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Can turmeric prevent or treat cancer?

 

What turmeric is

Turmeric is a spice that is often used as a food flavouring in Asian dishes. It belongs to the ginger family. It is also known as Indian saffron, jiang huang, haridra, haldi, as the major ingredient of curry powder 2, and as a bright yellow orange food colouring agent (E100).

Turmeric grows in many Asian countries such as India. It has been used for many years in some herbal remedies. The main active ingredient is curcumin or diferuloyl methane. 

Currently there is no research evidence to show that turmeric or curcumin can prevent or treat cancer but early trials have shown some promising results. 

 

Research into preventing cancer

A phase I clinical trial looked at giving curcumin to 25 patients with pre cancerous changes in different organs. This study seemed to show that curcumin could stop the precancerous changes becoming cancer. 

Research has also shown that there are low rates of certain types of cancer in countries where people eat curcumin at levels of about 100 to 200 mg a day over long periods of time.

 

Research into treating cancer

A number of laboratory studies on cancer cells have shown that curcumin does have anticancer effects. It seems to be able to kill cancer cells and prevent more from growing. It has the best effects on breast cancer, bowel cancer, stomach cancer and skin cancer cells. A 2007 American study that combined curcumin with chemotherapy to treat bowel cancer cells in a laboratory showed that the combined treatment killed more cancer cells than the chemotherapy alone. 

A 2007 American study in mice seemed to show that curcumin helped to stop the spread of breast cancer cells to other parts of the body.

Doctors think that curcumin stays in the digestive system and is absorbed by the cells in the bowel. To find out more, a small study in the UK looked at how curcumin is absorbed from the human gut into liver cells. This study looked at how much of the curcumin is absorbed into both cancer cells and normal cells. This was a very small study of people with bowel cancer that had spread to the liver. They were given curcumin for 7 days before surgery. Doctors then measured the levels of curcumin in the liver tissue that was removed. The results showed that the level of curcumin absorbed into the liver was not high enough to have any anticancer effect. The researchers suggested that future clinical trials of curcumin should focus on preventing bowel tumours. Several studies have shown that curcumin taken as capsules does get absorbed by the gut and is present in the blood. But the amount in the blood is small.

An American phase 2 study reported in 2008. 25 patients had curcumin treatment and 21 had tumours that could be measured. In 2 patients their tumours shrank or remained stable. In some patients their levels of particular immune system chemicals that destroy cancer cells went up. But the researchers found that blood levels of curcumin were very low because it is not well absorbed from the gut. Scientists have since developed injectable, fat soluble forms of curcumin which may improve the results.

These studies look promising but we need to do more clinical trials in humans before we will know if curcumin has any potential to treat cancer in people.

 

Side effects of turmeric

It is important to remember that turmeric used in cooking is very safe. But we don't know how safe curcumin is when used for medical reasons. So far, research studies seem to show that it causes few or no side effects. But we don't know much about the side effects of taking it in large amounts to treat or prevent cancer. There have been some reports of stomach pain if too much is swallowed and skin problems if it is taken for a long time. For these reasons we recommend that if you use curcumin for reasons other than in cooking, you should talk to your doctor first.

 

Risks of turmeric supplements

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has issued a warning about the turmeric based food supplement Fortodol (also sold as Miradin). Fortodol has been found to contain the strong anti inflammatory drug nimesulide. Nimesulide can cause serious damage to the liver and is not licensed as a medicine in the UK. The Food Standards Agency in the USA states that taking products that contain unknown amounts of nimesulide could be very harmful. 

Fortodol and Miradin are sold in the UK and on the internet as food supplements. The FSA advises anyone taking these products to stop doing so immediately, and contact their doctor if they have any signs of liver disease, such as jaundice, dark urine, nausea, vomiting, unusual tiredness, stomach or abdominal pain, or loss of appetite.

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Updated: 30 January 2013