East Indians Have Significantly Lower Rates of Cancer
As I was researching the literature on cancer prevention and treatment, there was one statistic that struck me as really interesting. East Indians are much less likely to develop cancer. In fact, the numbers are staggering. Indians have one-fifth as many breast cancers as North Americans of the same age, one-eighth as many lung cancers, one-ninth as many colon cancers and one-fiftieth our rate of prostate cancer. And given the fact that Indians are probably exposed to even more carcinogens in their environment than we are in the West, this is even more staggering. What could cause such a difference in cancer rates?
Miracle Spice: Tumeric
It could be due to the wonder spice tumeric. Tumeric is the yellow powder that is one of the components of yellow curry. Its anti-inflammatory properties are incredibly powerful. In fact no other food ingredient is more effective at decreasing inflammation in the body. The molecule in tumeric responsible for this effect is curcumin. Recent studies reveal that curcumin inhibits the growth of many cancers such as colon, prostate, ovarian, breast and brain. It also inhibits angiogenesis (the growth of new blood vessels to feed the tumor). And in an experiment done with mice where they exposed the mice to a variety of chemical carcinogens, curcumin prevented the development of a number of cancers.
Scientists Ignore a Folk Remedy
Tumeric has been used in India, China and the Middle East for 2,000 years. A brilliant researcher by the name of Professor Bharat Aggarwal, Ph.D. at the the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas was the first to show that curcumin is very active against cancer in cell cultures. Later, in 2005, he was able to prove the incredible effects of this compound on breast cancer tumors grafted onto mice, even when these tumors that were no longer responding to chemotherapy. In these mice, administering just a regular dietary dose of curcumin reduced the spread of metastasis significantly.
What is interesting is that his research was initially given no merit by his oncology peers at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. When he approached them with his findings, he was brushed off. They felt experiments based on using some folk remedy from traditional ayurvedic medicine had no merit. Yet the science was more than compelling. When he presented his research again but referred to curcumin as the "new pharmaceutical" agent, his colleagues took notice. They were amazed and all wanted to know more about this "wonder drug."
Clinical Trials of Tumeric
Because of such compelling evidence that tumeric has some incredible cancer-fighting properties, his colleagues were convinced and many clinical trials have since been launched. The first trial concerns the blood cancer multiple myeloma, the second involves one of the most aggressive and deadliest cancers, the one my mom had, pancreatic cancer, and the third investigates the possibility of preventing lung cancer in high risk subjects with the active ingredient in tumeric (curcumin). These human studies are now in progress and the results are not yet known, although there is already a huge body of evidence to support the incredible effects of this compound on animals in the lab.
So it seems that tumeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory that helps stimulate the death of cancer cells and also inhibits the growth of blood vessels to supply a cancerous tumor. In the lab, it also enhances the effect of chemotherapy and reduces tumor growth. It seems we should all be eating this, but how and how often?
Maximizing the Anti-Inflammatory Benefits of Tumeric
As with many dietary supplements, the combination of foods seems instrumental in maximizing the benefit. It seems that turmeric taken by itself or in capsule form is very poorly absorbed through the intestine. It appears that if turmeric is not mixed with pepper or ginger (as it is in yellow curry) it will not pass the intestinal barrier. Pepper increases the body's absorption of turmeric by 2,000 percent. Ideally, it must also be dissolved in olive oil. The best and most recommended way to use turmeric for a health benefit is:
Mix ¼ teaspoon of turmeric powder with ½ teaspoon of olive oil and a generous pinch of black pepper. Add this to soups, salad dressings, vegetables or organic grain-fed meats.
As for how often to consume it... it seems that as often as you can is the recommendation.
 Ferlay et al eds, WHO International Agency for Research on cancer, IARC Cancer Edidemiology database 2000. Cancer Incidence, Mortality and Prevalence Worldwide (IARC Press,2000)
 Carter,A, "Curry Compound Fights Cancer in the Clinic" Journal of the National Cancer Institute (2008).p.141
 Aggarwal et al "From Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine to Modern Medicine: Identification of Therapeutic Targets for Suppression of Inflammation and Cancer" Expert opinion on Therapeutic targets 10 no.1 (2006) 87-118
 Mehta et al, "Antiproliferative Effect of Curcumin Against Human Breast Tumor Cell Lines" Anti- Cancer Drugs 8, no. 5 (1997) 470-81
 Aggarwal et al, "Curcumin Supresses the Pacilitaxel-Induced Nuclear Factor-kappaB Pathway in Breast cancer Cells and Inhibits Lung Metastasis of Human Breast Cancer in Nude Mice" Clinical Cancer research 11, no.20 (2005); 7490-98
 Cheng et al: Phase I Clinical Trial of Curcumin, a chemopreventative Agent, in Patients with High risk or Pre-Malignant Lesions" Anticancer research 21, no 4B (2001);2895-900
 Gao et al " Curcumin Differentially Sensitizes malignant Glioma cells to TRAIL/Apo2L- mediated apoptosis through activation of Procaspases and Release of Cytochrome c from Mitochondria" Journal of Experimantal Therapeutics and Oncology 5, no.1(2005);39-48
This blog is part of the Preventative Lifestyle: Keeping Your Body Healthy (and cancer-free) blog series. While researching ways to help my cancer-stricken mother, I found a variety of things that can help reduce our risk of cancer. While we cannot guarantee that we will never get cancer, it is important we do what is within our power to lower our risk. Please consult with your doctor before making any significant lifestyle or dietary changes.