How Herbs Work: Turmeric and Curcumin


It is one of Nature’s most powerful healers. Dubbed “The Spice of Life,” turmeric has long been one of the most highly valued medicinal herbs in the ancient Indian and Chinese systems of medicine. Today, modern science has provided the basis for the use of turmeric and curcumin for conditions ranging from minor wounds and bruises to some of the most dreaded of diseases: cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

What the Science Says

Research shows that it is a chemically-diverse herb, boasting over 200 bio-active compounds. The most powerful of these is curcumin, the same compound that gives this spice its golden yellow color.

Over the past few decades, numerous clinical studies have shown that curcumin has unique anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which have powerful curative and preventative potential. They alleviate inflammation, retard age-related diseases, protect brain cells, inhibit the growth of cancerous tumors and boost liver function.

Here’s how.


As an Anti-Inflammatory

Modern science confirms that turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory herb, thanks to its curcumin content. This super spice has been shown to be effective in reducing the pain, stiffness and swelling associated with inflammation. As several studies show, this makes it highly effective for treating for arthritic conditions, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, tendonitis and bursitis.

How it Works

Turmeric contains over 2 dozen anti-inflammatory compounds, including six COX-2 inhibitors. COX-2 (cyclooxygenase-2) is an enzyme that is responsible for the formation of prostaglandins, which cause the pain and swelling of inflammation.

Turmeric’s COX-2 inhibitors block this enzyme from producing prostaglandins, helping reduce inflammation, relieving pain, swelling and stiffness.

As an Anti-Cancer Agent

Cancer, one of the most dreaded of all diseases, is characterized by an uncontrolled growth of cells. Curcumin works by hindering this growth at the molecular level, helping prevent or slow the growth of cancer.

How it Works

Curcumin hinders tumor growth by starving cancerous tumors of a blood supply.

Like all cells, cancer cells obtain the oxygen and nutrients they need to survive and grow from blood vessels. They obtain this nourishment through a process called angiogenesis. Curcumin blocks cancer cells from this this essential process, which cuts them off the blood supply they need. By cutting off these supply lines, curcumin inhibits the growth and spread (metastasis) of cancer in your body.

In this video, Dr Li explains how cancerous tumors grow and spread by “hijacking” the body’s normal process of angiogenesis. He also explains how these tumors can literally be starved to death.

As an Antioxidant

Curcumin is an antioxidant that works by neutralizing damaging, destructive molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that cause cell damage in your body by “scavenging” electrons from other molecules. This cell damage is the cause of many chronic diseases, including cancer and heart disease.

How it Works

Free radicals are unstable because they contain unpaired electrons: normally, electrons come in pairs. To make up for the missing electron, free radicals basically “steal” electrons from other molecules. Left unchecked, this creates a chain reaction that damages more and more healthy cells, a process that responsible for causing some of the most chronic of diseases, like cancer and heart disease.

Antioxidants protect cells from this damage by preventing the actions of free radicals. They “donate” electrons to free radicals, stabilizing them and preventing them from invading other cells.



As a Neuroprotective

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), the most common form of dementia, is characterized by a progressive cognitive impairment. Studies show that turmeric can be used to improve cognitive function in patients with AD.

A 2003 journal article titled “Turmeric Produces ‘Remarkable’ Recovery in Alzheimer’s Patients,” reported on the ability of turmeric to produce a decrease in behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia.

How it Works

Both inflammation and oxidative damage play a key role in the nerve cell damage caused by AD. Turmeric’s potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities provide significantly protection from the damage caused by both harmful processes.

However, the most prominent characteristic of a brain affected by AD is the presence of beta-amyloid plaques. These plaques are basically the accumulation of small, chemically “sticky” fibers called beta amyloid fibrils, which gradually build up into plaques.

