Healthy Living

Can Turmeric Help Fight Cancer?

Can Turmeric Help Fight Cancer?

What is cancer?

Cancer is the term given to a group of diseases where cells uncontrollably grow. All types of cancer usually begin in cells and can develop anywhere in the body. It begins when there are changes in a cell or a group of cells.  The human body is composed of millions and millions of cells. Normally, we have an appropriate number of cells for each cell type. These cells produce certain signals to control the number and frequency of cell division. If any of the signals are impaired, cells may abnormally develop and multiply forming a mass called "tumor". 

Tumors can be malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous). The cells that form from malignant tissues can also invade nearby tissues. They can also break away and spread to other parts of the body leading to other diseases. There are more than 100 different types of cancer that exist and they are usually identified from when they begin. 

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When cancer cells spread from one part of the body to another, it is called metastasis. Symptoms, as well as the treatment for cancer, would vary from person-to-person. Moreover, it also depends on the type of cancer the individual is suffering from and at which stage the cancer has reached. Most cancer treatment programs would include radiation therapy, surgery, and chemotherapy. Some may also include hormone therapy, immunotherapy, and other types of biological therapies.

Turmeric

Turmeric is a spice, which is often used as a food flavoring. It is a perennial plant and is native to China, Southeast Asia, and India. This plant has oblong, large leaves, as well as yellow flowers in the shape of a funnel. Below the plant is a thick yellowish orange rhizome. When the rhizome gets dried and crushed into powder form, it leads to a beautiful golden yellow spice called turmeric.

This spice is usually used by cooks across the globe to add a warm flavor and color to food items. Turmeric has also been widely used for many centuries as an herbal remedy. It is one of the commonly available spices used in the kitchen and home remedies for many illnesses. There is currently no evidence that would prove the effectiveness of turmeric for the prevention or treatment of cancer. However, early trials have been carried out and showed some promising results.

In the earlier centuries of Chinese and Ayurveda medicine, turmeric was widely used for the treatment of inflammation and any kind of infection. Curcumin is the yellow pigment extracted from this spice. It has been considered as one of the three widely known curcuminoids present in turmeric. It is turmeric's special ingredient, which shows some incredible anticancer effects.

Can turmeric fight against cancer?

Turmeric is also known as Indian saffron, haridra, haldi or jiang huang. This spice belongs to the ginger family and is grown in many Asian regions. Turmeric is also one of the spices that make up curry powder. One of the main ingredients in turmeric is called curcumin, which is also known as diferuloylmethane. The studies carried out in laboratories have shown that this ingredient fights cancer-causing cells.

There was a clinical trial conducted in which curcumin was given to 25 patients with precancerous changes in various organs of the body. According to its findings, it seemed that curcumin could help stop the precancerous changes from turning into cancer.

Studies have shown that certain types of cancer have lower rates in countries where people tend to regularly consume curcumin at various levels, which range from 100 mg to around 200 mg per day over longer periods of time. However, currently, there are no clear evidence or conclusive research to show that curcumin or turmeric helps in the prevention or treatment of cancer.

Turmeric and Cancer Treatment

There have been a number of laboratory studies performed on cancer cells, which have shown that curcumin in turmeric possesses anticancer properties. It seems to help destroy cancer cells, thereby preventing them from proliferating. According to studies, curcumin has good effects on stomach cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer, and colorectal cancer.

In 2013, an international laboratory study was conducted to investigate the effects of a combination of treatment using chemotherapy and curcumin for individuals with bowel cancer. The study then concluded saying that a combination treatment may work better than having chemotherapy sessions alone. In 2007, another US study was conducted on mice and showed that curcumin could help stop the spread of breast cancer cells to other parts of the body. 

Doctors believe that curcumin stays in the body’s digestive system and gets absorbed by the cells in the bowel. To know more, a small UK study was conducted to determine how curcumin gets absorbed from the gut and into the liver cells. The study also focused on how much curcumin is absorbed into normal healthy cells as well as cancer-causing cells. This was basically a very small study conducted on people who had bowel cancer, which had spread to the liver. The individuals were also given curcumin for a period of seven days prior to their surgery.

