Written by Sebastian Pole
Curcumin is undoubtedly a key active medicinal constituent found in turmeric; but there is so much more to this vibrant root. In this article, Sebastian Pole will be looking at some of the other amazing and powerful constituents present in this plant’s essential oils.
Having been trained in traditional herbal medicine and the use of whole plants I am intrigued and concerned by the accelerated pharmaceuticalisation of natural health products. As the insights of traditional herbal medicine reaches greater awareness so our tendency to cherry pick certain herbs and isolate their ‘active’ compounds increases. In this process we miss an essential part of traditional healing that is wrapped up in the synergistic effect of the multi-component and multi-herb formulas used by natural doctors for centuries.
The rapid growth in curcumin’s reputation is a case in point and I want to use this as an example of how using isolated compounds misses the best of natural medicine. With over 6000 citations on curcumin it dominates the research field into this valuable spice, but is it just better to use higher amounts of isolated curcumin (the so-called 95% curcumin) or is there something better available from all the compounds that make up the wonder that is turmeric?
Turmeric: The golden goddess
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has a long tradition of use in Indian Ayurvedic medicine over at least the last 4,000 years. Having a sweet, bitter and astringent flavour with the ability to drive out toxins turmeric balances the fundamental principles of health bringing equilibrium to all three constitutional dosha. Modern medical descriptions include diverse biological activity including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antigrowth, anti-arthritic, anti-atherosclerotic, antidepressant, anti-aging, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, wound healing, hepatoprotective and memory-enhancing activities.It has many names in India (over 45!) including ‘Haridra’ (The Yellow One) and my preferred, ‘Kanchani’ (The Golden Goddess). The word ‘turmeric’ comes from medieval Latin ‘terra merita’, meaning ‘blessing of the earth’.
Turmeric has over 300 compounds including volatile oils (e.g. tumerone and zingiberone), sugars, proteins and resins and owes its bright yellow colour to polyphenolic pigments also known as curcuminoids, including demethoxycurcumin and bisdemethoxycurcumin. It is believed that turmeric’s effectiveness may, at least partially, be attributed to its immunomodulatory properties and the ability to affect multiple signalling pathways initiating inflammatory and neurological modulation via multiple pathways including COX-2, LOX-5, Nrf2, NF-KB etc. Turmeric has compared positively when compared with statins, corticosteroids and aspirin revealing it as nature’s answer to the side-effect free treatment of inflammation.
When you consider that whole turmeric contains at least 20 phytochemicals that are anti-biotic, 14 that are known cancer preventatives, 12 that are anti-tumour, 12 are anti-inflammatory and there are at least 10 different anti-oxidants it makes you realize that turmeric is rather a lot more than curcumin. It makes me think that I want to use a whole turmeric formula that brings out the best of the curcumin as well as the volatile tumerone, the resins and other yellow pigments.
Who wants curcumin-free turmeric?
It’s worth noting that in Traditional Chinese Medicine turmeric has long been selected from the ‘Invigorate Blood’ category and is used as a water extract (decoction) showing that as curcumin is not water soluble, the other 299 compounds are also able to deliver a therapeutic benefit. Recent studies indicate that curcumin-free turmeric (CFT) possess numerous biological activities including anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and antidiabetic activities. In a previously published review of Aggarwal et al., 2013, the anticancer and anti-inflammatory activities of CFT and the individual components of turmeric, including turmerin, turmerone, elemene, furanodiene, curdione, bisacurone, cyclocurcumin, calebin A, and germacrone are exhibited.
Murakami et al. published an article showing that curcumin combined with turmerones, the essential oil component of turmeric, abolishes inflammation-associated colon carcinogenesis. These beneficial compounds – the tumerones – are only one example of the various bioactive compounds beyond curcumin in the whole turmeric root. Practitioners should note that this broad range of turmeric compounds are rarely present in the solvent extracted curcumin products on the market.
