In Defense of Spicy Food
By Syed Amir, PhD
Bethesda, MD

Turmeric, an indispensable ingredient of most spicy dishes of South Asia, has been used for generations for enhancing the flavor of curries and imparting them the characteristic rich, golden color. Besides its role as a food additive, the herb has found extensive application as an anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative agent in the Ayurvedic and Unani systems of medicine. Some earlier evidence had indicated that it was helpful in the treatment of breast and prostate cancer. However, the multiple therapeutic properties assigned to turmeric have never been tested or proven in a well-designed scientific study.
Now, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, The Journal of Biological Chemistry, in its February 18 issue, has reported some surprising findings about turmeric. Curcumin, chemically a polyphenol, is the active ingredient present in turmeric root powder which gives the herb its characteristic yellow color. Investigators at the University of California, Los Angles, who studied curcumin in mice, found that it was highly effective against Alzheimer’s disease (AD). They are so impressed with their findings that they expect curcumin to eventually emerge as one of the most effective treatments for this devastating disease.
AD, named after a German doctor, Dr. Alois Alzheimer, is a progressive, disabling disease and is characterized by gradual memory loss and impaired cognitive function that robs the patients of their ability to communicate and sustain the thought process. AD is often described by the more common and non-specific general term, dementia, a condition often associated with the aging process. It is estimated that some 10 percent of people over the age of 65 in the United States suffer from AD; the numbers escalating to 50 percent among those 85 or older. As people live much longer than they used to, the incidence of AD is likely to mount even higher. Scientists worldwide are urgently focusing their efforts on finding the root cause of the disease and developing strategies to prevent and cure it. Yet, the success rate thus far has not been very encouraging.
While the question of what initiates the onset of AD remains unresolved, it is now clear that the symptoms are caused by the gradual accumulation in the brain of a protein, beta amyloid peptide. As the amount of this protein increases in the brain, so does the patient’s degree of dementia and consequent disability. Based on these observations, scientists have been exploring new approaches to prevent the initiation of beta amyloid formation in the brain, and remove it harmlessly once formed. Since experiments cannot be conducted on the human brain, they have to be performed on animals first. Fortunately, mouse models can now be developed so that they carry the same gene that is responsible for the disease in humans. In time, the mice develop amyloid plaques, similar or identical to those seen in AD patients. These animals provide a unique model, enabling the scientists to evaluate the success or failure of any experimental treatment plan.
The researchers have found that when aged mice are fed or injected with curcumin solution, the accumulation of beta amyloid plaque is sharply diminished. Even more impressive, plaques that were already formed in the brain disintegrated and gradually disappeared. These experiments have opened remarkable leads for the development of new drugs and therapies to fight AD. The findings have been so persuasive that pilot trials at the Los Angeles Alzheimer’s Research Center have been initiated in which the effect of curcumin is being tested on real patients suffering with the AD. Besides its known beneficial role in the AD, curcumin is also being tested at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, as a potential treatment for pancreatic cancer and multiple myeloma, a cancer of the immune system. The results of these human studies are still awaited.
Turmeric as well as its active agent, curcumin, offers some unique advantages. Both are non-toxic in ordinary culinary doses - they have been consumed by people in south Asia as part of their daily diet for millennia. Furthermore, the recent experiments have shown that curcumin can readily cross into the brain from the blood stream, a prerequisite for the success of any drug designed to reach the amyloid aggregates present in the brain. The question naturally arises: is there any evidence that the consumption of turmeric has benefited the population of India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, by providing some measure of protection against AD. While no rigorous clinical trials have been undertaken, there is empirical and epidemiological evidence suggesting that the answer is yes. The incidence of AD among the elderly population in India is estimated to be less than one-quarter of that seen in the western countries, especially the United States. While other factors such as the beneficial effects of close family support cannot be ruled out, it seems logical to speculate that the daily intake of turmeric also has an important role in the observed low incidence of dementia.
In the medieval times, spices were scarce, and were highly prized. The frantic search to discover easy routes to countries where they grew in abundance sent European explorers, such as Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama, on perilous voyages across the unknown oceans. As the sea journeys became more common, the supply of oriental spices became plentiful in the west. Their former mystique was lost. Now, as the unique curative properties of some of the common spices are being realized, they once again are becoming the focus of attention. This time, not so much as food preservatives or flavor enhancers, as was the case in the olden days, but more for the many health benefits they might hold in store.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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