Despite millions spent on drug research and development, one of the more promising treatments for Alzheimer's disease (a progressive brain disorder that affects more than 5 million Americans) is found in a substance widely known for its ability to spice (and color) food.
The compound curcumin, only found in turmeric, is a widely used spice found in Indian food, and is also popular in the cuisines of other South Asian countries like Nepal, Iran and Thailand. The bright yellow spice is familiar to fans of curry dishes, but it has been used in other preparations as well. For centuries, it has been used in Asian medicine.
Like other brightly colored foods (think blueberries, pomegranates and tomatoes), it is the compound that gives turmeric its color that makes it a powerful antioxidant — in this case, curcumin. And like the lycopene in tomatoes and the beta-carotene in carrots, bright orange-yellow curcumin has some seriously amazing health benefits. Preliminary clinical studies show curcumin helps reduce beta amyloid plaque in the brains of people with Alzheimer's (and prevent plaque buildup in people who don't have the disease).
This plaque is the key to understanding — and preventing — the disease. As The New York Times recently reported:
The disease is defined by freckles of barnacle-like piles of a protein fragment, amyloid beta, in the brain. So, the current thinking goes, if you block amyloid formation or get rid of amyloid accumulations — plaque — and if you start treatment before the disease is well under way, you might have a chance to alter its course.
According to Terry Lemerond, founder and president of Europharma, "Most brain researchers and Alzheimer’s specialists believe that preventing or reducing beta amyloid plaque in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease is important. Beta amyloid plaque interferes with proper brain function and contributes to dementia."
Eating lots of turmeric isn't the only option to get a regular dose of the stuff (though it's a delicious one). Curcumin extracts are available in pill form, which is how the compound has been used in clinical trials, including the one published in the Journal of Neurochemistry. That trial found a 30 percent decrease in the size of Alzheimer's-associated brain plaque in treated mice in just one week.
Alzheimer's isn't the only condition that might be affected by the brightly-colored spice: "Curcumin has been proven to be an extraordinarily potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound. These properties make it effective for cancer (prevention and treatment), arthritis, liver disease, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, and many other health issues — all demonstrated in clinical studies," says Lemerond.
To boost the efficacy of the curcumin compound, some studies show that it should be ingested with Vitamin D supplements. The two substances then work together to stimulate a type of immune cell that can "clean up" the beta amyloid more quickly and thoroughly.
More research is needed. According to Lemerond, "Alzheimer’s is a very complex disease, and forestalling, or even reversing, dementia is not as simple as reducing plaque."
Editor's note: This story has been edited for clarity and to add more source materials. Thanks to our readers for providing more scientific references.