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Life Extension Magazine

<< Back to September 2001

The Spice of Life

Unlocking the Power of Curcumin

September 2001

By John C. Martin

Tapping curcumin’s power


There appear to be other promising implications for this seemingly miraculous substance. Research has demonstrated curcumin’s neuroprotective benefits following ethanol-induced brain injury by significantly reversing lipid peroxidation and promoting antioxidants in the brain.16 Scientists have also been successful at suppressing chemically-induced inflammation and hyperplasia—abnormal cell growth that can be a precursor to cancer—in the liver, as demonstrated in rodents.17

Some of the newest studies are pointing to curcumin’s potential as an inhibitor of viral progression in AIDS.18 Researchers at the National Cancer Institute analyzed how curcumin inhibits the activity of integrase in the development of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Integrase is the enzyme that inserts HIV’s genes into a cell’s normal DNA. Based on their observations, the government researchers suggested that new anti-AIDS strategies might have to be developed that point to curcumin as a potent inhibitor of integrase in the development of HIV.

Much earlier studies have examined other causes for curcumin’s anti-HIV activity, such as its ability to inhibit the action of protease, another enzyme in the process of viral development.19

More recently, scientists have examined how curcumin blocks formation of the Epstein-Barr virus (EPV) associated with HIV. The virus can cause such diseases as infectious mononucleosis and nasopharyngeal carcinoma. In one study,20 scientists discovered that treating EPV-infected lymphoid cells with curcumin augmented apoptosis, similar to what has been found in cancer research. “A further investigation of this effect may be useful in prevention and therapy of B-cell lymphoma in immunodeficient patients,” the researchers wrote.

Doctors have even found that curcumin, among other common spices, can prevent bacteria such as E. coli from being destroyed by irradiation.21 The findings, reached in a study from India, carry implications that curcumin and other spice extracts could be used to protect healthy tissue in people undergoing radiation therapy. It is believed that the spices used in the study—red chili powder, black pepper and turmeric—provided their protective effect by blocking the bacteria’s DNA from radiation exposure. The researchers added that there is no cause for concern because irradiation doses typically used to process prepared foods are high enough to kill any E. coli.

Muscle regeneration

Believe it or not, curcumin has something in it that repairs muscle better than anything presently known. Derived from the spice turmeric, curcumin speeds recovery without injections or side effects. Although the data is preliminary, it appears that when curcumin is taken orally, it has the ability to home in on injured muscle. Once there, it changes the biochemistry of baby muscle cells, causing them to grow faster and clump together quicker to create new tissue. According to the study, curcumin caused muscle cells to fuse together twice as fast as they ordinarily would.

It’s not known exactly how curcumin works. Researchers do know, however, that curcumin suppresses a factor that influences growth factors. This factor, NF B (nuclear factor kappa B), plays a prominent role in immunity and cell growth. Immediately after muscle injury, the immune system dispatches cells to the area. Their job is to destroy old tissue and begin new construction. NF B is one of the lines of communication immune cells use to get things done. By influencing NF B, curcumin modulates the repair process.

The regeneration of muscle is a complex phenomenon. Curcumin works in part by changing the arrival time and status of chemical messengers known as cytokines. Cytokines appear at the scene early on, and they have a powerful effect on inflammation and cell growth. A cytokine known as IL-6 (interleukin-6), for example, makes muscle cells multiply. Another one called TNF (tumor necrosis factor) keeps cells from growing up, developing. By suppressing one, and enhancing the other, curcumin can speed things up.

The authors of the study believe that curcumin works by other mechanisms that probably involve growth factors, but this has not been proven yet. In other attempts to make muscles regenerate, researchers have tried injecting synthetic growth factors or transplanting myoblasts–all with limited success. Curcumin seems to be a much safer, more effective treatment–at least in the early stages. The effects of curcumin are felt early on–right after injury when the body first sends out the repair squads. So if you want to try curcumin for muscle regeneration, make sure you take it as soon as the injury occurs. The authors of the study predict that curcumin may be useful not only for accidental injuries or sports, but also to help repair surgical damage.

  • Thaloor D, et al. 1999. Systemic administration of the NF- B inhibitor curcumin stimulates muscle regeneration after traumatic injury. Am J Physiol 277(2 pt 1):C320-29.


Study after study over the past five years has demonstrated the benefits of curcumin, a substance found in turmeric. Used as long as 6,000 years ago by Indians and other cultures as a treatment for a range of ailments, medical experts more recently are beginning to discover its untapped potential.

Medical science has found signs of curcumin’s abilities to fight tumor formation and growth in cancer by inducing the programmed cell death known as apoptosis and inhibiting metastases. Curcumin has also been implicated as an anti-inflammatory, a scavenger of free radicals, a treatment for certain eye diseases and conditions like cataracts, an effective therapy against ethanol-induced brain damage, hyperplasia and as an inhibitor of the human immunodeficiency virus. Before much longer, it may be plausible to think curcumin could spark a medical revolution.

Accelerated healing

Wound treatment may be enhanced by curcumin, it turns out. In an experiment using groups of curcumin-treated and untreated rats and guinea pigs, researchers discovered “faster wound closure” in the treated animals compared to their untreated counterparts. Subsequent biopsies of the wounds showed redevelopment of epidermal cells, increased migration of various other cells to the wound site like myofibroblasts, fibroblasts and macrophages, and extensive re-growth of blood vessels.

As a follow-up to a study, scientists reached similar results among diabetic rodents who experienced impaired healing. The researchers found improved blood vessel formation, increased cell migration to the wound site, and higher levels of collagen, a fibrous protein found in connective tissue, bone and cartilage.

  • Sidhu GS et al. Enhancement of wound healing by curcumin in animals. Wound Repair Regen 1998 Mar-Apr;6(2):167-77.
  • Sidhu GS et al. Curcumin enhances wound healing in streptozotocin induced diabetic rats and genetically diabetic mice. Wound Repair Regen 1999 Sep-Oct;7(5):362-74.