Cancer is likely the most dreaded diagnosis any person can hear. The disease can impact any organ system from the digestive tract, breast, blood, genitourinary, skin and central nervous system. The link between cancer and chronic inflammation is well known. As a result, much research has been done regarding herbs, including Curcumin or Turmeric, and their potential ability to act as a preventative or a means of intervention at various stages of disease. What is the connection between Curcumin or Turmeric, chronic inflammation, and cancer?
Curcumin or better known as Turmeric by many, is an herb that has been used for centuries in both Ayurvedic and Chinese Medicine. Curcumin is just one of many active ingredients of medicinal value in the main herb, Turmeric,Curcuma longa. Both are used in most cases as part of a combination herbal therapy for many ailments from digestive to skin conditions, not excluding various forms of cancer. Turmeric is also a part of the traditional diet in many cultures and also used as a healing salve for skin conditions or wounds.
There are different types or formulations of Turmeric or Curcumin on the market, which can create much confusion. The health benefits and inflammation reduction properties are well-known, but determining which form is best for you takes some personal education, not just on the type, but also in commonly used dosing. This has been discussed in another article on Curcumin types.
Turmeric or Curcumin provide benefits to many health ailments, but the bottom line connector is inflammation. This cellular process is deeply embedded into the process of cancer. With a better understanding of the inflammatory process and connection, it can open doors for intervention and prevention.
Cancer and Chronic Inflammation
Cancer has often been viewed as a genetic event, where the biology, physiology and clinical features of the disease are dictated by events occurring within the genome of the cancer cell. Cancer is also a heritable disease of sorts, where certain genes are passed from parent to child which can increase the predisposition to a various form of cancer. In reality, even in those cases where a cancer gene has been passed on, this doesn’t necessarily mean that cancer development is inevitable. This gets into the discussion of epigenetics, which is the influence of lifestyle, diet, and other factors on gene expression.
The connection between cancer and chronic inflammation has been well documented in research going back many decades. However, this inflammation event can be primary or secondary. In the intrinsic pathway, the events going on at a genetic level within the cancer cells may create inflammation in the patient. In the extrinsic pathway, inflammation within the patient on a primary level may contribute to genetic alterations and thus cancer development. In one pathway, intrinsic, inflammation is a byproduct of cancer. In the extrinsic pathway, inflammation is the primary cause.(1)
Intervening or modulating the inflammatory response can be a means of possible cancer prevention and intervention. Inflammation is directly related to cancer initiation, promotion, and progression. It can create the altered gene expression and also impact other factors that increase the likelihood of progression. Thus, in many models, use of certain non-steroidal medications (aspirin) have noted clinical benefits in reduction of colorectal and prostate cancers, through impact of inflammation at an initiation stage.
It may seem simple, this connection between inflammation and cancer, but it is rather complex. It is not as as simple as aspirin or even specific herb usage, like Curcumin or Turmeric. They can certainly help and may reduce risk, but you need to keep in mind that there are many contributors to inflammation.
What Causes or Contributes to Inflammation in Cancer?
Inflammation is a complex process and can be instigated by the cancer process or be a primary contributor, setting the stage for cancer development. There are many contributors to inflammation development in any one person, but include:
- Dietary habits – low in fruits, vegetables and plant-based foods, high in processed foods including certain meats.
- Stress – one of the biggest contributors to inflammation and immune dysfunction due to cortisol production, adrenal fatigue, and hormone fluctuations.
- Lifestyle habits – smoking, excessive alcohol consumption
- Environmental Factors – pollution of air, water, food with toxins or carcinogens
- Exercise habits – sedentary lifestyles are more prone to high levels of inflammation
- Mental habits – negative thinking, pessimism
- Genetic Influences
Seeing these many factors, it is obvious that many players are in the cancer game. However, implementing one change in any of those can make a difference. Ideally, though, you want to impact as many contributors as possible. This can be tough as life is difficult and you cannot control all factors.
How Does Curcumin or Turmeric Impact Inflammation in Cancer?