One crucial way in which curcumin works is by preventing and even reversing plaque build-up in the brain, slowing down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

A 2004 study found that AD mice that were treated with low doses of curcumin showed a reduction in their the levels of beta-amyloid of around 40%, compared those not treated with curcumin. The same study found that curcumin was more effective than NSAIDS like Ibuprofen and Naproxen in inhibiting the development of beta-amyloid plaques. Furthermore, unlike NSAIDs, curcumin does not have the toxic effect that NSAIDs have on the toxic effect on the kidneys, liver and GI tract.

Another study, by the University of California, found that curcumin not only inhibited the accumulation of beta amyloid in the brains of AD patients, but also broke up existing plaque.

As a Cholagogue

Research by the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) supports the traditional use of turmeric as a digestive aid. It helps ease the symptoms of indigestion such as heartburn, gas and bloating.

Turmeric may also alleviate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBD), a chronic gut condition, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

How it Works

Turmeric owes its beneficial effect on the digestive system to the cholagogue properties of curcumin. A cholagogue is a compound that stimulates the production of bile by the liver, and helps regulate its flow. Bile is an important component in the breakdown of dietary fat.

Turmeric’s capacity to regulate the secretion of bile is useful in the treatment of liver and gallbladder complaints. It is useful, for example, in the treatment and prevention of gallstones, according to Commission E. In one study, mice with gallstones were put on a special feed that contained curcumin. Within 5 weeks their gallstones had been reduced by 45% and within 10 weeks, they had reduced by 80% more than untreated mice.

As a Hepatic

Turmeric has strong hepatic properties, acting to support the normal functioning of the liver in multiple ways. Studies show that it may also be effective in the prevention and treatment of liver damage and cirrhosis.

How it Works

The researchers attribute curcumin’s beneficial effect on the liver to its capacity to inhibit the secretion of TGF-beta (Transforming Growth Factor Beta), a compound that triggers a process called fibrosis.

Fibrosis is the liver’s natural self-healing response to replace tissue lost through injury or infection, which it does by forming scar tissue. In a normal liver, the rate of scar tissue production and its degradation are equal. The problem arises when there is an imbalance between the two, causing excessive scar tissue to accumulate in the liver. This eventually advances to cirrhosis, a life threatening condition.

Curcumin works by slowing down the progress of scarring from fibrosis, which prevents and may even reverse liver damage and cirrhosis.


One of the key benefits that turmeric offers is its sheer versatility of its usage. With the broad range of health conditions that its can be used for, it has numerous possible applications. Not only does it target specific diseases, but also contributes to an overall sense of well-being. Not to mention adding a certain zing to your curry.


  1. The Green Pharmacy: The Ultimate Compendium Of Natural Remedies; James A. Duke, 1998
  2. COX-1 and COX-2 Inhibitors
  3. Discussion of Specific COX-2 Inhibitors
  4. NSAID and Antioxidant Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease
  5. Targeting angiogenesis with integrative cancer therapies
  6. National Institutes of Health: Turmeric and Curcumin
  7. University of Maryland Medical Center: Turmeric
  8. Curcumin inhibits formation of amyloid beta oligomers and fibrils, binds plaques, and reduces amyloid in vivo
  9. The effect of curcumin (turmeric) on Alzheimer’s disease: An overview
  10. Effects of turmeric on Alzheimer’s disease with behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia
  11. Curcumin Inhibits Formation of Amyloid Oligomers and Fibrils, Binds Plaques, and Reduces Amyloid in Vivo
  12. UCLA Alzheimer’s Center, University of California
  13. The Curry Spice Curcumin Reduces Oxidative Damage and Amyloid Pathology in an Alzheimer Transgenic Mouse
  14. Antifibrotic Agents for Liver Disease
  15. Curcumin prevents and reverses cirrhosis induced by bile duct obstruction or CCl4 in rats: role of TGF-beta modulation and oxidative stress
Dee Dill
Dee Dill has an avid, active interest in natural remedies, and has written numerous alternative health articles and eBooks for various websites. She is a self-professed armchair herbalist, and authored the book: My Little Black Book of Herbal Teas, available on She also writes for, an alternative health website.