Herbal Spotlight: Turmeric
By Dr. Neil
Every week a patient asks me about some herbal supplement. Be it what their Aunt Sally takes, the next best male enhancer, or, something that just piqued their interest. People want to know more about herbal therapies.
Well, they’re in luck. While western medicine still hasn’t embraced herbal and alternative medicine, a portion of the modern medical school curriculum incorporates the literature behind herbal therapies. More importantly, every single day, new studies are coming out documenting the risks, benefits, and mechanisms behind different herbal products.
Today we’re discussing turmeric, and it’s extract curcumin. Turmeric is a spice that has been used in indian cooking for centuries, and has been a fixture in Hindu and Ayurvedic medication for the past thousand years. Recently, turmeric has garnered widespread attention in the West, for something that people in Asia have known for centuries – it’s a very effective supplement.
Turmeric and Inflammation:
During the past decade, there has been a lot of recent research on inflammation. But, what is inflammation? Inflammation is a complex cascade of responses to what your body perceives as harmful – that includes organisms, cells, or irritants. Inflammation includes a Every time you twist and ankle and it swells, if you develop a fever when you have a cold, or if a bee stings you and it hurts – that’s inflammation. Without inflammation, none of us would be here – the first time you’d get the flu, you’d die.
My mother always told me “moderation in everything”. That also applies to inflammation. Acute inflammation – your body fighting a cold – is generally good. However, chronic, low-level inflammation, has been found to play a role in almost every chronic disease – high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, cancer, and even Alzheimer’s. So, in the long run – chronic inflammation – not good.
Here is where turmeric comes in. Turmeric blocks a molecule called - nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells – or NF-kB. NF-kB is essentially one of the many proteins that activates genes related to inflammation. Simply stated, if you block NF-kB, you can decrease inflammation.
Turmeric and The Brain:
Beyond its numerous anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric has another benefit that we are only just starting to observe. In certain conditions, the brain can produce more neurons (the cells that are responsible for brain function). Production and growth of those cells (neurons) is partially stimulated by one hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. As a matter of fact, in certain degenerative brain diseases – e.g. Alzheimer’s, there has been a documented decrease BDNF.
BDNF may even play a role with the ubiquitous substance marijuana. A recent double blind placebo controlled study, published in “Physchopharmacology”, suggested that “light” users of cannabis had lower basal BDNF levels compared to healthy controls. As a physician I see numerous problems with the study itself - e.g. the study had too few participants, multiple confounders – but, if these findings can be validated, turmeric would certainly play a role.
Turmeric has been shown to increase brain levels of BDNF in at least three documented studies. The level of increase can’t be clearly teased out from the literature, but it’s certainly a promising finding. Potentially, increased BDNF levels could mitigate many of the neurocognitive impact of marijuana and certain neurocognitive diseases.
Take Home Points:
While my view of turmeric is overwhelmingly positive, I don’t want to praise this supplement as a panacea - in reality, it’s a helpful natural supplement. It’s an herbal product that when used in moderation could have significant improvements in neurocognitive function as well as be generally good for your health as a potent anti-inflammatory.
When my patients ask whether or not they should take turmeric or curcumin I say yes without hesitation as the literature supports its benefits.
 Jurenka, JS. Anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin. Altern Med Rev. 2009 Sep;143):277
Libby, P. Inflammation and Atherosclerosis. Nature. 2002 Dec 19-26;
 Singh, S. Aggarwal, B. Activation of Transcription Factor NF-kB is suppressed by Curcumin. J. Biochem. Rev. 2001;
 Chainani-Wu, N. Safety and anti-inflammatory activity of curcumin: a component of turmeric. J Altern Complement Med. 2003 Feb; 9(1): 161-8.
 Binder, D. Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor. Growth Factors. 2004; 22(3).
 Phillips. S. BDNF mRNA is decreased in the hippocampus of individuals with Alzheimers disease. Neuron. 1991. 695-702.
 D’Souza. Preliminary evidence of cannabinoid effects on BDNF levels in humans. Psychopharmacology. 2009. 202. 579-578,
 Xu,Y. Curcumin reverses the effects of chronic stress on behavior. Brain Research. 2006. Vol 1122.