The connection between cancer and inflammation is real and verified in literature. No matter the form of cancer, from inflammatory breast cancer to prostate or colon cancer, the link is present. Inflammation sets the stage for cancer development, either through environmental changes to genetic expression. As outlined above, there are many contributors to inflammation and not all can be controlled. Any one step in reducing this inflammation, no matter the source, can be a step in the right direction.
Curcumin is one of the many active ingredients found in the main root or herb, Turmeric. Curcumin is one of the most heavily studied herbs when it comes to inflammation, health, and cancer reduction. Research has demonstrated that Curcumin, Turmeric, is able to modify and control the inflammatory response by downregulating a transcription factor, NF-kB. When this transcription factor is activated there are numerous inflammatory proteins produced, which can alter cell function, change the microenvironment, signal pain, and contribute to many health conditions. (2)
Many herbs demonstrate similar abilities, but the thing about Curcumin or Turmeric is that it appears to impact many cellular signaling pathways and molecular targets. This creates real possibilities in terms of prevention and intervention of cancer. The one concern that has always been raised regarding Curcumin, is poor absorption or bioavailability. For years, it has been noted that curcumin is poorly absorbed, resulting in low curcumoid levels in the blood or serum. However, despite these low blood levels, clinical results are still evident in some cancer patients and those afflicted with arthritis. How can this be? In recent research, Curcumin has been shown to impact tight cell junction integrity in the gastrointestinal tract, which can then directly impact systemic inflammation. The conclusion to this paper was that bioavailability was not a factor, as the herb was exerting benefits through gastrointestinal health. This is self evident, when it is noted that the gastrointestinal tract exhibits the highest levels of curcumin post-administration. (3) This also raises the need for certain curcumin formulations on the market, touting ‘increased absorption’. Are they really any more beneficial?
Through daily use of Curcumin or Turmeric, it may be possible to override some of the negative things in our life that we cannot control. Aside from modulation of the inflammatory process, Curcumin also possesses potent antioxidant properties, which may assist in free-radical reduction and promote health in one more way. Free radicals and oxidative stress are another facet in the inflammatory process.
As an example of this ‘overriding’ effect, in some clinical research, the use of Curcumin has been shown to override the negative effects of a high-fat and high-sucrose diets in mice. This may be due to modulation of the inflammatory process, impact on insulin regulation and blood sugar levels. (4)
Cancer, Curcumin, and Inflammation: Concluding Thoughts
Cancer is a very complex disease that will impact 30% or more percent of us. That means that about 3 out of 10 will experience cancer in their lifetime. Given the poor overall survival rates, despite our recent attempts and discoveries involving chemotherapy and radiation, we need to seek all options to enhance outcomes. Chemotherapy and radiation are only palliative at best, not really addressing the true cause of cancer, which appears to be inflammation and related events. Curcumin or Turmeric is one of many herbs that holds promise in regards to cancer prevention and even therapy in some models. The effects and benefits of this incredible herb are through the modulation of the inflammatory response which is present in all of us. Through daily use with a high quality extract at proper dosing, it may be possible to negate the effects of certain influences on our health. There is no ‘cure’ for cancer, and Curcumin should not be seen as a ‘cure’. More so, view this herb and many others, along with other modifiable factors as a tool in the toolbox to assist us in achieving a healthier state of mind and body.
For further information, check out article on “Cancer Risk and Reduction“.
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN
- Barbaro, DL et al. Inflammatory cues acting on adult intestinal stem cells and the early onset of cancer. Intnl Jour Oncol, 2014, 45:959-968
- Jurenka, J. Anti-inflammatory properties of Curcumin, a major constituent of Curcuma longa: A review of preclinical and clinical research. Alt Med Rev. 2009: 14(2)
- Wang, J. et al. Curcumin improves intestinal barrier function: modulation of intracellular signaling and organization of tight junctions. Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2017. April 1;312(4)
- Tsai, IJ, et al. Curcumin supplementation ameliorated vascular dysfunction and antioxidant status in high sucrose, high fat fed rats. App Physiol Nutr Metab. 2018. Jan 29