Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Curcumin in Colon Cancer Treatment

Over the 20 years I have been writing about and consulting to manufacturers about natural remedies that work, a question that comes up over and over again is the role of curcumin in colon cancer treatment.  There is actually very good reason to take another look at curcumin treatments for colon cancer.

The problem with curcumin has always been that it is difficult for the body to absorb it. Even the lining of the colon itself has difficulty absorbing this herbal antioxidant. The good news is that researchers at Shandong University in China recently invented a new way to combine curcumin with the B-vitamin folic acid to make a product that emulsifies in the colon and is much better absorbed. But before I get into what makes this new form of curcumin exciting and different, let's review what curcumin does for colon cancer.

The Stages of Colon Cancer and the Usefulness of Curcumin Treatment

Curcumin acts in different ways at different stages of colon cancer.  Before colon cells ever develop cancerous characteristics, curcumin (1) stimulates the production called glutamate cysteine ligase, which helps them make a cancer-protective chemical called glutathione. Curcumin also (2) reduces the activity of a liver enzyme called CYP1A1, which the liver needs to process petrochemicals (such as the benzene and toluene in gasoline) to make them toxic.

Curcumin stops the progression of colon polyps to colon cancer by inhibiting the adenomatous polyposis coli (apc) gene. It also inhibits the action of a group of enzymes known as metalloproteinases. These help clusters of colon cancer cells eat through surrounding tissues to establish their own connections to the bloodstream.  Curcumin also stops the production of colon cancer "stem cells" that seed the cancer in other locations in the body.

By the time colon cancer has reached stage III and has begun to spread through the rest of the body, however, curcumin ceases to be helpful and may even cause problems. In colon cancer cells, a "watch dog" gene called p53 is deactivated by curcumin. This means that curcumin stops the p53 gene from shutting down the cell by preventing it from detecting damaged DNA. Curcumin is not a metastatic colon cancer treatment.

In effect, this turmeric extract actually counteracts one of the body's natural defenses against colon cancer. The bottom line is that, in the absence of medical treatment, curcumin and turmeric are useful for preventing cancer and for slowing down the growth of colon cancer in the early stages, while it is still confined to the colon, but it is important to discontinue curcumin when the cancer has begun to spread--unless the user of the supplement is taking chemotherapy. Curcumin for heart disease is more appropriate in later stages of the disease, but curcumin for colon cancer is more appropriate in earlier stages of the disease.

Curcumin with Other Colon Cancer Treatments

Oncologists at Baylor Medical School in Houston, Texas report that giving curcumin to patients receiving radiation helps prevent dry mouth, mucositis (mouth sores), and stomach upset. Reducing these side effects of radiation makes it easier to eat and to get the nutrition needed to fight the disease and go into remission--in addition to relieving extraordinary discomfort to the patient and distress to families unable to get their loved ones to eat enough to keep up their strength.

Medical researchers at Baylor also have found that curcumin increases the sensitivity of colon cancer cells to a tremendous variety of chemotherapy agents, including bortemozib, doxorubicin, 5-FU, paclitaxel, vincristine, melphalan, butyrate, cisplatin, celecoxib, vinorelbine, gemcitabine, oxaliplatin, etoposide, sulfinosine, and thalidomide. Anything that makes cancer cells more sensitive to a chemotherapy drug may reduce the number of treatments needed to bring the cancer back into remission. And the shorter the course of chemotherapy, the fewer and less severe the side effects of chemotherapy.

Is Curcumin a Proven Alternative Treatment for Colon Cancer?

The simple fact is that cancer researchers have never studied curcumin as a sole treatment for colon cancer and it is unlikely they ever will. The problem with a double-blind "either-or" drug or placebo study of this turmeric extract as a treatment for colon cancer is that chemotherapy, for all its drawbacks, extends life a little. In this model of doing science, curcumin by itself is not yet known to extend life at all.

That's also why the clinical trials of almost any cancer drug only involve the more advanced cases in which the volunteers for studies have less to lose. However, the Baylor research team found that using a combination of both curcumin and chemo extended life for Stage IV colon cancer patients on average 3 weeks to 3 months. That's a lot of life for a small expense with minimal downside. How curcumin is appropriate for colon cancer patients? Up to 8 grams (8,000 mg) a day have been used in advanced cancer without report of side effects. Although curry powder is about 3% curcumin, it's really only practical to use capsules of the nutritional supplement. Most cancer patients just can't keep that much curry down. (A much lower dose of curcumin in inflammatory bowel disease is appropriate.)

And what of those exciting new developments from China? The latest development from Shandong combines curcumin with folic acid to make a mixture that coats the lining of the small intestine and is more completely absorbed. This comes after the discovery at West China Medical School of a way to "micronize" curcumin, converting it into nanoparticles that can adhere in the villi, or pouches, of the colon, ensuring better absorption.

Supplement makers have known for many years that mixing the curcumin/turmeric blend with bean gum helps it stick to the lining of the colon better, for greater absorption into the bloodstream, and that combining curcumin with the black pepper extract peperine likewise increases absorption. Taking the most affordable good quality up to 8,000 mg a day, is probably a good idea (although not an absolute necessity) for anyone who has a family history of colon cancer.

It's probably a good idea to take curcumin if you have been told you have colon polyps, or even if you have had a colonoscopy and one or more polyps tested positive for cancer. Curcumin is likely to be helpful when you are being given chemotherapy for colon cancer, and it may help extend remission after successful treatment of colon cancer. Don't take curcumin for advanced colon cancer, however, without your doctor's prior approval. In the most advanced cases, this turmeric compound is a complement to difficult medical treatment, not an alternative to it.

Photo Credit: Surya Prakash, S.A.

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