What happened when turmeric curcumin was put to the test to see if it could reverse DNA damage caused by arsenic exposure?
Arsenic is a carcinogenic heavy metal, and the major mechanism of arsenic-related damage appears to be oxidative stress. It’s the arsenic-induced accumulation of free radicals that can kill off cells and damage our DNA, and the double whammy is that it may also disrupt our body’s ability to repair our DNA once it’s damaged. Well, if the damage is oxidation, what about eating antioxidant-rich foods, such as the spice turmeric, which contains an antioxidant pigment known as curcumin. I examine this in my video Benefits of Turmeric for Arsenic Exposure.
As anyone familiar with my videos can attest, “numerous clinical studies have suggested that curcumin has therapeutic efficacy against a variety of human diseases,” including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and inflammatory bowel, joint, lung, skin, and eye diseases.
In terms of protection against heavy metals, studies suggest turmeric may help scavenge free radicals, as well as chelate, or bind up, heavy metals. But it’s all just theory, until you put it to the test. Until recently, all we had was research studying whether curcumin can protect against heavy metal-induced oxidation in puréed rat brains, for example. Why can’t you just give some turmeric to people? It’s not like there aren’t millions of people out there who’ve been exposed to arsenic and could use some help.
Indeed, in what became the greatest chemical disaster in human history, “tube-wells” were installed in Bangladesh to provide clean water. UNICEF meant well—too bad they didn’t test the water for arsenic. People started showing up with lesions on their feet, as you can see at 1:52 in my video, and as many as one in ten people in some parts of the country will now go on to die from cancers caused by the arsenic exposure. This disaster allowed the medical community to document all sorts of “interesting” cancers, but why not give them something that may help, like turmeric curcumin?
Researchers did just that. After they determined the extent of DNA damage in study subjects, half were randomly selected and prescribed curcumin capsules blended with a little black pepper compound, while the other half were given a placebo. As you can see at 2:25 in my video, before the study started, the amount of DNA damage found in the curcumin and placebo groups of arsenic-exposed individuals was higher than the DNA damage found in a control group of individuals not exposed to arsenic, which remained the same throughout the study. The researchers wanted to establish a baseline in the arsenic-exposed groups, so they waited for three months before starting the study. And, indeed, the DNA damage remained stable during that time. Then, for three months, they proceeded to give the groups the curcumin or the placebo. The placebo didn’t do much, but within the first month, the researchers could see the curcumin working. And, by the third month, the DNA damage in the curcumin-treated arsenic group was no worse than in those who hadn’t been exposed to arsenic at all. Amazing! “The comparison of the populations receiving curcumin and placebo established that curcumin had an effective role in regression of DNA damage and as an excellent antioxidant agent,” and what they found subsequently is that the curcumin undid the arsenic crippling of our DNA repair enzymes—both helping to prevent the damage and facilitating its repair. “Thus, curcumin intervention may be a useful modality for the prevention of arsenic-induced carcinogenesis [cancer development].”
Of course, you have to make sure the turmeric itself isn’t contaminated with heavy metals. Nearly a quarter of spices purchased in Boston had lead in them, and it’s not just a matter of buying U.S. versus foreign brands, as the difference in lead levels was not found to be statistically significant, as you can see at 3:52 in my video.
What about just eating antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables? The reason we care about DNA damage is that we care about cancer. What if you measured the beta-carotene levels in people exposed to arsenic who went on to develop cancer, compared to those who got exposed to the same amount of arsenic but didn’t get cancer? Beta-carotene is like a proxy for healthy fruit and vegetable intake. The way you get high levels in your blood is by eating lots of healthy foods, like greens and sweet potatoes. Compared to those with low levels of beta-carotene in their blood, those with high levels had 99 percent lower odds of getting arsenic-induced cancer, as you can see at 4:34 in my video. So, if you’re going to eat rice, why not have some rice with some sweet potatoes on top?
What’s the rice connection? I produced a 13-part series on arsenic in rice. Air-pop some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy:
What else can turmeric do? Glad you asked!
Who Shouldn’t Consume Curcumin or Turmeric? Watch the video to find out!
Michael Greger, M.D.
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