Numerous studies have confirmed that turmeric root has powerful anticancer properties, including the ability to inhibit blood vessel formation in tumors.
Most of turmeric’s health benefits are attributed to the trio of yellow-orange chemicals known as the curcuminoids, or sometimes simply as curcumin (although technically, curcumin refers to just one specific curcuminoid). Scientists have established that curcumin is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. In fact, it appears to be as effective an anti-inflammatory as many over-the-counter drugs.
But curcumin is more than just an antioxidant; studies suggest that it actively works on several levels to hamper the development and progression of cancers.
Curcumin vs. cancer
In a study published in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine in 2010, researchers from Oklahoma City-based Swaasth, Inc. exposed human colon cancer cells to trivalent arsenic [As(III)]. Because of its toxic properties, As(III) has been approved by the FDA as a treatment for leukemia. Among its many side effects, however, are diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even other cancers. In particular, As(III) is known to dramatically stimulate the formation of new blood vessels. This can play a significant role in the formation and spread of cancerous tumors, which require extensive vasculature to sustain their out-of-control growth.
The researchers found that curcumin inhibited the expression of vascular endothelial growth factor in arsenic-exposed colon cancer cells. In addition, it reduced the effect of As(III) in increasing blood vessel density in chicken cells.
“Collectively, the findings reported here strongly suggest that turmeric and curcumin can dramatically attenuate the process of angiogenesis induced by low As(III) concentrations,” the researchers wrote.
Hampering blood vessel formation is just one of the many ways that curcumin helps stem the development of cancer. For example, a comprehensive review published in the journal Nutritional Reviews in 1996 found that even low doses of turmeric inhibit the accumulation of DNA mutations, reduce DNA damage, repair precancerous lesions, lower the urine concentration of mutagenic chemicals in smokers and inhibit formation of tumors in the breast, gut, mouth and skin.
In 2010, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition found that turmeric increased blood concentrations of cancer-fighting chemical geranylgeranoic acid (GGA). Another study, published in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, found that a combination of curcumin and piperine (the source of the spiciness in black pepper) prevented breast cancer stem cells from propagating but had no effect on healthy breast cells.
Improving cellular health
The latter study was particularly significant, because it showed that curcumin successfully suppressed the propagation of even hormone-receptor-negative tumors, which are notoriously hard to treat. Further promise for curcumin as a breast cancer treatment came the following year, when researchers from Zheijiang Provincial People’s Hospital in China showed that curcumin successfully induced programmed cell death (apoptosis) in triple-negative breast cancer cells. The same year, researcher from the University of Texas confirmed curcumin’s ability to induce apoptosis in cancerous cells while actually improving the health of non-cancerous cells.
Curcumin also decreases cells’ susceptibility to cancer. In a study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 2009, researchers from Michigan University found that curcumin makes cell membranes more orderly, increasing their resistance to cancer and infection.
“The membrane goes from being crazy and floppy to being more disciplined and ordered, so that information flow through it can be controlled,” lead researcher Ayyalusamy Ramamoorthy wrote.
Other known benefits of curcumin and turmeric include antiviral and antibiotic effects, improved heart health and improvement in the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, cystic fibrosis and inflammatory bowel disease.