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Turmeric may hold the key to untangling Alzheimer's

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The use of the spice turmeric (Curcuma longa) as a healing agent was proved, to Americans, during the late 1990s -- not by medical researchers, but in an America courtroom. In 1997, India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research challenged a 1995 U.S. patent awarded to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in 1995 for its "discovery" of the "use of turmeric in wound healing." Turning to ancient Sanskrit documents, the Indians successfully argued against this biopiracy by reporting that turmeric has been used since Vedic times (5,000 years ago) in Indian healing, specifically to treat wounds and stomach infections.

Why the, um, patented interest in this humble root? Turmeric, a word derived from the Old French terre-merite, which ironically means earth-deserved, is a member of the ginger family and found throughout Asia. Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) uses turmeric extensively for its medical properties.

The fingers of this brown skinned, bright orange flesh rhizome are boiled or steamed, then dried and ground to produce turmeric powder. The root is not fibrous like ginger, but more consistent in nature and crunchy to bite. In India and throughout Asia, turmeric is liberally used in cooking. Indian curry powder, whose spice makeup is a guarded secret, depends on turmeric for its color. While the ingredients vary, most curry powders contain various amounts of turmeric, coriander seeds, cumin, fenugreek, ginger, nutmeg, fennel, cinnamon, white pepper, cardamom, cloves, black pepper and cayenne pepper. India consumes 80 percent of the world's production of turmeric.

But it is curcuminoids -- mainly curcumin, or diferuloyl methane, demethoxycurcumin, and bisdemethoxycurcumin -- turmeric's principal components, which have Western scientists busily working in their research labs and Indians going to court to protect what their culture has known since recorded history. Curcuminoids, which give turmeric its signature yellow color, seem to have health protective effects.

Recent American studies have suggested the possibility and recommended further research that dietary ingestion of curcumin may have a beneficial effect in degenerative aortic aneurysms; rheumatoid arthritis; inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria and intestinal parasites and fungi; cystic fibrosis; psoriasis; even slow the metastasis of some cancer cells. Many of these studies are consistent with the findings of traditional Ayurvedic medicine.

But one of the most attention-grabbing claims is from the UCLA-Veterans Affairs studies (2004, 2007) that investigated whether curcumin could shrink the protein deposits that clog the neuron pathways in the brains of Alzheimer's victims, a progressive and terminal disease. In healthy brains, these proteins are broken down and eliminated. These researchers found that curcumin given to lab mice could penetrate the blood-brain barrier effectively and bind those amyloid plaques. Currently, the UCLA Alzheimer's Disease Research Center is in human clinical trials.

5.1 million Americans are victims of Alzheimer's; however, the occurrence of Alzheimer's among those adults aged 70 to 79 in India, where 80 percent of the world's turmeric crop is consumed, is 4.4 times less than the rate in the United States.

If it is true that curcumin has some preventive properties, will a squirt of French's mustard (which uses turmeric for its color) or eating curry in an Indian restaurant daily help to deter the onset of AD? Although turmeric is a prime ingredient in the spice compounds used in Indian dishes, the amount of curcumin used in the clinical studies at UCLA was 2 to 4 grams, daily -- that's the equivalent of the amount of curcumin in eight cups of curry powder.

What about fresh turmeric? Since turmeric is a common ingredient in Indian, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine, these roots are readily available in Asian markets, in the refrigerated-, but more typically in the frozen-foods section. Turmeric is also grown and used in Jamaica and may be found in some Latino markets as well. Fresh turmeric rhizomes should be kept refrigerated or frozen until use. Once boiled, dried and ground, turmeric powder should be kept in a tightly sealed container in a dark, dry place. Note: Working barehanded with turmeric has a downside -- hands will be stained the color of a Buddhist monk's robe for a few days.

Or there's the capsule: Local health food stores sell curcumin derivatives. The most popular at A&S Natural Health is Curcumin 95: Turmeric 18:1 Concentrate Antioxidant by Jarrow Formulas ($25.95 for 120 capsules), which recommends one to five 500mg capsules per day and contains the warning label: "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease".

Most of the studies on curcumin are years away, if ever, from any Food and Drug Administration approval. For those people who have Alzheimer's, that will be too late. For their families, especially those with the nagging sense that the lonely and emotionally painful path of their mother, father, grandmother, or grandfather is one they will also walk, curcumin may bring an element of hope. Perhaps the holistic, unpatentable knowledge that both the Indian and Chinese cultures have established over thousands of years will ultimately lead to universal prevention, even a cure.

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