Anticancer Potential of Turmeric
Alternative Medicine Alert, Sept, 2003
THE RHIZOME (UNDERGROUND STEM) OR ROOT OF turmeric has been used in Asian cookery, medicine,
cosmetics, and fabric dying for more than 2,000 years. Marco Polo wrote about turmeric in his memoirs, fostering
its popularity in Europe during medieval times as a colorant and medicine.
Traditional Medicinal Use
Turmeric powder has long been used for medicinal purposes in Asia to treat gastrointestinal upsets, arthritis pain,
and "low energy." In traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric has been used as a tonic for the digestive
system and the liver; to dispel worms, strengthen the body, and dissolve gallstones; and for menstrual
irregularity and arthritis. In old Hindu texts it is described as an aromatic, stimulant, and carminative (an agent
that helps expel gas from the intestines and treats colic). Mixed with slaked (hydrated) lime, turmeric was a well-
known household remedy for sprains and swellings caused by injury. (1)
Botany and Chemistry
Turmeric (Curcuma longa Linn.; syn.: Curcuma domestica, Curcuma aromatica) is a perennial from the
Zingiberaceae family that is widely cultivated in the tropical regions of Asia, most extensively in India, and Latin
America. Other names for turmeric include Indian saffron, turmeric root, and yellow root. Turmeric has a warm,
bitter taste and should not be confused with Javanese turmeric root. The applicable part of turmeric is the root,
which is rich in potassium and iron.
Chemical analysis of turmeric yields essential oils and fatty oils. An isolate from turmeric oil has been reported to
have antifungal, antimutagenic, and antibacterial activity. (2) Turmeric also contains curcuminoids altatone,
bisdemethoxycurcumin, dimethoxycurcumin, diaryl heptanoids, and tumerone. (3) Synthetic tumerone
(turmerone) may act as an anticarcinogen.
Curcumin, a polyphenol compound, is responsible for the yellow color of turmeric and is thought to be the most
active pharmacological agent. Natural curcumin, isolated from Curcuma longa, contains curcumin I (diferuloyl
methane as the major constituent), as well as curcumin II (6%) and III (0.3%). (3) Turmeric may be
standardized to contain approximately 95% curcuminoids per dose. The dried root of turmeric reportedly contains
4-8% curcumin, of which curcumin I is the most abundant, but may not be the most biologically active. (4)
Curcumin is insoluble in water and ether, but is soluble in ethanol, dimethylsulfoxide, and other organic solvents.
Mechanism of Action
Numerous animal and in vitro studies have demonstrated the ability of turmeric and its active component,
curcumin, to suppress the growth of a variety of tumor cells. (5-9) The postulated mechanisms for these
anticancer effects are multiple: (5)
* Antiproliferative effects: induction of apoptosis (at high concentrations), suppression of proteins that
regulate apoptosis, modulation of transcription factors.
* Suppression of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) and lipooxygenase expression, which blocks production of
prostaglandins and leukotrienes, respectively.
* Suppression of cyclin D1 which is a proto-oncogene overexpressed in many cancers (e.g., breast,
esophagus, lung, liver, head and neck, colon, and prostate).
* Suppression of adhesion molecules that play an important role in tumor metastasis.
* Suppression of various inflammatory cytokines, including tumor necrosis factor.
* Suppression of angiogenesis, a crucial step in the growth and metastasis of many cancers.
* Competition with carcinogens that use the aryl hydrocarbon and cytochrome P450 pathway.
Curcumin has been shown to promote apoptosis in certain cancer cell lines, (6,10) and to inhibit
telomerase activity, an important factor in tumorigenesis. (6,7) One possible mechanism for the induction
of tumor cell death is through the generation of reactive oxygen intermediates. (11)
Although curcumin is the acknowledged active principal in turmeric, the oleoresin of turmeric (after extraction of
curcumin) also was found to have antimutagenic properties, thought to be mediated through its antioxidant
The anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin are thought to be due in part to suppression of
prostaglandin synthesis. (8) Prostaglandin synthesis from arachidonic acid is catalyzed by two isoenzymes:
COX-1 and COX-2, both found in colon tumors of rodents and humans. Goel et al found that curcumin
significantly inhibited expression of COX-2 in human colon cancer cells and in COX-2 non-expressing cell
lines, without altering the expression of COX-1. This is an important benefit of curcumins since chronic use of
nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and non-specific inhibition of COX-1 lead to undesirable
gastrointestinal and renal side effects.
