Screw The Woo Woo: Turmeric and Cancer

Part of my mission in promoting science is fighting pseudoscience, scams, myths, and misinformation. This is the first in a series of Screw the Woo Woo posts. Woo woo, “supernatural, paranormal, occult, or pseudoscientific phenomena, or emotion-based beliefs and explanations,” is the antithesis of science. Unfortunately, woo woo is flashier and easier to market. From purveyors of alternative medicine, wellness and nutrition “gurus,” the diet and supplement industry, and new age whackadoodles, the woo woo movement offers the lure of “ancient wisdom,” “natural” alternatives to the evils of chemical medicines and toxins (spoiler alert – everything is made of fucking chemicals, and if you want to get rid of toxins, all you need are functioning liver and kidneys), and easy peasy lose-the-weight-and-keep-it-off-without-diet-and-exercise scams.

The “war” between medicine and so-called “natural” remedies is really fucking stupid.

Legit sciences needs better PR and marketing.

My mission is to help with that, as well as helping the public fine-tune their bullshit-o-meters in the Internet age.

Soto ayam – see link below for recipe

Now, I can’t tackle all of these issues, but I can and will do my part to dispel some common myths I’ve encountered as they relate to cancer and breast cancer, starting with turmeric. I love curry, soto ayam, and other delicious South Asian recipes featuring this delicious spice. Turmeric gets a lot of attention for being a health food with medicinal properties. Don’t believe me? Google it. You’ll find a slew of sites selling turmeric as a supplement, articles from such ~reputable~ (see ~? That’s the sarcasm symbol) sources like healthline.com (I refuse to link to woo sites) touting the “10 Proven Health Benefits of Turmeric and Curcumin.” One of the benefits reported by the supplement/diet/nutrition/new-age/woo woo movement is that turmeric prevents and/or cures cancer.

So, let me break it down, because it’s, well, complicated. The short answer to the question, “Will eating boatloads of turmeric keep me from getting cancer or treat my cancer?” is no. The compound Curcumin, scientifically known as (1E,6E)‑1,7‑bis(4‑hydroxy‑3‑-methoxyphenyl) hepta‑1,6‑diene‑3,5‑dione, is natural polyphenol that is derived from the turmeric plant. This compound is, in fact, being actively investigated for anticancer activity. Here’s where it gets tricky, though, as noted by Alexander Pope – A little learning is a dangerous thing ; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. In other words, you’ve got to dig a little deeper when it comes to reports of so-called “health foods” and “superfoods.” Yes, there is some evidence that, in a laboratory setting, Curcumin can interfere with the ability of cancer cells grown in a dish to divide and survive (growth), move (an essential part of invasion and metastatic spread), and attract blood vessels that feed the tumor (angiogenesis). It also shows some activity in animal models of cancer (human tumors grown in mice) and has reportedly shown some benefit in clinical trials*. So that means we should all be eating turmeric all the time, right?

Not so fast. Yes, Curcumin may help fight cancer – though more research is needed – but there are problems with the leap between eating turmeric and getting the benefits of Curcumin. For starters, Curcumin only constitutes 2-3% of the turmeric root, so in order to get enough Curcumin from eating this spice (which, like most spices, is used pretty sparingly to flavor food), you’d have to eat truckloads. Then there’s the problem of pharmacokinetics (PK) – a fancy way of saying how stable a compound is in the human body and how well it reaches its target. “The bioavailability of Curcumin is low because of poor absorption, rapid elimination and/or low target organ concentration. This is due to the reason that Curcumin is conjugated when it is absorbed through the intestine, consequently free Curcumin is present in extremely low level at the target organ.”* Before this can be applied clinically, the PK needs to be greatly improved. It’s also the reason that taking Curcumin supplements probably won’t do you much good.

But what’s the harm? Aside from separating fact (turmeric is delicious) and fiction (eating turmeric will prevent and/or treat cancer), like all chemicals, natural or synthetic, it interacts with other chemicals in the human body. According to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Curcumin may interfere with the activity of some anti-cancer medicines, including chemotherapy and anti-estrogen therapies. Talk to your doc and make sure you tell your health care team about any supplements you’re taking or thinking about taking so they can help you weigh the risks, benefits, and dispel any misinformation or misconceptions about them.

Bottom line – no, turmeric isn’t going to protect you from cancer or cure any cancer you may already have. Your best protection is a healthy diet, exercise, avoiding tobacco, too much sun, and keeping up with your health screenings. Enjoy turmeric for the flavor, and rely on medicine for healthcare!

*Front Chem. 2014; 2: 113. – the link is to the publicly available version of this 2014 review article on Curcumin and cancer.

Soto ayam is an abso-freaking-lutely DELICIOUS soup that is super fun to make! I learned from an Indonesian-American, but this recipe is a decent approximation. For the paste used the flavor the broth, she recommended a mixture of shallots, garlic, ginger (fresh), turmeric (powder), macadamia nuts crushed with mortar and pestle. Once prepared, hot broth is poured over a bed of jasmine rice, thin rice vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts, parsley or Thai basil, sliced green onions, chicken breast, and a boiled egg, halved.

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