If you’re in the habit of partaking of Indian and other South Asian curry dishes, you’re already doing your mental health a world of good without knowing it. That’s because evidence is piling up that one of the many health benefits of turmeric – a traditional ingredient in almost every curry dish – is that it acts to protect your brain against the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.
The yellow color of a curry (and mustard) is because of the spice turmeric, known scientifically as Curcuma longa. A “rhizome” or root known for its tough brown skin and bright orange flesh, turmeric is found all over South Asia and is believed to have been in use in India for at least 3,000 years.
Turmeric also has a long history of medicinal use, especially in Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine. Known to Ayurvedic practitioners as a “cleanser of the body,” turmeric is recommended for treating a wide variety of inflammation-related health problems including toothache, gum diseases, skin diseases, wounds, parasites, digestive disorders, urinary tract infections, flatulence, jaundice, menstrual discomforts, bruises, hemorrhage, and colic.
Today, modern science is uncovering a rapidly growing list of diseases that can be effectively and safely treated by turmeric – specifically, by its more than 300 bioactive components, which exert one or more biological actions in our body when we consume them.
More than a thousand research studies so far have looked at the properties of curcumin, a yellow pigment and the main “curcuminoid” bioactive compound in turmeric. According to a 2015 study, “Research to date suggests that chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, and most chronic diseases are closely linked, and the antioxidant properties of curcumin can play a key role in the prevention and treatment of chronic inflammation diseases.”
Chronic inflammation is believed to play a critical role in the development of cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. And in fact, many published studies show that curcumin acts against cancers of the breast, prostate, liver, colon, lung, and pancreas. It does so by stopping cancer cells from dividing and by triggering apoptosis – also known as programmed cell death – which is nature’s method of getting rid of infected and dying cells in our body without affecting surrounding healthy tissue.
How Does Turmeric Affect the Brain?
India has the lowest dementia rates in the world. The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease among Indian adults in the age group 70-79 years is 4-5 times less than that of similarly aged American adults. Some health experts believe this is because most Indians consume between 25-50 milligrams (mg) of turmeric as part of their daily diet over their entire lifetime. Let’s take a look at what is known so far about the mechanisms by which turmeric acts to protect our brain health.
Curcumin Enhances Macrophage and Immune System Activity
Macrophages are an essential part of our immune system. They are a type of white blood cell that engulfs and digests cellular debris, foreign substances, microbes, cancer cells, and anything else that does not have proteins that signal “I’m a healthy body cell!” on its surface.
Alzheimer’s patients are known to have defects in clearing away so-called “amyloid plaques” in affected areas of their brains, which is a task normally performed by macrophages. Amyloid plaques build up outside nerve cells in the brain (known as “neurons”) and contain beta-amyloid protein and other substances.
Beta-amyloid protein is a toxic protein, formed in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients when amyloid protein is processed improperly. Promisingly, in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease, low doses of curcumin reduced beta-amyloid protein levels in their brains by around 40%. A follow-up study conducted at UCLA in 2006 found that curcumin helps macrophages to clear amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s patients as well.
In this study, macrophages in blood taken from nine volunteers – including six Alzheimer’s patients and three healthy control subjects – were treated with curcumin. Macrophages treated with curcumin showed a noticeably improved ability to engulf and digest amyloid plaques. In other words, curcumin appears to enhance the immune system’s ability to clear away amyloid plaques – which makes it potentially very useful as part of a future therapy for Alzheimer’s disease.
Curcumin: Anti-Inflammatory Benefits for Alzheimer’s Disease
One of the main indications in Alzheimer’s disease is chronic inflammation in the brain and a buildup of pro-inflammatory substances, which happens along with the formation and accumulation of beta-amyloid protein. Prolonged treatment with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) has been shown to reduce inflammation in Alzheimer’s disease.
However, chronic use of NSAIDs is also toxic for the kidneys, liver, and gut. Curcumin has been shown to potently lower inflammation levels via multiple proven mechanisms. Its main effect is to lower levels of the so-called “pro-inflammatory cytokines”, which normally act to promote inflammation in our bodies as part of normal immune system signaling during infections and injuries. Unlike NSAIDs, turmeric is non-toxic up to very high doses, so its safety is not an issue.
Turmeric: The Powerful Antioxidant
Highly reactive compounds known as free radicals are created daily in our bodies as a result of normal biological processes, but also because of environmental pollution, stress, and chemical exposure. These free radicals damage cells – including neurons – as well as biological structures within them, paving the way over the long term for chronic diseases including cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Turmeric contains powerful curcuminoid and other potent antioxidants that neutralize free radicals and prevent damage to brain cells, not only in Alzheimer’s disease, but also in other brain diseases such as Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease. Both curcumin and curcuma oil have been shown to significantly reduce neurological damage caused by free radicals in laboratory animal models.
Further, curcumin has been shown to reverse some of the biochemical changes associated with aging in the brain. Along with the mechanisms already described above, curcumin also binds to heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, copper, zinc, and iron. By doing so, it may counteract any neurotoxic effects these metals may have on the brain.
Additionally, high-fat diets and increased blood cholesterol have been linked to amyloid plaque formation in the brain. Curcumin, because of its ability to block cholesterol formation, might benefit patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias in which amyloid plaques are present.
How Can You Add Turmeric to Your Daily Diet?
The first thing you should know is that curcumin – the main beneficial bioactive ingredient in turmeric – is not soluble in water, but only in fats and oils. Therefore, it’s best to combine turmeric with healthy oils such as extra virgin olive or coconut oil whenever possible. Did you know that the main bioactive ingredient in black pepper seeds – known as piperine – can increase curcumin absorption by as much as 2,000%?
If you can handle it, the best way to get all of turmeric’s many health benefits is to consume whole fresh turmeric root mixed with a natural oil. Doing this enhances curcumin’s absorption into our bodies by as much as seven to eight-fold. Grated or chopped turmeric lends both color and a gingery flavor to soups and sauces.
A quarter to a half teaspoon of turmeric powder can also be added to vegetables – along with a little olive oil, black pepper, and other spices to suit your taste – before roasting or baking them. One of the easiest ways to incorporate turmeric into your diet is by making turmeric tea. Start by finely slicing or grating fresh turmeric root. Add to a teapot along with cinnamon, cloves, and sliced or grated ginger root and steep in hot water. Sweeten with local honey or green leaf stevia before drinking. Remember, always use only organic, non-irradiated spices to receive the most effective anti-cancer benefits possible.