Curcumin also was shown by Mahady et al to inhibit the growth of Helicobacterpylori, (12) a group 1
carcinogen, as a possible explaining mechanism for its role in prevention of gastric and colon cancers in rodents.
The most significant, recent article hypothesized that curcumin's inhibition of the generation of reactive oxygen
species (ROS) might interfere with the efficacy of chemotherapeutic drugs that induce apoptosis through the
generation of ROS and the JNK pathway. (13) Studies in tissue culture showed that curcumin did inhibit the
induction of apoptosis by several agents (camptothecin, mechlorethamme, and doxorubicin). This effect was
dose- and time-dependent, but occurred after even brief three-hour exposures. In their in vivo model of human
breast cancer, curcumin supplementation significantly inhibited cyclophosphamide-induced tumor regression and
decreased activation of JNK and apoptosis.
Human Clinical Studies
In a Phase I clinical trial, Sharma et al gave curcuma extracts (containing 36-180 mg of curcumin) to 15 patients
with refractory colorectal cancer. (14) The curcuma extracts were well-tolerated orally and no dose-limiting
toxicity was observed. Radiologically stable disease was demonstrated in five patients during 2-4 months of
treatment. The study showed that curcuma extract can be safely administered in doses of up to 2.2 g/d (180 mg
of curcumin), has low oral bioavailability in humans, and may undergo intestinal metabolism.
The review article by Aggarwal et al examining the anticancer effect of turmeric/curcumin reported a study
in China by Cheng et al of 25 patients with one of five high-risk conditions: recently resected bladder cancer,
arsenic Bowen's disease of the skin, uterine cervical intraepithelial neoplasm (C1N), oral leucoplakia, and
intestinal metaplasia of the stomach. (15) Curcumin was administered orally for three months with doses ranging
from 500 to 12,000 mg/d. Curcumin was found to be non-toxic in doses of up to 8,000 mg/d orally for three
months. The results also showed that one of four patients with C1N and one of seven patients with oral
leucoplakia developed frank malignancies in spite of treatment with curcumin. However, histological improvement
was seen in one of two patients with bladder cancer, two of seven patients with leucoplakia, one of six patients
with intestinal metaplasia, one of four patients with C1N, and two of six patients with Bowen's disease. (6)
Turmeric given to 16 chronic smokers in doses of 1.5 g/d for 30 days reduced the urinary excretion of
mutagens in a controlled trial. (16) There was no change in mutagen excretion in the urine of controls. Although
suggestive, measuring surrogate outcomes, such as urinary mutagens, does not necessarily correlate with
reduction in cancer incidence. In a follow-up to pharmacological research on the effects of curcumin on HIV cell
replication, 18 HIV-positive patients were given an average dose curcumin of 2 g/d for 127 days. (16) There was
a significant increase in CD4 and CD8 lymphocyte counts. The subsequent phase I/II study using doses of 2.7-4.8
g/d of curcumin failed to show any benefit on viral loads or CD4 count in HIV-positive individuals, It was
suggested that the poor bioavailability of curcumin could be a factor in these negative results.
Cancer of the colon, breast, prostate, and lung, common cancers in the United States, are not as prevalent in
India, where curcumin frequently is consumed. Adenomas are rare in elderly Indians undergoing colonoscopy, as
are small bowel cancers. The low prevalence for large and small bowel cancers does not remain low in Indians
who have immigrated and urban Indians, supporting a role for environmental risk factors, including diet. (6)
Turmeric should be taken as a powdered rhizome or a 1:1 liquid extract prepared using at least 45% ethanol.
(16) For adults age 18 and older, usual doses range from 1.5 to 3 g/d of turmeric root in divided doses. Due to
low solubility, tea preparations are not recommended. Turmeric tincture is dosed at 5-15 mL/d in 4-5 divided
doses. To enhance absorption, turmeric often is formulated with bromelain or in a lipid base of lecithin, fish oils,
or essential fatty acids. Average intake in the Indian population is 2-2.5 g daily (60-200 mg curcumin).
As a dietary supplement, turmeric has Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status in the United States.
