing the levels of beta amyloid proteins. More interestingly, according to the study result, it was able to shrink the accumulated plaque sizes up to 30%. (9)

Curcumin for Skin Care and Wound Healing

In India, from ancient times, the turmeric root has been used as a skin care and beautifying agent. Among Indian people, there is a mythical believe that turmeric brightens and sharpens skin. Although no scientific basis is behind that myth, but many studies have shown that curcumin encourages faster skin repair and wound healing. It defends the skin with its anti-inflammatory, and it removes the damaged free radicals with its antioxidant properties. Curcumin has also found to progress vascular density and collagen deposition in wounds.

Medical References

  1. Barry J, Fritz M, Brender JR, Smith PE, Lee DK, & Ramamoorthy A (2009). Determining the effects of lipophilic drugs on membrane structure by solid-state NMR spectroscopy: the case of the antioxidant curcumin. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 131 (12), 4490-8 PMID: 19256547.
  2. Kuptniratsaikul V, Thanakhumtorn S, Chinswangwatanakul P, Wattanamongkonsil L, & Thamlikitkul V (2009). Efficacy and safety of Curcuma domestica extracts in patients with knee osteoarthritis. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 15 (8), 891-7 PMID: 19678780.
  3. Anand P, Sundaram C, Jhurani S, Kunnumakkara AB, & Aggarwal BB (2008). Curcumin and cancer: an "old-age" disease with an "age-old" solution. Cancer letters, 267 (1), 133-64 PMID: 18462866.
  4. Shin SK, Ha TY, McGregor RA, & Choi MS (2011). Long-term curcumin administration protects against atherosclerosis via hepatic regulation of lipoprotein cholesterol metabolism. Molecular nutrition & food research, 55 (12), 1829-40 PMID: 22058071.
  5. Wongcharoen W, Jai-Aue S, Phrommintikul A, Nawarawong W, Woragidpoonpol S, Tepsuwan T, Sukonthasarn A, Apaijai N, & Chattipakorn N (2012). Effects of curcuminoids on frequency of acute myocardial infarction after coronary artery bypass grafting. The American journal of cardiology, 110 (1), 40-4 PMID: 22481014
  6. Chuengsamarn S, Rattanamongkolgul S, Luechapudiporn R, Phisalaphong C, & Jirawatnotai S (2012). Curcumin extract for prevention of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes care, 35 (11), 2121-7 PMID: 22773702
  7. El-Moselhy MA, Taye A, Sharkawi SS, El-Sisi SF, & Ahmed AF (2011). The antihyperglycemic effect of curcumin in high fat diet fed rats. Role of TNF-α and free fatty acids. Food and chemical toxicology : an international journal published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 49 (5), 1129-40 PMID: 21310207.
  8. Kalaria RN, Maestre GE, Arizaga R, Friedland RP, Galasko D, Hall K, Luchsinger JA, Ogunniyi A, Perry EK, Potocnik F, Prince M, Stewart R, Wimo A, Zhang ZX, Antuono P, & World Federation of Neurology Dementia Research Group (2008). Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia in developing countries: prevalence, management, and risk factors. Lancet neurology, 7 (9), 812-26 PMID: 18667359
  9. Garcia-Alloza M, Borrelli LA, Rozkalne A, Hyman BT, & Bacskai BJ. (2007) Curcumin labels amyloid pathology in vivo, disrupts existing plaques, and partially restores distorted neurites in an Alzheimer mouse model. Journal of neurochemistry, 102(4), 1095-104. PMID: 17472706.

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