Several years ago I got to know a lot more about inflammatory bowel disease than I could ever read in books or medical journals.
On a hot June day, when it was about 108 F (that's about 42 C), I was driving through the country not too far from my home in Central Texas. I drove over some nails about both of my back tires blew out.
I had forgotten my cell phone so I wound up walking 3 miles (about 5 km) down a deserted country road to the nearest town to get help. I didn't have any water with me, either. When I got the service station, the tow truck was busy, so I walked a block or two down the street to the Dairy Queen.
I know, natural health experts are not supposed to patronize Dairy Queen. I first got a huge tumbler of icewater, and then I decided it might be a good idea just this once to get a small cup (which isn't really all that small) of an ice cream concoction known as a Blizzard. I'm not saying there is anything inherently unhealthy that no one should ever eat the 10 or 12 ounces of ice cream Dairy Queen puts into a Blizzard. But I shouldn't have.
On my walk into town I had become severely dehydrated, enough that I had poor circulation to my abdomen. The rush of ice water and ice cream into my stomach shut down circulation almost entirely, and maybe an hour later I had the worst pain I had ever experienced in my life. After eight hours in the ER I was wheeled up to a hospital room, expecting to have to have either an emergency colostomy or a funeral the next day or so. Fortunately, an expert in this kind of injury happened to be in the ER that night and I pulled through. After half a year of dealing with colitis.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease and the Immune System
Doctors usually list ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease under the heading of inflammatory bowel disease. These two most common forms of inflammatory bowel disease are caused by an overactive immune system that attacks the lining of the gut. What I had was something different, ischemic colitis, due to failed circulation to the colon.
Curcumin is useful for both conditions. It's not a substitute for medical care, but it can support faster recovery when you get good medical care. Most of the treatment for ischemic colitis, like I had, is watching and waiting. Most of the treatment for inflammatory colitis, such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, is aimed at stopping the destructive action of the immune system.
Sometimes people who have inflammatory bowel disease get anti-inflammatory drugs such as the salicylates, a group that includes both Pepto Bismol and aspirin. Sometimes they get steroids or medications aimed at stopping the colon from receiving the nutrients or metabolites it needs to create inflammation. These are the medications like azothioprine and methotrexate. Sometimes a medication acts directly on the immune system. Drugs in this class include the -abs, such as adalimumab, infliximab, and certolizumab pegol.
The problem with stopping the immune system from causing inflammation is that this also stops the immune system from fighting cancer and infections. It is a net negative to have a few weeks of pain relief and then come down with cancer. Concern about this problem is why dozens of researchers have start studying a number of traditional bowel medicines such as turmeric, the spice that contains the antioxidant curcumin.
Curcumin for Treating Bowel Disease
The spice curcumin is more than just curcumin. Because science is about matching a single treatment to a single effect, researchers focus on curcumin extracts in their laboratory experiments and clinical trials. Because traditional Ayurvedic medicine got good results with the whole herb, most supplement makers use a combination of both curcumin and the turmeric it comes from.
How does curcumin ameliorate inflammatory bowel disease? There seem to be several mechanisms. The white blood cells that generate tissue-destructive chemicals are activated by the release of free radicals of oxygen into blood plasma passing through the colon. As an antioxidant, curcumin quenches free radicals of oxygen, changing them back into O2 that can be picked up by hemoglobin. This stops the generation of inflammation.
Curcumin also interacts with specific genes in the colon that activate fibrinogenesis, the process of forming scar tissue on the colon, keeping inflamed segments of the colon from repairing themselves. On the other hand, curcumin stimulates the activity of a kind of white blood cells known as macrophages. These cells surround and digest infectious bacteria. They sometimes also identify individual cancer cells.
In this way, curcumin downregulates the parts of the immune system that destroy healthy colon tissue but upregulates the parts of the immune system that help fight infection and the earliest stages of cancer. (Curcumin is not helpful for later stages of colon cancer, although it may make chemo or radiation more bearable.)
Should You Throw Away Your Meds and Take Curcumin?
It's important to understand that curcumin is not a cure-all. A dose of up to about 1,000 mg a day may help salicylates work better. Inflammatory bowel disease patients who take 1,000 mg of curcumin a day while also taking methasalazine or sulfasalzine are about 80% less likely to relapse while on the combination of drug and supplement, but curcumin does not absolutely guarantee that inflammatory bowel disease can be kept under control. Using curcumin for colon cancer Using curcumin for colon cancer has additional considerations.
Did I take curcumin for ischemic colitis? Yes, but not right away. I didn't feel like taking anything or eating anything for about a month. In my own experience, curcumin seemed to help but I can't say how big a role it played in my own getting well. I'd say it definitely helped but there was a lot else going on. And for about US $0.50 a day, it didn't set me back too severely financially to find out. Be sure to let your doctor know about all the supplements you take--if only so you can confirm your experiences--and then try up to 1,000 mg a day of the best brands of curcumin best brands of curcumin when you are in remission from your worst symptoms.
Photo credit: Frenkieb