Contact dermatitis has been reported with occupational exposure and a small number of patients using turmeric
topically reported pruritis at the site. (17,18) Anecdotal reports of mild giddiness have been published. Turmeric
can cause gastrointestinal irritation, especially in high doses or after prolonged use. Caution should be exercised
when turmeric is used to treat gastrointestinal problems. In a study of duodenal ulcer patients, 6 g of turmeric
caused epigastric burning in 27% of subjects vs. 13% of placebo patients. (19) In another study, 8% of patients
taking 1 g oral turmeric for dyspepsia reported nausea vs. 3% of placebo patients. (20) The ulcerogenic effect of
curcumin/turmeric may be dose-related. (1)
In animal studies, curcumin [the isolate alone] was shown to induce abnormalities in liver function tests. In
human studies, 750 mg of turmeric twice daily for 30 days did not change liver function tests; (21) the same
result was reported using 20 mg of curcumin for 60 days. (22) Oral curcumin has been associated with
gallbladder contraction in humans over a two-hour period after administration of a single 20 mg dose. (23)
Therefore, curcumin use may be inadvisable in patients with cholelithiasis.
In vitro and animal studies have reported inhibition of platelet aggregation by turmeric; (24) therefore,
turmeric may increase bleeding risk. [Reviewer’s note: it is highly unlikely that turmeric would increase bleeding
risk; no evidence exists to support this.] However, there is no report of bleeding problems in the small number of
human studies even at high doses.
Turmeric should be avoided in patients allergic to turmeric or any of its constituents (including curcumin), yellow
food colorings, or other members of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family. It should be avoided in patients with bile
duct obstruction or cholelithiasis, and gastric or duodenal ulcers or other hyperacidity disorders. [Reviewer’s
note: whole turmeric, not the isolated curcurmin, is in fact, recommended in small amounts in these conditions.]
Turmeric is considered safe for pregnant and lactating women when used as a spice in foods. Turmeric
should not be taken in large amounts during pregnancy as it might stimulate menstrual flow and uterine
contraction. Animal studies have not shown any teratogenicity. There is insufficient evidence of safety to support
use of large amounts of turmeric during lactation.
Drug and Herb Interactions
Because of turmeric's reported inhibition of platelet aggregation, turmeric theoretically may potentiate the effects
of other agents that increase bleeding risk such as anticoagulants, NSAIDs, and antiplatelet medications, (25) as
well as herbs with anticoagulant activity. [Reviewer’s note: it is highly unlikely that turmeric would increase
bleeding risk; no evidence exists to support this.]
Turmeric has positive benefits on lipid profiles in animal Studies (25) and may potentiate the effect of lipid-
lowering agents. Turmeric also may potentiate other lipid-lowering substances, including fish oil, garlic, guggul,
or niacin. Theoretically, turmeric may reduce the frequency of ulcers caused by indomethacin and NSAIDs, by
increasing intestinal wall mucous. (26) Turmeric was shown in the same animal study to reduce the frequency of
reserpine-induced gastric and duodenal ulcers. Curcumin was shown in animal models to protect against acute
doxorubicin-induced myocardial toxicity. (27)
Turmeric is safe and non-toxic for most patients, It has been shown to have diverse biological effects in
humans and animals. Turmeric/curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. The evidence suggests
that it can suppress tumorigenesis, tumor promotion, and metastasis and, therefore, has enormous potential as
an anticancer agent. Further study is needed to determine whether it, like other antioxidants, should be avoided
There is sufficient evidence to support the safety of turmeric except when contraindicated as above. Due to its
potential as an antitumor remedy, use of turmeric for the treatment and prevention of cancer should be
considered, except during chemotherapy.
Adoption of a diet similar to that traditionally found in India would provide therapeutic amounts of turmeric for
prevention measures. Beyond that, supplementation is more reliable for treating specific conditions. When
choosing an extract of turmeric, it should be standardized to 95% curcumin. It may be wise, however, to
purchase whole root products, given the biological activity of components other than curcumin.
*Note: Passages in bold are added for emphasis and are not the author’s.
(1.) Ammon HP, Wahl MA. Pharmacology of Curcuma longa. Planta Med 1991;57:1-7.
(2.) Guddadarangavvanahally K, et al. Evaluation of Antioxidant activities and antimutagenicity of turmeric oil: A
byproduct of curcumin production. Z Naturforsch 2002;57c:828-835.
