Turmeric for Alzheimer's Disease

turmeric powder
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Could turmeric, a spice best known as an ingredient in curry powder, help prevent Alzheimer's disease, a leading cause of dementia? The short answer is: Maybe. As yet little research has looked at the effects of turmeric on the brain health of humans. However, studies in animals have found turmeric may influence a number of brain changes that take place in the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

Focusing on Curcumin

When studying the potential health effects of turmeric, scientists have been especially interested in a component in the spice called curcumin (diferuloylmethane). Curcumin is the yellow pigment in turmeric and is known to have antioxidant properties that may be among the ways this compound contributes to the prevention of Alzheimer's disease.

In animal studies, the curcumin found in turmeric also has been shown to help curb inflammation and combat oxidative stress, two factors that may contribute to Alzheimer's disease. Additional studies suggest that curcumin may help thwart the breakdown of brain cells that occur in Alzheimer's disease.

There also is evidence turmeric may inhibit the formation of plaques in the brain. Plaques form when fragments of a protein called beta-amyloid clump together and accumulate between brain cells. Beta-amyloid also appears to impair brain function by destroying synapses—the structures through which nerve cells transmit signals to one another.

In animal research, scientists have observed that turmeric may help clear beta-amyloid from the brain. In one such study, turmeric extract significantly reduced levels of beta-amyloid in the brains of mice that had been genetically engineered to develop Alzheimer's disease.

Benefits for Humans

There's been too little research as yet to show that the curcumin in turmeric may have similar potential benefits for humans. In fact, in one small study, curcumin was not found to have a significant effect on people with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer's disease who took curcumin for 24 weeks, as compared to a control group of people who took a placebo for the same amount of time.

There is, however, anecdotal evidence of a connection between dietary intake of curcumin and brain health. According to the Mary S. Eastern Alzheimer Translational Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, the low incidence of Alzheimer's disease in India may have to do with the high intake of turmeric in Asia. "As turmeric contains an average of 5% to 10% curcumin, the daily intake of curcumin...in India is thought be about 125 milligrams (mg)."

In fact, besides the lack of research, the low bioavailability of curcumin to the brain is one reason it's too soon to recommend including more turmeric in the diet or taking turmeric supplements as a way to help stave off Alzheimer's disease.

What's more, although turmeric in small amounts in food or supplements is considered safe for most adults, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) warns that high doses or long-term use of turmeric may trigger symptoms like diarrhea, indigestion, and nausea.

The NCCIH also advises people with gallbladder disease to not use turmeric as a dietary supplement, since it may aggravate the condition.

If you're interested in taking curcumin supplements, check with your healthcare provider to make sure it's safe for you and to determine the optimal amount. For reference, studies use doses of curcumin ranging from 500 mg to 2,000 mg.

To get more curcumin in your diet, you might take a cue from cuisines that rely heavily on turmeric as a spice: It's thought that one reason this compound might contribute to brain health in India is because in cooking it is dissolved into ghee, which is butter from which the fat solids have been cooked out. When using turmeric, therefore, letting it sizzle in butter or cooking oil before adding other ingredients definitely will make it more flavorable—and may make it more beneficial to your brain.

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By Cathy Wong
Cathy Wong is a nutritionist and wellness expert. Her work is regularly featured in media such as First For Women, Woman's World, and Natural Health.