Newcastle University has taken part in an ambitious project with the BBC to investigate the potential health benefits of turmeric.
Together with BBC2’s health series Trust Me, I’m a Doctor, the team set out to investigate the spice turmeric, which has long been said to have a multitude of health benefits, ranging from helping stop the development of cancer to relieving allergies.
In partnership with Newcastle University, they recruited nearly 100 people willing to take part in the experiment.
Reduced cancer risk
“There's test tube evidence and there's animal evidence which shows that turmeric could have an effect on cell signalling and changes in cells. But the data which shows actual effects on humans is quite limited.”
In order to put some of the claims made for turmeric to the test in the real world, the Trust Me team tracked down researchers at the forefront of their fields, to apply the latest cutting-edge scientific knowledge and techniques to the problem for the very first time.
A third of the volunteers were given turmeric powder and asked to use a teaspoon of it a day in their food, a third of the volunteers were given the same amount of turmeric as a supplement pill to take daily, and the final third were given a placebo pill (an inert sweetener) to take daily. They all had blood samples taken at the start of the experiment and at the end, after 6 weeks.
Analysing the samples, the research teams from Newcastle, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and University College London, tested the blood to see if the turmeric was really having any effect on the participants’ health – in particular, investigating whether it could improve our immune systems, or reduce our risk of cancer.
Cooking activates the key ingredients
In Newcastle, PB Biosciences used a new ‘oxidative stress’ test they have developed, and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust did an analysis of the white blood cells, which are important in immunity to assess claims that turmeric can affect the health of our immune system.
There were small changes between start and finish across all of the three groups, for both white blood cell counts and Newcastle’s oxidative stress test. However, there were no differences between any of the groups, so this did not tell us if turmeric was having a positive effect or not.
At University College London, Professor Martin Widschwendter and his team tested the DNA methylation patterns of the volunteers’ blood cells at the start and end of the experiment to see if this could reveal any change in the risk of cancer.
Whilst the team found no change in the DNA methylation patterns of those taking a placebo, or those taking the turmeric in supplement form, they found highly significant changes in those who were using the turmeric powder with their food. The biggest change involved a gene (SLC6A15), which is known to be associated with the risk of cancer, as well as with allergies such as asthma and eczema, and anxiety and depression – all things that turmeric has been said to improve.
The study suggests that just adding a teaspoon of turmeric to your daily food can make a change to your DNA, in a way that could well be reducing your risk of cancer, allergies and possibly even depression.
But why would it happen just in those adding turmeric powder to their food, but not those taking it as a supplement?
Newcastle University's Dr Kirsten Brandt, says the most likely active ingredient in the turmeric, a compound called curcumin, is fat-soluble and therefore is better absorbed into our bodies when combined with fats, and may also be affected by other substances in food.
“Cooking - both the heating up and the, using of fats - can make it more soluble, that's quite possible, and it might be some of the other compounds in the food that bind to it and make it more soluble," she explains.
"So a teaspoon of turmeric added to our daily diet could potentially help make us all healthier."
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