Keeping Your Brain Humming with Curry

November 02, 2006

Keeping Your Brain Humming with Curry 

 Competency # 5  The Way to Eat                       ReferenceAmerican Journal of Epidemiology, Nov 1, 2006: Curry Consumption and Cognitive Function in the Elderly 

 Why is it that South Asians have 22% of the rate of Alzheimer’s we have in America?  This observation has intrigued researchers for years. In America, we have an epidemic of Alzheimer’s with increasing risk as we age.  Not everyone in the world can look forward with the same dread that we Americans do to a life of gradually diminishing cognitive function. We do know that Alzheimer’s is strongly correlated with a variety of measures that may or may not be primary.  Lack of exercise may be a secondary effect of a brain that doesn’t want to get out in unfamiliar surroundings.  The flip side of that observation is that those who exercise as little as 15 minutes twice a week have a markedly lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s. 

 We also know that Alzheimer’s correlates with inflammatory markers in the blood. Our current diet seems to be “rusting us out” from the inside with chronic inflammation.  That seems to be set off by oxygen in its free radical form.   Antioxidants are foods that help gobble up those free-roaming oxygen molecules that seem to set off the cascade. That’s where curry comes in.  The yellow color in curry is the spice turmeric.  The active antioxidant in turmeric is called curcumin.   

Curcumin is one of the most potent antioxidants around.  Andrew Weil has called on us to take it as one of two supplements on his recommended list.  (His other was ginger: related to turmeric) This article from Singapore by Drs. Ng and Chiam measured the curry consumption of Singapore elderly.  The more curry they ate, the better they did on cognitive functioning testing.  There have been tons of papers about how curcumin cuts down on plaque and inflammation in experimental Alzheimer’s models. 

 This is the first that takes the idea to a clinical and epidemiological setting.  We now have a pretty good study suggesting that our brains are amenable to being helped by the food we eat.  We don’t have to be passive victims and await for Alzheimer’s to come to us.  Of course, this doesn’t show that curcumin will reverse Alzheimer’s, but a life-time habit of eating turmeric from time to time may not be a bad idea. 

 WWW: What Will Work for Me?  This is a great little concept.  Instead of a Friday night fish fry, I may just have to go to one of Milwaukee’s close to 15 Indian restaurants.  I’ve looked for curcumin supplements at health food stores: close to $ 40 for 120 pills.  For $ 5 you could buy a pound of turmeric and put it in gelatin capsules and get the same effect for 2 years.  Rather than do that, I’m going to keep to the alternative, a whole mix of brightly colored fruits and vegetables every day.  And an occasional curry dinner out.

This column was written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI, (262-784-5300)