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Curcumin, the orange antioxidant found in the curry spice turmeric, is often attributed with almost-mystical powers. The truth is, curcumin isn't a cure-all, but it can be very helpful in many situations.

The curry spice pigment curcumin is often described as a "cure-cumin." Just about any illness, its more fervent advocates will tell you, can be cured with curcumin. The truth is that curcumin is in fact very helpful in many health conditions. It's not appropriate for everyone and in every situation, however, and different forms of curcumin work in different ways in the body.

What Is Curcumin?

There tends to be some confusion among curcumin, turmeric, and curry. It probably helps to consider them in reverse order. Curry is a spicy sauce. It's practically a national dish of the United Kingdom, and it is popular throughout South and Southeast Asia and around the world.

Turmeric is one of up to 30 spices used to make curry. Turmeric is taken from the rhizome or root of the turmeric plant. It can be used fresh, but more often it is used dried.

Curcumin is the antioxidant component of turmeric that gives the spice its orange-yellow color. There is so much curcumin in turmeric (it comprises as much as four percent of the weight of the spice) that commercial transportation of turmeric poses some special problems. When spice exporters tried irradiating turmeric so it would not grow weevils and mites during storage, the product got weevils and mites anyway. The tiny bugs simply ate turmeric and developed resistance to radiation. For this reason, turmeric tends to be an "organic" product in the spice trade.

What Does Curcumin Do?

Medical researchers first became interested in curry, rather than turmeric or curcumin, when they noticed that women in Trinidad and Tobago, where curry is a popular food, developed breast cancer at a much more lower rate than women in the United States. Epidemiological researchers then noticed that rates of almost all kinds of cancer, even allowing for differences in diagnostic practices, are drastically less common in India than in the United States. India is another nation where curries are consumed commonly.

It took years of research to determine that the herb in curry that makes the difference is turmeric, and that the component of turmeric that makes the difference is curcumin. Then it took two decades of laboratory work and clinical trials to establish that curcumin stimulates the healing process, rather than that healthy people consume curcumin. Once that was established, however, the results began to pile up. Here are just a few of dozens of findings from over 2,000 studies.

  • Consuming just 80 mg of curcumin per day (about 1/5 of the amount in a typical curcumin supplment, or the amount in a serving of curry) lowers triglyceride levels in just 30 days.
  • Consuming just 80 mg of curcumin per day starts a process through which the brain "untangles" the deformed proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease.
  • Curcumin stops the development of nearly every kind of cancer at nearly every stage of carcinogenesis and tumor development (although it is not protective against stomach cancers and one clinical study found that it may be detrimental in the third stage of colon cancer).
  • Curcumin is one of the few agents, natural or pharmaceutical, that can stimulate the body's natural healing processes to lower dangerously high iron levels.
Continue reading after recommendations

  • Rister, R. Curcumin for Cancer. Amazon Kindle, 27 March 2015.
  • Tyagi P, Singh M, Kumari H, Kumari A, Mukhopadhyay K. Bactericidal activity of curcumin I is associated with damaging of bacterial membrane.PLoS One. 2015 Mar 26
  • 10(3):e0121313. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0121313. eCollection 2015.PMID: 25811596.
  • Mind map by SteadyHealth.com
  • Photo courtesy of Steenbergs via Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/steenbergs/6865121460