Vail Science of Food column: Indian spice turmeric has anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer effects |

Vail Science of Food column: Indian spice turmeric has anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer effects

Lisa Julian, Ph.D.
Science of Food
Tumeric, an Eastern Indian spice, has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects. Turmeric is slowly gaining popularity in the U.S., showing up in markets as fresh turmeric root, turmeric powder, or its reduced form curcumin as a pill or supplement.
Courtesy Getty Images | Valueline


What: A hands-on workshop exploring the medicinal benefits of turmeric and its preparation for cooking at home, with Lisa Julian, Ph.D.

When: 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health, 310 E. Main St, Frisco.

Cost: $40.

More information: Reservations are required. Call 970-401-2071, or visit

Turmeric, once thought to be as precious as gold, is an Eastern Indian spice that grows in the form of a beautiful golden root and deserves to be known in the West. I began studying the powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects of turmeric over three years ago, both in the library and experimentally in my own body and in the kitchen.

Turmeric is indeed slowly gaining popularity in our country, showing up in markets as fresh turmeric root, turmeric powder or its reduced form curcumin as a pill or supplement. Turmeric, Curcuma longa, grows as a root and belongs to the same family as ginger. Curcumin, not to be confused with the whole spice cumin, is a single component of turmeric (what gives it the brilliant orange color) that science has studied extensively since its isolation in the 1800s. Curcumin is now considered to be the active medicinal ingredient in turmeric.

Numerous clinical trials in humans have been conducted with both curcumin and turmeric extracts demonstrating its safety, tolerability and effectiveness. Of course, the prevalent use of this spice in cultures for thousands of years also demonstrates that it is safe. Isolated curcumin molecule has been tolerated in humans with administered doses up to 8 g/day in clinical trials. In addition to the anti-bacterial and anti-oxidant properties, results show therapeutic potential against a range of human diseases, especially inflammatory-driven diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis and even type II diabetes. More impressively perhaps is turmeric’s proven ability to kill cancer cells.

It is well-recognized now that cancer is driven by inflammation, as the mechanisms in the underlying immune system controlling these processes are similar. For example, growth factors, anti-death signals (apoptosis), inflammatory cytokines, enzymes or catalysts that drive cell growth, metabolism and angiogenesis (blood vessel growth) all participate to keep the cancer cells alive and growing. Turmeric and curcumin work inside the body by interfering with these numerous cell-signaling pathways, effectively shutting down cancer growth. Inflammation is influenced by lifestyle choices including diet, smoking, stress and work-life happiness. Since the industrialization of food and the creation of “food-like” products often laced with poisonous synthetic chemicals, we now know that this kind of Western diet is a specific major underlying cause of inflammation inside the body driving cancer and chronic disease. A multi-targeted approach is essential for killing cancer, and turmeric is a powerful medicine in the prevention and treatment of cancer.

If we simply turn to nature, there is already a solution to curcumin’s poor absorption problem and that is to use the whole food for your daily dose: in the form of the root or powder.

Recall that curcumin is a single component of turmeric and, not dissimilar to a pharmaceutical agent, is a concentrated dose of a single molecule. Any time a molecule “natural” or man-made is concentrated into high dose, there is the potential to “hit” other undesired pathways in the body. This is typically what causes the observed “off-target” side effects as a result of its concentrated dose. High doses of curcumin may include abdominal pain and diarrhea; however, it is generally well-tolerated even at these high doses. I recommend the capsule at reasonable doses only if you have no access to turmeric. The readily available powdered turmeric spice for use in cooking will be superior to taking the isolated substance curcumin pill that lacks the synergy of the other molecules in the turmeric root that aids in its absorption and its anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory effects.

High doses of curcumin are tolerated in part due to curcumin’s poor absorption and bioavailability (ability to reach circulation in the bloodstream) in humans. In other words, when you take a high dose of curcumin, most of it actually passes through the body intact and unabsorbed (making very expensive urine). Much research has been devoted to improve curcumin’s absorption into the body, and it is known that the molecule piperine in black pepper can increase absorption up to 1,000-fold, so lots of companies are creating proprietary concoctions of this type. However if we simply turn to nature, there is already a solution to curcumin’s poor absorption problem and that is to the whole food for your daily dose: in the form of the root or powder.

The beauty of foods in general is that they often affect a broad range of pathways inside the body and can rarely be overdosed upon, unlike a pharmaceutical agent. This is because there are hundreds to thousands of molecules in a single whole food like turmeric, and our bodies tell us when we’ve had enough or are satiated due to the complex signaling of these molecules in the brain. In addition to the synergy of the molecules contained within an individual food, how the food is prepared (raw versus cooked) and what the food is cooked with (fats, sugars, etc.) dramatically affects the absorption and therapeutic potential.

For maximal benefit of turmeric’s medicinal molecules, use it extensively in your cooking at home. Turmeric contains approximately 5 percent curcumin by weight, and I suggest consuming up to a 1 gram dose of curcumin for therapeutic use as prevention or treatment. It is best lightly cooked and eaten with some fat because curcumin and many of the other organic molecules in foods often are fat-soluble, so this helps bring it into the body. For example, in any sauté where you begin with olive oil, add turmeric root or powder to make the medicinal agent curcumin bioavailable to you.

Other simple ways to include turmeric in your diet, in addition to the traditional curry recipes gifted to us by the Indian culture, include making teas or adding it generously to rice, lentils and quinoa. Try grating the fresh root into any quiche or frittata recipe. I also enjoy incorporating turmeric into sweet recipes such as turmeric oatmeal cookies, corncakes and granola. This ancient golden root, now clinically proven safe and effective for inflammation and the treatment of a plethora of human diseases and cancers, is readily available to most all.

Dr. Lisa Julian Ph.D. has a passion for organic chemistry, the “molecules of life” and its application to food and health. She’s the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches science and nutrition at CU Denver and CMC. She can be reached at (970)401-2071 or For more information about services offered at her studio, visit

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