The wonder spice, the miracle cure-all, the wonderful buzz-word those clever marketing men love plastering all over their products hoping it’ll persuade us to pay more. Yes, it’s turmeric. We hear so much about it, through fashionable magazines, health magazines and internet ‘experts’ yet it’s hard to know what to believe as many of these articles are happy to make big claims and exclamations of the power of turmeric and its active ingredient, curcumin, but not many of them deem it necessary to back up their claims with actual science.
So what do we actually know. We know that turmeric has been used for throughout Asia for both cooking and for medicinal purposes; traditionally it’s been used to fight infections on open wounds, fight bad breath, reduce inflammation and treat digestive issues. It’s been reported that
populations in this region have had lower levels of cancer and Alzheimers. But, gimmicky headlines in magazines designed to draw us in have never appealed to me: I want to know what evidence is out there, what are the scientists and doctors telling us, how can it benefit us today in our over pressured lives, finally how can it benefit me with a family history of breast cancer and as an Ultra runner.
On first glance there are thousands of reported studies out there but a lot of the evidence seems to be based on studies of cells in test tubes or on animals; useful but human studies and examples are far more informative. Where are they and what can they tell me?
Before I attempted to delve into long and confusing articles I found a clip of Trust me I’m a Doctor, Dr Michael Mosley (I love Michael Mosley and all his programs). This program ran a very small and limited trial with 100 people. In this trial, the people took either a teaspoon of turmeric powder, turmeric capsule or a placebo. There was no notable effect on any of these groups when white blood cells were analysed suggesting that the immune system hadn’t been affected. However, the group who took turmeric powder had a change to a specific gene which has been linked to cancer risk as well as issues such as asthma, eczema, anxiety and depression. It’s a tiny study and the team couldn’t determine whether the changes were good or bad changes, but hopefully this will prompt the guys and Newcastle Uni where the study was conducted, to look into this subject further.
Radio Four The Food Program is my go-to entertainment for longer runs and last week an episode on turmeric popped up. Out of all the information presented during this program, it was an interview with Professor Jamie Cavenagh, a blood cancer specialist, which jumped out at me. He spoke about one of his patients who had run out of conventional treatment options and so started taking curcumin (8g per day) while the Professor tracked her cancer markers, slowly the cancer started to respond and diminish; she has subsequently kept it at a low level and has kept up with her curcumin dosage. He emphasised that lots of his patients take curcumin but this was the most convincing response he had ever seen; that it’s not a cure for cancer but it’s definitely worth pursuing with further research. This wasn’t an over hyped ‘expert’ wheeled out for a fashion magazine, this was an experienced cancer specialist giving a balanced review on one of his patients. The view that further research is required is mirrored on the Cancer Research website which runs through some of the limited published studies but again, emphasises that conclusive evidence is not yet out there.
But what about running? I found an article which looked at the effect of curcumin on DOMS and muscle recovery after squats and eccentric running (downhill) which indicated that curcumin is likely to reduce DOMS pain and may enhance muscle recovery. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25795285
I also found articles which demonstrated a link between carcumin and inflammation suggesting that carcumin could reduce muscle inflammation and thereby muscle soreness.
Of course DOMS demonstrates that we’ve pushed ourselves, that our muscles have been pushed beyond previous adaptations and are healing to make us stronger and fast, but boy it hurts and we could all do with cutting DOMS times down.
All of this is really encouraging. No, I can’t seem to find a massive double blind study on hundreds of people over a number of years which I would like to find, but there seems to be lots of positive associations between turmeric and a reduction in inflammation and perhaps, in the future they will find a strong link between curcumin and a reduced cancer risk. For me, I suffer from long term hamstring tendonopathy and so anything which reduces inflammation in this tendon is great for me. Yes, ibuprofen makes a difference but I value my stomach lining so any option which reduces ibuprofen consumption is worth trying. I find that regular turmeric consumption keeps the pain in my hamstring at bay, after an Ultra I find my feet and toes swell up but that the swelling goes down quickly after taking turmeric so I am happy to keep taking it in my recovery smoothie or as a shot, mixed with milk and black pepper. Why do I take it like this? Research seems to suggest that black pepper increases absorption by 2000% and that consuming it with fat also increases the bioavailability of curcumin. Yes, I could take it in capsules but I slightly object to just how much they cost; someone somewhere is making a lot of money out of a cheap spice! In addition, if Dr Mosley is right, it is more beneficial to take it as a powder.
So, until the next scare story comes out of the media telling me that turmeric is bad for me, I’ll keep putting it into my smoothie, put up with the ‘that looks yucky’ comments from my kids and hope that it keeps me on the road for a few years yet.
A few strawberries,
A chunk of banana
Big teaspoon of turmeric
Ground black pepper