Surgery was then performed to collect liver tissue samples. The samples were used to measure the curcumin levels present in the tissues. The results of this examination showed that the curcumin levels absorbed into the liver were not high enough to fight cancer. Hence, researchers suggested that future curcumin clinical trials should mainly focus on the prevention of bowel tumors. Several other studies were performed wherein it showed that when curcumin is taken in capsule form, it does get absorbed in the gut and is present in the blood. However, the level of curcumin in the blood is very small.

There was an American phase II study conducted in 2008 and reported that for 25 patients treated with curcumin, 21 of them had measurable tumors. Tumors shrank or had remained stable in two patients. In some patients, there was an increase in certain immune system chemicals, which are capable of destroying cancer cells. However, researchers pointed out that the blood levels of curcumin were quite low and were not well absorbed in the gut. Since then, scientists have developed an injectable and fat soluble form of curcumin, which is believed to help improve the results.

These studies are promising, but more clinical trials must be carried out in humans to know if curcumin really has a potential when it comes to treating cancer patients.

There is currently an ongoing clinical trial in Puerto Rico to identify whether curcumin can lead to the shrinkage of precancerous growths in patients with genetic disorders, which lead to the development of bowel cancer.

The following are curcumin capabilities proven by laboratory results:

  • Curcumin is capable of inducing tumor suppressor genes
  • Inhibits COX-2, which is an enzyme that leads to negative inflammation and cancer
  • Helps in stopping metastasis (the spread of cancer cells from one organ to another)
  • Helps prevent the regrowth of cancer stem cells
  • It helps in destroying large B-cell lymphoma, which is the most common cause of non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Researchers from the MD Anderson Cancer Center conducted a study in 2011 and found out that the extracts of curcumin can effectively help in differentiating normal and cancer-causing cells during the activation of cancer cell death or apoptosis.

Another study was conducted to determine how much curcumin a colorectal patient could safely take. Patients in that trial consumed 3.6 grams of curcumin, which is considered as a high curcumin dose. Researchers concluded that high amounts of curcumin would not cause any negative side effects among colorectal patients.

Although curcumin is not well-absorbed in the blood, it can get properly absorbed into the colon lining, thereby giving it an advantage against cancerous tissues present in the colon. Curcumin is also said to help in preventing prostate cancer due to its ability to interfere with the spread of cancer cells. It also fights prostate cancer by decreasing the expression of sex hormone receptors present in the prostate gland. Moreover, it shows potential for the prevention of cervical cancer, which has been seen as one of the leading causes of death among women in developing nations.

Turmeric Side Effects

It is important to understand that it is safe to use turmeric in cooking. However, its safety is still not proven when used for medical purposes. Until now, research and trials have been conducted and have shown few, mild, or no side effects at all. However, there are still uncertainties about curcumin's side effects if it is taken in larger quantities for treating or preventing cancer.

There have been few reports of stomach pain identified in certain patients who have taken too much of turmeric as well as skin problems when turmeric was used for a longer duration time. Hence, it is recommended to consult your doctor first before taking turmeric for your health.

Risks of Turmeric Supplements 

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency or (MHRA) has issued a warning about Fortodol, which is a turmeric-based food supplement. It is also known as Miradin.

It was found out that Fortodol contains nimesulide, which is a strong anti-inflammatory drug. This drug is known to cause serious liver damage and is also not a licensed product or medicine in the UK. Fortodol is sold on the internet as a food supplement. However, the Food Standards Agency or FSA has advised anyone who are taking these products to stop consuming them immediately and reach out to their doctor if they have experienced any symptoms of liver problem. Symptoms of liver disease include:

  • Jaundice or yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Dark urine 
  • Feeling sick
  • Unusual feeling of weakness or tiredness
  • Stomach pain
  • Loss of appetite

Key Takeaways

  • In the earlier centuries of Chinese and Ayurveda medicine, turmeric was widely used for the treatment of inflammation and any kind of infection. Curcumin is the yellow pigment extracted from this spice.
  • Studies have shown that certain types of cancer have lower rates in countries where people tend to regularly consume curcumin at various levels.
  • There is currently no evidence that would prove the effectiveness of turmeric for the prevention or treatment of cancer. However, early trials have been carried out and showed some promising results.