Turmeric trumpeted as cancer fighter

By Heather Knutson, MS, RD, CSO, LD Jul 05, 2017

Should you consider including turmeric in your diet for its terrific taste? Or because of its potential cancer-healing power? Perhaps both! The active ingredient in turmeric — curcumin — is billed as a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Though the jury is still out, it is touted for its potential to prevent tumor development and kill existing cancer cells. An important word of caution: check with your cancer care team before regularly including turmeric in your diet. Some studies indicate curcumin consumption can interfere with certain chemotherapy drugs or radiation. It’s always wise to consult with your doctor and dietitian when making significant dietary changes.

Ongoing research indicates curcumin is a good dietary addition. Spices have long been used for medical purposes in many cultures. Several studies have been completed and are ongoing to better identify which are most advantageous and how to best utilize them. Turmeric is one of the most extensively studied spices to date. Used in Asian and Indian medicine to treat several conditions, turmeric also is a popular natural health recommendation for treatment of inflammatory disorders such as gastrointestinal problems, chronic pain and skin conditions. One study found curcumin can kill cancer cells in multiple ways, leaving healthy cells unaffected — an important finding because chemotherapy drugs kill healthy cells and cancer cells.

Laboratory and animal research suggests curcumin may prevent cancer, slow its spread, increase chemotherapy’s effectiveness and protect healthy cells from radiation therapy damage. Currently, several human clinical trials are studying curcumin’s role in reducing cancer risk and inflammation.

FOOD, MEDICINE OR BOTH?
Turmeric is the main spice in curry, a common ingredient in traditional Middle Eastern and Indian cooking. It has a warm, bitter taste and is most often used as a flavor for powders and sauces, mustards, butters and cheeses.

The turmeric root is also widely used to make medicines. The yellow pigment from curcumin is the primary chemical thought to have the potential to fight cancer. Initial evidence from lab studies indicates curcumin can suppress inflammation and inhibit tumor survival. It may also be able to delay or prevent metastasis — the process of cancer cells breaking away from where they develop, traveling through the blood or lymph system to form new tumors in other parts of the body.

Curcumin is also believed to decrease swelling and inflammation. Inflammation may play a role in the development of cancer and these antioxidant properties could help reduce inflammation in the body.

Turmeric is already used in treatments for many other medical problems, including arthritis and autoimmune disease. It’s also used topically to treat insect bites, ringworm, acne and skin-related swelling and irritation.

ADDING TURMERIC TO YOUR DIET
Turmeric shows promise as a cancer treatment, but scientists don’t yet know:

  • Its exact proven benefits
  • How much is helpful
  • If too much can be detrimental
  • How consumption may affect absorption of certain cancer medications

Some evidence suggests it does interfere with particular chemotherapy drugs. Turmeric can interact with diabetes medication causing blood sugar levels to drop too low. People on blood-thinning medications and undergoing surgery are at increased bleeding risk. Too much turmeric may also cause gastrointestinal disturbances. Your first step, even if you have no other medical issues along with your cancer, is to talk to your doctor or dietitian before adding turmeric to your diet.

How do you take it? Turmeric can be found in several forms: powder, tea, extracts, capsules and cut root or supplements. Remember, generally supplements and extracts may not act the same way in your body. In many cases, whole food turmeric — turmeric root or powder — is recommended during cancer treatment.
If you are adding turmeric to foods and drinks, be sure to add black pepper, as well. Turmeric and curcumin are not absorbed well unless combined with black pepper.

Personal tastes differ, so start out with small amount and adjust based on your flavor preferences. Here are some quick, easy ways to add turmeric to your diet:

  • Put a pinch in salad dressings.
  • Sprinkle it on top of sautéed vegetables.
  • Combine it with lemon as a marinade for chicken breasts.
  • Add a dash to eggs and rice dishes.
  • Dust it over roasted potatoes and cruciferous vegetables.
  • Add powder or root form to smoothies or soups.
  • Be adventurous. You can find many delicious options online. We’ve included a couple below for starters!ONE-POT QUINOA AND TURMERIC STEW
    Start to finish: 40 minutes
    Servings: 4
    3 big handfuls chopped kale
    2 cups frozen beans
    2 cans cannellini beans
    1 spiralized sweet potato (optional)
    4 garlic cloves, chopped
    1 tablespoon coriander
    1 tablespoon turmeric
    1 teaspoon chili powder
    1 can full-fat coconut milk
    1 can chopped tomatoes
    1½ cup quinoa
    1½ cup water
    1 tablespoon coconut oil
    Juice from ½ of a lemon
    Sea saltIn a large pot over medium-high heat, warm the coconut oil and add the chopped garlic, all the spices and spiralized sweet potato to the pot. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, coconut milk, quinoa and water. Bring to a boil. Simmer and cook for about 15 minutes. Add the beans and peas. Cook 15 additional minutes. Add the kale and lemon juice. Cook until the kale wilts. Sprinkle with sea salt and enjoy.
    (Recipe from 8thandlake.com)

    TURMERIC MILK

    Start to finish: 15 minutes
    Servings: 1
    1 (1½ inch) piece fresh turmeric root, peeled and grated
    1 (1½ inch) piece fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
    1 tablespoon honey
    1 cup unsweetened almond milk
    Pinch ground turmeric (optional)
    Pinch ground cinnamon (optional)
    Combine the turmeric root, ginger root and honey in a bowl, crushing the turmeric and ginger as much as possible. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, warm the almond milk. Reduce to low once small bubbles begin to form around the edges. Transfer about 2 tablespoons of milk to the turmeric mixture to allow it to soften and the honey to melt, forming a paste-like mixture. Mix the turmeric paste into the milk in the saucepan. Raise heat to medium-low and cook, stirring continuously, until fully combined. Blend with an immersion blender for a smooth texture. Pour into a mug and top with ground turmeric and cinnamon.
    (Recipe from allrecipes.com)

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