Turmeric: Brushing Your Brain

July 16, 2007

Turmeric:  Brushing Your Brain 

 Competency # 16 Minerals Reference: Proceedings Natl Acad Science, July 16 2007, Fiala et al 

 You brush your teeth to get rid of plaque.  Or maybe you floss?  Well, if you want to get rid of plaque in your brain, you need to brush there too.  Taking care of your brain is not a passive activity.  There are things you can do that may help you dramatically.  Some of us need more help than others.  But it is not a passive activity.  As long-time readers of this column know, brain health is an emerging science that we have followed.   And turmeric is on the list.  

Here’s why. Past research has shown that the more turmeric frail elderly in Singapore eat, the less rate of mental decline they have.  India has boasted a much lower rate of Alzheimer’s than Western countries (about 22%).  Those are epidemiological associations.  Now we have a research article that shows a molecular mechanism that could explain those associations. 

Mechanisms are the next step in establishing firm, medical proof.  The last step is a randomized controlled trial (RCT).  RCTs take years to run and are very difficult to do. Brain scientists have been fascinated with turmeric.  It is the yellow in curry that South Asians and Middle Eastern populations have used for centuries to flavor their food.  It is a particularly potent antioxidant.  Turmeric’s associations with better brain health have been known and talked about in the brain health literature for several years now.  The detectives are closing in.  

If Alzheimer’s were a crime, the medical CSI Team would be down to the final clues. In Alzheimer’s, your brain gets injured by plaques of a twisted protein called amyloid-beta.  Normally, you have white blood cells called macrophages that gobble amyloid-beta up and get rid of it.  Turns out that the macrophages in Alzheimer’s folks can’t gobble.  The plaques accumulate.  

Doctor Fiala at the Los Angeles VA looked at the genes in the macrophages to see which ones weren’t working.  There were a bunch of genes that are “toll receptors” that switch on and off to identify what to gobble and clean up and what to tolerate.  He found one called MGAT3 that is 300 times more active in the cells of normal folks macrophages than it was in Alzheimer’s.   When the impaired cells were exposed to turmeric (or some of the chemicals in it), those genes switched on.  Half of 73 patients had a complete recovery of activity, half had partial, but all responded. Dr. Fiala was using levels of turmeric you can’t get from eating.  Soaking in it won’t help either.  But waiting till you are forgetting to take your turmeric might be too late.  And it is completely non-toxic.  It’s been eaten and used in medicinal preparations in India for over 5,000 years.  

This insidious illness, Alzheimer’s, may take decades to develop, and may not be all that reversible once in place.  So, like your dentist implores, get rid of that plaque while you still have something to work on. We still don’t have a randomized controlled trial, unless you count 1.5 billion South Asians as our control group, with a 5,000 year period of study.  I haven’t got time to wait for a randomized controlled trial.  I already forgot to pick up milk on the way home. 

 WWW:  What will work for me?  I eat curry just 2-3 times a month.  Not enough to get a regular diet of it.  I’ve been to the Indian Grocery store where they have shelves of pickled turmeric.  The Alzheimer’s story is old news there.   But powdered turmeric only costs $ 2 a pound, and that will make 2,000 capsules.   I made my own capsules of turmeric pills, but it is a messy business and sure stains your kitchen counter.  You can buy turmeric at health food stores now too.  This may be a “little bit out there”, but that’s the intent of this column, to explore the boundaries of what’s new.  Andrew Weil called it over two years ago when he stated, “The only two supplements you need to take are turmeric and ginger.”  See you at the Indian buffet?

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