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Curcumin – the Anti-Inflammation Wonder Herb

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a culinary herb that is an amazing medicinal multi-tasker! It has a bright yellow/orange hue that gives curry its vibrant color. A member of the ginger family, turmeric contains many compounds including several in the curcumin family. Curcumins are known to have anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-cancer properties.

Despite that curcumin has been used medicinally in Ayurvedic medicine in India for centuries, it is only more recently that interest has caught on in the U.S. Luckily for all of us, the enormous potential of curcumin has resulted in a growing body of research to help us understand how it works and which scenarios it works best in. Currently there are ongoing studies looking at arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease treatment, colon cancer prevention, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, to name just a few.

Cooking with turmeric is an easy and healthy way to benefit from curcumins. It adds a delicious color and flavor to dishes. Turmeric tea is another excellent way to enjoy this powerful herb.  It does seem, however, that the doses needed to get full medicinal effect are much higher than one could ever get in a helping of your favorite curry. Although I always encourage people to get their nutrition from food before supplements, this is one case where taking a curcumin supplement does much more for you than simply cooking with it.

How to use Curcumin Medicinally

Arthritis

In the case of arthritis, curcumin works by neutralizing free radicals as well as by inhibiting pain and inflammation. In fact, it suppresses multiple inflammatory chemical messengers that the body makes.  It does this by inhibiting several enzymes along the inflammation cascade, the very same enzymes that ibuprofen and naproxen block.

And research supports this. A well designed study of 367 arthritis patients found it to be as effective as the traditional anti-inflammatory drug, ibuprofen with fewer side effects1.  Additionally, curcumin has been found to decrease substance P in nerve cells which is an additional way that in can improve pain in all kinds of arthritis.A typical dose would be 500mg taken 1-3 times a day.  

PMS

As a gynecologist I am always looking for ways to help women manage their period problems. For the same reason that curcumin helps arthritis, it is logical that it would be helpful for pain associated with menstrual cramps. One prospective randomized trial of 70 women with PMS showed that 100mg taken twice a day for 10 days starting one week before menses reduced PMS scores by 59% compared to just 14% in placebo group. Effects were seen for all three symptom categories: physical, behavioral, and emotional2. What’s nice about this study is that the authors used a relatively low dose compared to other applications. Lower doses mean fewer potential side effects.

Ulcerative Colitis

Curcumin’s powerful anti-inflammatory effects and limited absorption from the GI tract make it an excellent agent to treat inflammation in the gut. There are ongoing studies looking at curcumin as a treatment for inflammatory bowel disease. One such study of 89 people with ulcerative colitis found that when in remission, those who took 1,000mg curcumin twice a day for six months, along with their regular medicine, had lower relapse rates than those who took placebo.3

Cancer

From a cancer perspective, curcumin has the ability to alter gene transcription and actually stop cell growth, known as apoptosis. Its anti-cancer properties are also thought to come from anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. It has been studied and used for prevention or treatment of colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, multiple myeloma, lung cancer.  Interestingly, there are also studies to suggest that whole turmeric has anti-cancer properties beyond curcumin extracts alone.4

Things to Know:

Because curcumin is not well absorbed by itself you will need to use a preparation that has been specially formulated so that your body can digest it. Many supplement preparations have black pepper, also known as bioperine, added to it which improves intestinal absorption by about 1000%. There is some concern that pepper is irritating to the GI lining which might be problematic. Alternatively, some brands have specially formulated the herb in a delivery system that optimizes absorption.

Dr. Blum’s non-GMO Super Curcumin, available in our online store, is formulated with super-absorbable sunflower lecithin so that you will reap the benefits of every milligram. See it Now

Who Should Not Take Curcumin

Curcumin is usually well tolerated but can lead to GI upset if taken in high doses and could cause an allergic reaction. People with gallbladder obstruction should avoid curcumin because it can cause the gallbladder to contract. This can be helpful for some kinds of digestion, but could make things worse if you have a gallstone blockage. Additionally, patients with gastric ulcers should avoid curcumin. Patients on blood thinners should be careful with curcumin. Always tell your healthcare provider if you are taking any herbs.  I don’t recommend curcumin supplements in pregnancy due to lack of safety data.

Do You Suffer With Arthritis?

Are you ready to live a pain-free life? Whether you suffer with an autoimmune condition like Hashimoto’s or arthritis, Dr. Blum can help you!

In her new book, Healing Arthritis, Dr. Blum presents the exact 3-Step Protocol that we use with patients at Blum Center for Health. You will learn the best food plan for arthritis, the precise supplements and dosage we recommend for an arthritis-free life, how to build resiliency so that life’s stressors won’t affect your health, and what your gut has to do with your arthritis symptoms. In essence, Dr. Blum gives you all the tools you need to fix your gut and heal your arthritis. Get The Book Now

Resources:

  1.  Kuptniratsaikul V et al Clin Interv Aging. 2014 Mar 20;9:451-8. Efficacy and safety of curcum domestica extracts compared with ibuprofen in patients with knee osteoarthritis: a multicenter study.
  2.  Khayat S et al Complement Ther Med. 2015 Jun;23(3):318-24  Curcumin attenuates severity of premenstrual syndrome symptoms: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial
  3. Hanai H, et al  Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2006 Dec;4(12):1502-6   Curcumin maintenance therapy for ulcerative colitis: randomized, multicenter, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial
  4.  Devassy JG, et al  Nutrition Reviews, Volume 73, Issue 3, 1 March 2015, Pages 155–165.  Curcumin and cancer: barriers to obtaining a health claim

 

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Herbs As Medicine: What You Need To Know

Herbs are used medicinally all over the world. For instance, morphine comes from the Poppy plant, aspirin comes from Willow Bark, digitalis comes from Fox Glove, taxol an important cancer drug, comes from the Yew tree. The list goes on.