(3.) Phan TT, et al. Protective effects of curcumin against oxidative damage on skin cells in vitro: Its implication for
wound healing. J Trauma 2001:51:927-931.
(4.) Ruby AJ, et al. Anti-tumour and antioxidant activity of natural curcuminoids. Cancer Lett 1995;94:79-83.
(5.) Aggarwal BB, et al Anticancer potential of curcumin: Preclinical and clinical studies. Anticancer Res 2003; 23:363-
(6.) Kuttan R, et al. Potential anticancer activity of turmeric (Curcuma longa). Cancer Lett 1985;29:197-202.
(7.) Ramachandran C, et al. Curcumin inhibits telomerase activity through human telomerase reverse transcriptase in
MCF-7 breast cancer cell line. Cancer Lett 2002; 184:1-6.
(8). Goel A, et al. Specific inhibition of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) expression by dietary curcumin in HT-29 human colon
cancer cells. Cancer Lett 2001;172:111-118.
(9.) Villasenor IM, et al. Comparative potencies of nutraceuticals in chemically induced skin tumor prevention. Nutr
(10.) Bielak-Zmijewska A, et al. Effect of curcumin on the apoptosis of rodent and human nonproliferating and
proliferating lymphoid cells. Nutr Cancer 2000:38: 131-138.
(11.) Khar A, et al. Antitmnor activity of curcumin is mediated through the induction of apoptosis in AK-5 tumor cells.
FEBS Lett 1999;445:165-168.
(12.) Mahady GB, et al. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and curcumin inhibit the growth of Helicobacter pylori, a group 1
carcinogen. Anticancer Res 2002;22:4179-4181.
(13.) Somasundaram S, et al. Dietary curcumin inhibits chemotherapy-induced apoptosis in models of human breast
cancer. Cancer Res 2002;62:3868-3875.
(14.) Sharma RA, et al. Pharmacodynamic and pharmacokinetic study of oral Curcuma extract in patients with colorectal
cancer. Clin Cancer Res 2001;7:1894-1900.
(15.) Cheng AL, et al. Phase I clinical trial of curcumin, a chemopreventive agent, in patients with high-risk or pre-
malignant lesions. Anticancer Res 2001;21: 2895-2900.
(16.) Mills S, Bone K. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine. London: Churchill Livingstone;
(17.) Kiec-Swierczynska M, Krecisz B. Occupational allergic contact dermatitis due to curcumin food colour in a pasta
factory worker. Contact Dermatitis 1998;39: 30-31.
(18.) Goh CL, Ng SK. Allergic contact dermatitis to Curcuma longa (turmeric). Contact Dermatitis 1987;17:186.
(19.) Van Dau N, et al. The effects of a traditional drug, turmeric (Curcuma longa) and placebo on the healing of
duodenal ulcer. Phytomedicine 1998;5:29-34.
(20.) Thamlikitkul V, et al. Randomized double blind study of Curcuma domestica Val. for dyspepsia. J Med Assoc Thai
(21.) Polasa K, et al. Effect of turmeric on urinary mutagens in smokers. Mutagenesis 1992;7:107-109.
(22.) Bosca A, et al. Effects of the antioxidant turmeric on lipoprotein peroxides: Implications for the prevention of
atherosclerosis. Age 1997;20:165-168.
(23.) Rasyid A, Lelo A. The effect of curcurmin and placebo on human gall-bladder function: An ultrasound study.
Aliment Pharamacol Ther 1999;13:245-249.
(24.) Kosuge T, et al. Studies on active substances in the herbs used for oketsu ("stagnant blood") in Chinese medicine.
III. On the anticoagulative principles in curcumae rhizoma. Chem Pharm Bull (Tokyo) 1985;33: 1499-1502.
(25.) Babu PS, Srinivasan K. Hypolipidemic action of curcumin, the active principle of turmeric (Curcuma longa) in
streptezotecin induced diabetic rats. Mol Cell Biochem 1997:166:169-175.
(26.) Rafatullah S, et al. Evaluation of turmeric (Curcuma longa) for gastric and duodenal antiulcer activity in rats. J
(27.) VenkatesanN. Curcumin attenuation of acute adriamycin myocardial toxicity in rats. Br J Pharmacol 1998;124:425-