Science journalist and television presenter Michael Mosley is (rather appropriately) stirring a turmeric latte when I call him to discuss the golden spice and research into its health benefits. It’s a clue that the human guinea pig must have some confidence in the stuff. “I first sampled a turmeric latte when I was in Sydney recently, and found it very enjoyable,” he says. “I also like adding turmeric to my omelettes in the morning.”
Changing our genes?
Mosley’s interest in turmeric (or more specifically, its active compound curcumin) was sparked by an experiment he did for Michale Mosley: Trust Me, I’m a Doctor Season 5, currently on SBS and SBS On Demand. The Trust Me team recruited nearly 100 volunteers, who were randomly allocated into three groups. One group had a teaspoon of turmeric powder daily for six weeks, and were instructed to mix it with their food. Another group was given a supplement containing the same dose of turmeric, and the third group was given a placebo, before blood samples were sent off for analysis by Professor Martin Widschwendter at University College London. “He found there was a significant change in the DNA of the group who had been eating turmeric, but not in the other groups,” says Mosley. “Genes associated with inflammation, asthma and some forms of cancer were altered in what he would assume because of turmeric’s history and epidemiology was likely to be a good way, although he needs to do further tests.”
The findings beg the question: why did turmeric only have an effect when it was consumed with food? “We asked various people about this, and they said maybe cooking with turmeric activates it, but some of the volunteers were just mixing it in their yoghurt, so it could be to do with fat absorption,” says Mosley.
The brain game
Curcumin is a hot topic in the science world these days, and it’s one where home-grown research is shining. At Edith Cowan University, Professor Ralph Martins last year released the results of a 12-month study investigating the ability of curcumin to prevent cognitive decline in older adults. “Over 12 months, the memory of people who didn’t get the curcumin got slightly worse, as opposed to those on the curcumin, which tells us that it was keeping them relatively stable,” explains Martins. Next up, he’s keen to follow older adults at risk of Alzheimer’s disease over several years, to see whether curcumin can stave off cognitive decline by preventing the build-up of a sticky, toxic protein in the brain called beta-amyloid. “The animal studies have been outstanding, showing a marked reduction of beta-amyloid in the brain when mice that are genetically engineered to get Alzheimer’s disease are put on curcumin, so that’s exciting,” says Martins.
Over at Murdoch University, senior researcher and clinical psychologist Dr Adrian Lopresti has been exploring curcumin for the treatment of depression. “We found that people with depression who were given curcumin capsules had significantly better improvements in their depressive symptoms than those taking a placebo, and it had a positive effect on their anxiety too,” says Lopresti. Research over the past decade has confirmed that people with depression have high levels of inflammation and this seems to affect their neurochemistry. “The theory is that if we reduce inflammation, we’re going to be able to improve mood by possibly restoring some of the important mood-lifting hormones,” explains Lopresti.
Another area being explored by Australian scientists is the potential for curcumin to protect against cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. At the University of Newcastle, Professor Manohar Garg is currently crunching the results of a new study into curcumin and phytosterols (compounds found in certain spreads). “There seems to be a synergistic effect between the two,” says Garg. “Curcumin by itself leads to about 4 per cent reduction in cholesterol, phytosterols about 9 per cent, and the combined effect is greater than 15 per cent.” Professor Garg’s other research is investigating whether curcumin and omega-3 fatty acids can prevent or delay type 2 diabetes. “Inflammation is the root cause of damage to beta cells, the cells in the pancreas that make insulin,” explains Garg. “By giving people curcumin, we can cut down the production of inflammatory chemicals and hopefully prevent diabetes.”
As is always the way in science, not everyone agrees that curcumin is a silver (or perhaps golden) bullet solution for numerous health complaints. Just this month, a review in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry argued that “curcumin is an unstable, reactive, nonbioavailable compound and, therefore, a highly improbable lead” for pharmaceutical treatments.
However, it may be that turmeric works best as a team player. “I think the way forward is going to be a combination approach,” says Martins. “My gut feeling is that two or three powerful antioxidants together will provide the greatest therapeutic benefits.”
As a general rule, if you’re just taking turmeric for a health boost, eating fresh turmeric root or the powdered stuff is fine. For tackling health issues, you may need a supplement for a more potent dose – our experts recommended formulations containing BCM-95 or Longvida.
Most advice suggests it’s best to take turmeric with food (and ideally a source of fat, like full cream milk or oily fish), which makes it more readily absorbed. “Adding a bit of black pepper to turmeric increases the bioavailability up to 100 times,” adds Mosley. (Mosley shares more thoughts on turmeric - and a turmeric latte recipe - here.)
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