The quest for absorption
Whilst it has entered the natural medicine vernacular that curcumin is poorly absorbed it is less well known that you only need very small amounts for effectiveness; studies point to its chemotherapeutic and chemopreventive activity even at low concentrations ranging from 5-50µm. Turmeric’s traditional use with black pepper, ginger, milk or ghee reveals an ancient insight into how we can enhance the bioavailabilty and efficacy of the turmeric; take your whole turmeric with spice and fat. It also shows how the positive epidemiological benefits of using turmeric powder in the Indian diet (at around 1g/day) may contribute to lower cancer rates, alzheimer’s and diabetic complications seen on the India subcontinent.
Most curcumin on the market today is extracted with hexane, ethyl acetate, acetone or methanol. All have questionable environmental credentials and as this process strips the other synergistic compounds out of the turmeric it often requires curcumin products to then be further processed into liposomes or miscelles to have any significant absorption (as well as requiring toxicological studies in animals to prove safety). More cutting-edge methods such as wholistic extracts that combine super critical extraction (using carbon dioxide) with tincture extraction (using water and alcohol) are leading the way in capturing the holy grail of herbal extraction; concentration of the parts while still representing the whole spectrum of plant compounds that, in turmeric’s case, is to capture the curcumin as well as the resinous and essential oil turmerone compounds.
Turmeric: The multi-organ protector
Every clinician is faced everyday with complex degenerative illness. Its become the norm in our society. And we need solutions that offer multi-organ and multi-dimensional protection. And this is where whole herbs, notably turmeric come into their element.
Lets look at turmeric’s effect on Nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2 (Nrf2). Nrf2 is a protein involved in the cellular response to oxidative damage caused by injury or inflammation. It is pivotal in the regulation of various cellular processes, such as antioxidant defences, redox equilibrium, the inflammatory process, the apoptotic processes, detoxification, and cellular proliferation (Morales-González et al. 2015) and furthermore offers a strategy for cancer chemo-preventive phytochemicals (Becks et al. 2010). Numerous studies have shown this Nrf2-conferred, multi-organ protection phenomenon protects many cell types and organ systems from a broad spectrum of toxic insults and disease pathogenesis (Lee et al. 2005).Nrf2 moderates gene regulation and the Antioxidant Response Elements to protect neurological pathways making it especially relevant to focus on for treating Parkinson’s, ALS and Alzheimer’s.
It was found that Nrf2 has an antagonistic effect on the NF-κB pathway (Cuadrado A. et al. 2014). When Nrf2 is activated, NF-kB pathways are also mediated, such multiple interactions allow bioactive compounds, including turmeric, to exert their beneficial preventive and therapeutic effects.
Studies comparing isolated curcumin extracts, turmeric powder and wholistic extracts show that Nrf2 activation is most potent in wholistic extracts (75% more effective at enhancing Nrf2 compared to a 95% curcumin product and 93% more than conventional turmeric). From this it can be suggested that compounds other than the curcuminoids activate the multi-organ protector and a synergistic effect may occur. These results are in line with the outcome of the antioxidative potential determined by ORAC analysis where a super critical/tincture combined turmeric showed outstanding activity of antioxidant scavenging compared to a combination of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Turmeric feeds the microvascular bed
The microvascular bed comprises of countless small arterioles, capillaries and venules. It regulates the contractile relationship between blood vessel walls and circulating blood, regulating haemostasis and is a gateway to our immune cells. Its health affects hypertension, diabetes, cholesterol, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s, liver disease, erectile dysfunction and cancer. Because of turmeric’s fundamental ability to enhance circulation through influencing platelets and thinning the blood it serves as a key-stone species in the treatment of today’s epidemic of diseases stemming from microvascular, inflammatory and neurodegenerative disorders.
The golden goddess gets gold
The history, the science and the experience of turmeric stand as testimony to its deserved position as one of the most relevant herbs for today’s health challenges. It is the herb of choice for inflammation, injuries, neuronal degeneration, digestive disorders and cellular irregularities. Just remember that each and every one of turmeric’s 300 phytochemicals are there to help you achieve success in your clinical practice.