Richard Burton Feb 2015
Director, Irish Institute of Nutrition & Health (IINH)
A recent UK survey found that the disease of old age most feared is no longer cancer, but – by a large margin – the dreaded diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
Progress to find effective drugs to treat AD has been dismal. Billions have been wasted looking for pharmaceutical solutions to a problem that experts admit is rooted in poor diet and lifestyle habits.
There is, however, growing interest in the promising links between certain dietary factors and dementia. For example, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s across the vast population of India – even in the most westernized regions – is at least 4-times lower than among people of the same age in European countries and N America. The traditional Indian diet is of course very different from ours. Could there be factors in Indian food that offer protection against AD, and perhaps other chronic degenerative diseases, too?
Nutritional science has long known that populations who consume more unrefined plant foods – vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, etc – are more healthy. While recognizing their abundance of essential vitamins and minerals, researchers are starting to suspect that plants may offer us yet another layer of ‘health insurance’.
The focus of much research is now on ‘secondary metabolites’: a diverse class of polyphenols found in a wide range of plant foods. These do not seem to have a role in growth, photosynthesis, reproduction or other ‘primary’ functions needed to keep the plant alive. So, why does the plant produce them?
It is becoming clear that these secondary metabolites have evolved to protect the plant – from UV light damage, attack by animals, or microbial infections. Many polyphenols repel, or are toxic to animals, microbes, fungi etc that threaten them, and the plant produces more when under attack. Research is identifying other vital roles for polyphenols – as signalling molecules and antioxidants, among other functions. So perhaps ‘secondary’ underestimates their true value.
The Indian spice trail
Turmeric, with its gentle saffron hue and mild flavour, is surely the most comfortingly familiar of Indian spices among lovers – like me – of this wonderful cuisine! Turmeric has been used widely for medical purposes as well as in cooking for over 5000 years in India.
The dominant health-giving ingredient of turmeric is curcumin. This polyphenol has the most impressive research-based CV for preventing and curing disease. Clinical studies conducted over the past 50 years have shown that in addition to its benefits on brain health, curcumin may help to:
• Restore healthy lipid levels (lower LDL & triglycerides)
• Reduce blood platelet stickiness
• Lower the risk of heart disease
• Prevent cancer
• Protect the liver from damage
• Support the lungs and inhibit fibrosis
• Reduce symptoms of multiple sclerosis
• Improve symptoms of diabetes
• Calm the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
So turmeric’s curcumin certainly packs healing power, as well as pleasure. One of the ways it appears to work is by its ability to modulate (switch on or off) our genes. In fact, it has been shown to influence the expression of more than 700 different human genes.
Could turmeric combat Alzheimer’s?
Some researchers believe that curcumin’s gene-modulating activities could at least partly explain the striking contrast in Alzheimer’s disease rates between India and the West.
Studies have suggested that curcumin may help prevent destructive amyloid plaque accumulating in the brain of AD patients, as well as break up existing plaques. In addition, people with Alzheimer’s tend to have higher levels of chronic inflammation in the brain, and curcumin is known to exert potent anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects by several mechanisms.
Recently, a very small but encouraging study1 described three patients with Alzheimer’s whose behavioural symptoms “improved remarkably” after consuming 764 mg/day of turmeric (containing 100 mg/day of curcumin) for 12 weeks.
All three patients exhibited irritability, agitation, anxiety and apathy at the start, with two suffering from urinary incontinence. After taking the prescribed turmeric powder capsules they began to recover from these symptoms, with no adverse reactions in terms of clinical symptoms and laboratory data.
After only three months of treatment, the patients’ symptoms and the burden on their caregivers were significantly decreased. In one case, the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) score rose by five points, from 12/30 to 17/30.
After one year of treatment with turmeric, all three patients had come to recognize their family members again, and there was no reversal of symptoms.
This study is far too small to draw conclusions from, but it may suggest that this ancient and much-loved Indian spice, and its polyphenol curcumin, have a useful part to play in the battle against dementia.
Moreover, if curcumin can really help prevent heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s, then this would also have obvious benefits for healthy longevity.
Turmeric – the taste of health
Understandably, as the good health news about turmeric spreads, curcumin has joined the list of natural medicines that many people take routinely to safeguard wellness, particularly in their later years. And as research continues to uncover fresh insights into the health and longevity potentials of plant polyphenols, Turmeric looks set to enhance its reputation worldwide as one of our most loved spices.
Note: If considering a curcumin supplement, it is worth looking for one that contains piperidine, because this black pepper extract powerfully enhances the bioavailability of curcumin in the body.