It is ironic that doctors in the U.S. don’t learn about the healing powers of plants given that many powerful medicines are derived from plants. As a traditionally-trained Ob Gyn I was taught to prescribe a lot of medicine —  hormones, antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), to name a few.

The problem is that many of these medicines have pretty hefty side effects.  NSAIDs are prescribed widely for menstrual pain and heavy bleeding, but prolonged use can cause GI bleeding. The three month injectable progestin shot, medroxy progesterone acetate (aka: “Depo”) works very well to prevent pregnancy, but at the expense of bone density.  It is well established that Depo users sustain a decrease in their bone density while taking the shot, but long term outcomes were not known until relatively recently.  According to a 2015 Cochrane review, we now we have evidence that postmenopausal women who took Depo in the past have increased risk of bone fractures.  

After practicing in the traditional model for many years, and being concerned about these types of side effects, I began to wonder, “what other choices do we have?”  This quest for more options to offer my patients led me to pursue an Integrative Medicine Fellowship, where I received extensive training in herbal medicine. I can tell you for certain that herbs are a wonderful addition, and sometimes replacement, for traditional pharmaceuticals.

3 Ways Herbs Outperform Standard Medicines

  1. Lower dose and less toxicity — The medicines I listed above — morphine, aspirin, digitalis and taxol — are all made from an active ingredient that has been isolated, extracted, purified, and packaged in a highly potent form. With high potency, comes increased risk of toxicity and side effects.  When you consume an herb in its natural form (root, leaf, bark) you are often getting lower doses of the active ingredient, which are often less toxic.  Still, even herbs can have side effects and can interact with other herbs and medicines that you might be taking.  It is important to be well informed about these potential side effects and interactions.
  1. Herbs are multi-faceted — Most medicines have one active ingredient whereas each plant has multiple active ingredients that work synergistically. There can be hundreds of distinct compounds in the plant that potentially contribute to its medicinal properties.  Sometimes these compounds work together to make the herb more efficient.  

For example: Red Yeast Rice, the fermented product of a fungus, Monascus purpureus, is known to contain monacolin K, which is lovastatin, a commonly prescribed cholesterol lowering drug. Many studies have proven that Red Yeast Rice also lowers LDL cholesterol by 30%. Some wonder how Red Yeast Rice, which has relatively low doses of monacolin K, can result in such great clinical outcomes when compared to the typical dose of lovastatin.  

Likely the answer resides in the fact that monacolin K is not the only compound in it.  Red Yeast Rice contains eight other monacolins, plus other plant compounds with beneficial health effects such as sterols, isoflavones and monounsaturated fatty acids.  

A word of caution: it is important to do research to find a reputable brand of herb to take because there is also the unfortunate practice of cutting herbal products with both active drugs (Red Yeast Rice can be spiked with lovastatin), heavy metals, or the opposite problem of not having enough active ingredient.  Working with a good Herbalist or Healthcare provider who is trained in herbs is essential.

  1. Less Side Effects — There are numerous examples of herbs that have fewer side effects than conventional medicines. St. John’s Wort (SJW) is a perfect example.  We often recommend SJW for mild depression. It has been extensively studied and found to be safe and efficacious. There is even a Cochrane Review (traditional medicine’s gold standard of evidenced-based medicine) that evaluated 29 studies of over 5,000 patients and concluded that SJW is more effective than placebo, as effective as other antidepressants with fewer side effects.  A word of caution, however: SJW can interfere with some medications (like birth control pills, antidepressants, coumadin, digoxin, cancer therapies, immunosuppressive agents) so ALWAYS check with your provider before taking it.  

Herbs are worthwhile additions to your medicine cabinet. Unfortunately, herbs are not well understood, particularly in places like the United States, where traditional medicine is the norm. Over the next few months I will be writing an informational series highlighting some of my favorite herbs for women’s health. Keep your eyes peeled!

Live in our neighborhood and want to learn more about using herbs for women’s health? Make an appointment with Dr. Fitz!  In her practice at Blum Center for Health she takes a multi-pronged, holistic approach, a combination of medical and lifestyle considerations, to address, diagnosis and treat your condition. For more information, call 914-652-7800.

Meet Dr. Fitz:  Bronwyn Fitz, M.D. is a board certified Obstetrician Gynecologist who is fellowship trained in Integrative Medicine. In her practice she melds traditional medicine with non-Western approaches, nutrition, botanicals, mind/body therapies and lifestyle interventions to help women address their gynecological and reproductive health concerns. Her interest in mindfulness and meditation led her to pursue a two-year Fellowship at The Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, under the leadership of world-renowned Integrative physician, Dr. Andrew Weil.