New Study: Can Turmeric Help With Alzheimer's Disease?
I visited India for the first time in 2006, and one of my fondest memories from that trip was walking into an open-air community market. I was overwhelmed. The sights and smells were a feast for the senses. Commerce bustled off blankets on the ground and carts packed with various fruits and vegetables. The spices were incredible in their color and fragrance. The most spectacular among them - a brilliant orange-yellow spice sold in piles of powder or lumpy branches. This was turmeric - the main component of curry and the alchemy of spices at the heart of Indian cuisine. Beyond its use as a spice, however, turmeric is getting a lot of attention for potential medicinal uses. Most lately? With Alzheimer's dementia.
The Ayurvedic Tradition
For over 3000 years, traditional medicine has been a strong force in the health and wellness of India. Their system of medicine, known as Ayurveda, treats disease and manages wellness through the use of herbal compounds, special diets, and other unique health practices. The term Ayurveda itself combines two Sandskrit words, ayur (life) and veda (science). Now, modern scientific-based medicine is emerging with research on Ayurvedic practices.
Turmeric is a shrub that is related to ginger. It is readily found in India, Asia and Africa. To obtain the distinct yellow powder known as Turmeric, the underground stems (rhizomes) are dried and finely ground. Beyond spice and medical use, Tumeric is used as a dye for foods, fabrics and make-up.
Ayurvedic Uses for Turmeric
Traditional uses for turmeric within Ayurvedic practice include uses as a:
- Digestive aid
- Enhancer of liver function
- Cancer therapy
- Menstrual regulator
- Eczema treatment
Remedies are mostly prepared from the powder and taken as capsules or prepared in teas or liquid extracts. For eczema, it is also applied to the skin. By modern medical standards involving placebo controlled study, there is little current evidence to support the above uses. However, turmeric powder has been broken down into various compounds, revealing some components to have significant anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
Turmeric and Alzheimer's
A German team from the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine recently reported their findings investigating the use of turmeric for Alzheimer's dementia. The study focused on the compound aromatic turmerone, isolated from turmeric and its effect on the brain's ability to self-repair. To study this, rats given different amounts of turmerone had their neural stem cells - nerve cell precursors - measured. (These stem cells are important in repairing damaged cells and replacing nerve cells.)
Researchers found that nerve cell production increased up to 80% when exposed to turmerone without impacting cell death. Next, turmerone was actually injected into the rat's brains and PET scan were taken. Imaging on these showed enhanced function in certain areas of the brain.
In conclusion, researchers felt confident saying that turmerone exposure to brain cells definitively enhances nerve production - at least in a rat. This report is obviously a long way from the determination that turmeric taken by mouth helps to treat or prevent Alzheimer's dementia in human patients, however, it does add to the pool of positive findings in this regard.
More Studies on Tumerone
In one previous study, this substance had been found to block activation of specialized nerve cells called microglia. Since activation of microglial cells can cause inflammation in brain tissue and has been linked to certain neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's dementia, this is obviously significant as well. It is hypothesized that these anti-inflammatory effects may reduce the degradation of nerve cells that lead to Alzheimer's. Beyond that, inflammation, oxidative damage has been shown to be a factor in Alzheimer's and turmeric has been shown to contain potent anti-oxidants.
Another small study performed at UCLA looked at turmeric as an enhancer of the immune cells called macrophages. These cells play an important role in clearing the body of foreign proteins. In Alzheimer's a protein called beta amyloid causes the production of haphazard plaques in the brain, a hallmark finding of the disease. This particular study took a relatively small number of Alzheimer's subjects and normal subjects and treated their macrophages with a turmeric preparation. These macrophages were then introduced to amyloid protein. The treated macrophages had an increased tendency to ingest and remove the amyloid as compared to their untreated counterparts.
Risks of Side-Effects with Turmeric
Large daily amounts of turmeric can slow blood clotting a bit. You should stop taking it at least two weeks before a surgery and consult your doctor if being used with other blood thinners. Turmeric may lower blood sugar and enhance the lowering effects of diabetes drugs or worsen symptoms of hypoglycemia. Turmeric may worsen conditions of the gallbladder such as gallstones. Finally, turmeric should not be taken in pregnancy as it can cause contractions of the uterus.
What Does This Mean For Me?
While far from conclusive, these studies are obviously encouraging. It is also pertinent to note that the rate of dementia in India among adults in their 70's is 4.4 times less compared to American counterparts.
Among many differences between Americans and Indians is the fact that turmeric is consumed infrequently by Americans and almost daily by Indians. Scientifically, it's a weak association, but one that should not be ignored, especially with a substance that is generally safe and, in my opinion, delicious.
Prawn & Potato Curry Recipe from The Taste.com
1. Hucklenbroich J, Klein R, et al. Aromatic-turmerone induces neural stem cell proliferation in vitro and in vivo. Stem Cell Research and Therapy. 2014
2. Shrikant M, Kalpana P. The effect of curcumin (turmeric) on Alzheimer's disease: An overview. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology. 2008
3. Turmeric, the Golden Spice- Herbal Medicine NCBI Bookshelf. National Institute of Health. http://www.nih.gov/