Turmeric is perhaps the most widely researched dietary supplement of our time. In the golden age of natural medicine, it only fits that the best one we’ve found so far is often gold in color.
Most common as an addition to curry powders, turmeric spice offers a host of health benefits to help people of all ages maintain their mental and physical wellness. With so many convincing studies in the books, where does cancer fall on that list?
Can turmeric benefit cancer treatment? Do we have reliable evidence to suggest that turmeric can shrink tumors or help patients cope with the side effects of chemotherapy?
Turmeric and Cancer
We’ve seen sufficient research pointing to turmeric’s benefits in various autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and psoriasis. Science has even found turmeric useful for treating Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Today, there appears to be a mountain of evidence suggesting that curcumin can provide benefits for cancer patients, as well. To better understand how curcumin interacts with cancer cells, tumor growth, and chemoprevention, let’s explore cancer itself in more detail. (1)
What is Cancer?
Cancer is the designated term for a group of interrelated diseases characterized by the rapid and uncontrolled division of cells. It can start anywhere in the human body, which is composed of trillions of cells.
Normally, human cells divide or grow based on biological needs. When cells get damaged or grow old, they die, and new cells quickly replace them.
When cancer develops, the process becomes highly unstable. Old cells may survive instead of die-off. New cells arise, even if they are unneeded. When these extra cells divide without stopping, they often form growths known as tumors. There are two types of tumors to consider.
- Benign: These tumors do not spread into or invade neighboring tissues. They are not seen as life-threatening unless they arise on the brain. Once surgically removed, benign tumors usually do not grow back.
- Malignant: This type can be life-threatening. Malignant tumors can rapidly spread into nearby tissues. Some cancer cells can even break off and travel through the bloodstream to wreak havoc on distant locations in the body. If surgically removed, they can sometimes grow back.
Extensive research suggests there is a strong link between oxidative stress and inflammation, a mediator of chronic diseases such as cancer. Activation of pro-inflammatory transcription factors increases the chances of healthy cells transforming into tumor cells. Thus, lowering inflammation is one possible way to prevent cancer. (2, 3)
There are many possible causes of cancer—we won’t get into all of them. Certain risk factors can raise your odds of developing cancer, such as prolonged hypertension, elevated cholesterol levels, and diabetes.
In general, cancer is seen as a genetic disease caused by mutations in DNA that change how our cells function. Most notably, changes in how our cells grow and divide. (4)
Why Turmeric Curcumin?
The extracted curcumin within turmeric possesses potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity. In numerous laboratory studies, the increased presence of antioxidants has shown an ability to inhibit the types of free radical cell damage linked to cancer development. Is curcumin one such antioxidant with cancer-fighting potential? (5)
In this post, we’ll analyze the studies surrounding curcumin’s capacity to fight cancer, shrink tumors, and serve as a chemopreventive measure.
Turmeric for Fighting Cancer: Can Curcumin Benefit Cancer Treatment?
Chemotherapy is, perhaps, the most common cancer treatment. The problem with chemotherapeutic agents is the toxicity they present to not only tumor cells, but also healthy cells in the body. Chemotherapy is costly, and it’s only used to treat cancer, not prevent it.
Prevention is where curcumin helps the most, but it can also manage the disease through numerous mechanisms of action. Research has shown that curcumin has the potential to kill tumor cells by modulating multiple cell signaling pathways. Turmeric also selectively targets tumor cells, not normal cells. (6)
There are a few different processes heavily involved in cancer growth and development that curcuminoids may influence. These items are:
- Apoptosis: This term means “programmed cell death,” which is a vital process to eradicate dysfunctional cells efficiently. Malignant cells often evade apoptosis.
- Proliferation: An increase in cell numbers resulting from cellular division and growth. In cancer, there is uncontrolled cell proliferation.
- Angiogenesis: This term describes the formation of new blood vessels. Angiogenesis is a normal part of growth and healing. But, in cancer, it expedites nutrient and oxygen flow to tumors, increasing their growth rates.
- Metastasis: Refers to the dispersion of cancer to parts of the body different from where it originated. During metastases, tumor cells can enter the lymphatic system or bloodstream and travel elsewhere in the body.
- Inflammation: Over time, chronic inflammation can lead to DNA damage and sometimes cancer. Inflammation is the immune system’s response to irritants or foreign invaders.
Not only can curcumin have a positive influence on each of these factors, but it can do so in many different varieties of cancer. Studies show positive results in treating leukemia and lymphoma, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, lung cancer, melanoma, and several other types. (7, 8)
In the past 50 years, curcumin’s anticancer potential has shown its ability to suppress proliferation, down-regulate inflammation transcription factors, and regulate gene expression. Studies also show turmeric can inhibit tumor initiation, growth, and metastasis. (9)
One study tested curcumin’s potential to impede laminin adhesion receptors, which play a significant role in the migration and invasion of cancer cells. The trial found that turmeric significantly reduced breast cancer cell motility (an organism’s ability to move freely) and invasion.
When paired with existing pharmacologic inhibitors, the blocking effect was even higher. The added benefit suggests that curcumin may have a positive influence on limiting the spread of breast cancer. Turmeric also helps breast cancer survivors with fibromyalgia if it develops after treatment or surgery. (10)
Another study used 25 patients with advanced pancreatic cancer. Patients received 8,000 mg of curcumin orally per day. In spite of turmeric’s low bioavailability (absorption), the study found statistically significant biological activity in a small number of patients. (11)
In cancer, the term “proteasome,” refers to cellular protein-degradation, which plays a crucial role in homeostasis. Cancer cells are known to inhibit cell death, promoting cell survival, and proliferation. Some cancer treatments use proteasome inhibitors to shift the equilibrium towards cell death.
Animal research found that curcumin may interfere with proteasome activity. The results of one study showed impaired cell proliferation and a reduced cancer burden in a group of tested mice. (12)
Further research examined turmeric’s capacity as a chemopreventive agent in patients with high-risk conditions or pre-malignant lesions. The study found a correlation between curcumin consumption and cancer prevention. Although not every patient experienced these benefits. (13)
Turmeric Cancer Dosage
In the previous study, each patient in the study started with a 500 mg dosage per day and gradually moved up to a maximum of 8,000 mg of curcumin per day. Anything beyond that was found to be intolerable for the patients. Up to 8,000 mg per day did not show any treatment-related toxicity.
So, what is the correct turmeric dosage for cancer? The answer is, it depends. There is no dosage guaranteed to cure the disease. Remember, curcumin can help treat and prevent cancer. It has even shown potential to kill tumor cells. But, even with such promising studies, we know that curcumin is not a cure.
Final Thoughts on Turmeric’s Anticancer Properties
Can turmeric benefit cancer? The answer appears to be, yes. While you may find some success stories or testimonials out there for curcumin, we can’t emphasize enough that curcumin is not meant to replace traditional treatment methods for cancer.
There is definite therapeutic value in adding turmeric to the treatment regimen, especially if you’re undergoing chemotherapy. Curcumin’s potential to inhibit cell growth paired with its anti-inflammatory properties makes it an excellent comrade to take into your battle with chemo.
Studies have shown numerous mechanisms of action that curcumin has on cancer cells and tumor growth. Still, the results appear a bit inconsistent across the board. There is explicit biological activity occurring here, but the exact “how” is still somewhat up for debate. (14, 15)
If you’re considering a turmeric supplement, consult with your doctor or primary care physician to see if it can help improve your situation.