Turmeric protects skin during radiation treatment
by By Thea Lapham | Kalamazoo Gazette
In January 2006, I began getting external beam radiation therapy for uterine cancer. Three days into my regimen, the skin on my lower abdomen began to turn red.
About turmeric Where can I get it? Powdered and encapsulated turmeric is available at: • The Natural Health Food Center, 4610 W. Main St., in the Westwood Plaza. • People's Food Co-op, 436 S. Burdick St. • Sawall Health Foods, 2965 Oakland Drive. • Large retail stores such as Meijer and Wal-mart. How much should I take? • For disease prevention: 500 milligrams per day. • For arthritis or if you're undergoing radiation treatment or chemotherapy: 1,500 milligrams per day. What are the side effects? • Long-term high dose use may cause ulcers or gastric upset. • Turmeric is a natural blood thinner, so let your doctor know if you plan to take it, especially if you already take a prescribed blood thinner or are pregnant. SOURCES: Jeff Wendland, manager of the Natural Health Food Center; American Cancer Society; and the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications
I'm an extremely fair-skinned person. Knowing I'd never last the prescribed 25 days of therapy without having to stop midway for my skin to heal from radiation burns and thereby jeopardizing the effectiveness of the radiation, I launched a massive Internet search.
And that's where I found my answer: the spice turmeric.
In 2005, researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center, in Rochester, N.Y., found that curcumin -- the active ingredient in turmeric and the source of turmeric's yellow pigment -- taken in capsule form helped protect the skin of breast-cancer patients who were undergoing radiation therapy, without compromising the therapy. Earlier studies, dating back as far as 1987, showed similar results with topical curcumin-based creams and ointments.
Using the rationale that radiation is radiation, I immediately began taking 1,500 milligrams of turmeric per day: a therapeutic dosage supported by numerous studies.
Initially, my doctor was as skeptical as he was intrigued. But by day six of my radiation treatment, there was no denying that my previously scorched skin was completely healed. And by day 25, the radiated skin looked just like it did on day one: not a single blister or burn.
It was East meeting West in a perfect blend of modern science and ancient herbal remedy.
Turmeric is used to flavor everything from curry dishes to chutney, pickles and relishes to American mustard. Its first recorded use dates back to 600 B.C.
It is derived from the root of the ginger-related leafy plant Cucuma longa, the most widely used medicinal plant in India, according to Jeff Wendland, manager of the Natural Health Food Center at 4610 W. Main St., in the Westwood Plaza.
According to researchers writing last year in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, the curcumin in turmeric neutralizes free radicals that cause the body to "rust" from the inside out: a byproduct of breathing oxygen. By preventing or modulating inflammation and oxidative stress, curcumin may play a protective role against chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, acute lung injury, acute respiratory distress syndrome and allergic asthma, the researchers say.
"Inflammation is the root cause of a number of diseases," Wendland said. "... The secret to curcumin's disease-fighting properties is its ability to halt cellular inflammation and oxidative stress by triggering a gene called cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2)."
The same triggering effect also helps curcumin kill tumor cells, according to the research reported in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology.
So its impact on cancer patients is twofold: "enhancing the effect of radiation and, at the same time, protect(ing) normal cells against the harmful effects of radiation," wrote the researchers.
And here's some more good news: Curcumin also protects the liver against toxins, aids circulation, helps prevent prostate cancer and reduces symptoms associated with Lupus, malaria, arthritis and other diseases, according to the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications.
How it's taken
Wendland, who is pursuing a master's degree in holistic nutrition, said the dose most often recommended for disease prevention is 500 milligrams per day.
Numerous studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals suggest that a therapeutic dose for those with arthritis or undergoing radiation or chemotherapy is 1,500 milligrams per day.
Even if your diet features ample amounts of curry, it may not be enough to make a significant impact on your health. That's because turmeric has a higher curcumin concentration than curry powders. In one study reported in 2006 in the journal Nutrition and Cancer, researchers found that the curry powders they sampled had "relatively small amounts of curcumin present, and the variability in content was great."
To save money, some people prefer to purchase powdered turmeric in bulk and make their own supplements, using pre-formed gelatin capsules to contain the colorful spice -- a process Wendland warns can be extremely messy.
"Turmeric is often used as a natural food coloring and dye, to achieve a dark, rich yellow," he said. "Consequently, cleaning up afterwards can be a massive challenge."
Wendland also warned that not all turmeric is created equal.
"The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate herbal supplements," he said. "So it's important to read the label regarding how and where the brand you're considering is made. Many of the manufacturers have Web sites you can visit for more information as well."
Interactions, side effects
Research on the extended use of turmeric is extremely limited, as is research showing whether or not it interferes with other drugs.
The most notable side effect of long-term, high-dose use is the potential for ulcer or gastric upset, according to the American Cancer Society.
In addition, turmeric's active ingredient, curcumin, is a natural blood thinner (as are onions) and could complicate surgical procedures, according to the Cancer Society. If you plan to take turmeric, you should let your doctor know and ask him or her about potential complications, particularly if you are already taking a prescribed blood thinner or are pregnant.