A recent blockbuster study confirmed that you can use curcumin to hack your genetic code. Curcumin, the primary active compound found in the turmeric plant, offers us means of altering our genetic blueprint and optimizing our health by regulating epigenetic expression.
Turmeric, a member of the ginger family, is native to tropical Asia, China, and India. The spice’s warm flavor and rich golden hue make it a popular ingredient in curry powders and some mustards. Turmeric has also been used for medicinal purposes for centuries—its documented uses include the treatment of hemorrhaging, jaundice, and hepatitis, among other ailments. In the last half-century, curcumin specifically has been the subject of extensive clinical investigation. A recent and especially exciting focus for that research centers on how curcumin impacts epigenetic processes.
What Is Epigenetics?
The burgeoning field of epigenetics deals with the many factors that can affect your genes—that is to say, your DNA. All the cells in your body—from the ones that form your pinky nail to the ones that make up your aorta—share the exact same DNA blueprint, though they serve entirely different roles. Your epigenome, which comprises all the chemical compounds that regulate the activity of your genes, instructs fetal cells to develop in accordance with their intended future roles. Scientists now know that the epigenome not only influences fetal cell function but also the function of your cells over the course of your lifetime.
At its core, epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression that do not alter your underlying genetic code. Epigenetics considers all the elements that determine whether a specific gene, or cluster of genes, is switched on or off. They also control how outside factors like diet and stress affect your genes.
Although we often speak about DNA as if it determines our futures, the way our genes influence our health is far more fluid and complex. Do you believe that if you have the gene for condition X, you will inevitably develop condition X? While there are some genes for which that rule holds true, for many others, the relationship between genetic expression and health outcomes is not so simple.
Studies have shown that for many conditions, including numerous types of cancer, certain genes or clusters of genes indicate a genetic predisposition for developing that condition. But in order for you to actually develop the disease, the genes involved must express themselves—they must be activated. When we discuss the conditions that determine whether or not a gene will be activated, we’re talking about epigenetics.
The way you live your life—from the food you eat to the air you breathe to the emotions, you feel—influence the way your genes express themselves, thereby shifting your genetic code, your DNA. All those lifestyle factors function as epigenetic influencers. Adverse epigenetic influencers can damage or mutate DNA, altering genetic expression and allowing diseases to flourish. We all face a spectrum of possible adverse epigenetic influences daily, such as nutritional deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, toxins and pollution, and recurring stress. Fortunately, there are also lifestyle factors that act as positive epigenetic influencers, including certain dietary supplements and phytochemicals such as curcumin.
The Three Key Ways Curcumin Hacks Your Genetic Code for the Better
In a groundbreaking 2015 review published in Current Pharmacology Reports researchers presented a compelling argument—backed by the latest data—in favor of curcumin’s ability to prevent and treat diseases via epigenetic regulation.
After reviewing all the best scientific studies available, they found that curcumin just might be the most promising means of positively regulating gene expression. It appears that curcumin’s positive impact on gene expression can help to prevent and treat multiple kinds of cancer as well as a variety of age-related diseases. The researchers found that there are three primary epigenetic changes influenced by curcumin: DNA methylation, histone modifications, and microRNA patterns.
Let’s examine the specific ways curcumin regulates those three epigenetic changes, beginning with DNA methylation. Of the epigenetic processes identified so far, we know the most about DNA methylation, in part because existing technology is best suited to studying it. In simple terms, methylation occurs when a single carbon and three hydrogen atoms—collectively referred to as a methyl group—link up with a molecule. When a methyl group de-links, that’s called demethylation. Another way to think about this linking and unlinking is as an on/off switch that controls how your genes express themselves.
Methyl groups tend to link up near the beginning of a gene, and when this happens, the gene in question will most likely remain inactive. So, while methyl groups don’t change your underlying DNA, they do alter your genetic expression. Because it plays a crucial role in determining whether or not the genes that cause certain diseases will be activated, methylation has a very direct effect on our health. Scientists have determined that the DNA methylation contributes to the progression of a variety of diseases including prostate, colon, and lung cancer, as well as diabetes, neurocognitive diseases, autoimmune disorders, and inflammatory disorders. Recent experiments reveal that curcumin inhibits DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs), which can “turn off” genes that could lead to the development of cancer and other diseases.
Curcumin also regulates histone modifications, another cellular process that can lead to the development of serious diseases. Histones are essentially protein “spools” around which “threads” of DNA coil themselves. Histones play an important role in cell division—and as you may know, when errors occur during cell division, the consequences can be devastating. One type of error is called histone modification. When this takes place, it can result in adverse health outcomes like neurodegenerative disorders and other problems. Researchers have found that curcumin can prevent histone modifications, making it an extremely promising treatment option for conditions that can be particularly challenging to treat.
Studies tell us that curcumin may also be a key factor in treating Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers are also investigating how curcumin’s beneficial effect on histones can help with the management of neuropathic pain, an especially challenging task since the common treatments doctors use now often fail to produce noticeable benefits for suffering patients. Curcumin’s ability to prevent histone modification may make it a useful means of alleviating various diabetes symptoms, too.
Finally, researchers have identified how curcumin affects micro RNAs (miRNAs). When scientists first identified these tiny molecules, it added a whole new dimension to our understanding of the complicated interplay between how we live and our genetic codes. To date, over 700 miRNAs have been identified and sequenced, and computer models estimate that they directly affect at least 30 percent of the genes in the human genome. We’re still learning more about miRNA, but it’s clear that when their function becomes compromised, a process called oncogenesis sets in and normal cells begin mutating into cancerous ones. This makes miRNAs an important therapeutic target for cancer treatment. Studies show that curcumin can prevent the abnormal cellular signals that corrupt miRNA function and spur the growth of cancer cells.
How One Researcher Spiked Interest in Curcumin
We now know curcumin as a high-profile anti-inflammatory and antioxidative compound capable of treating numerous diseases via epigenetic regulation, and scientists worldwide have made curcumin and other phytochemicals research priorities. When professor Bharat B. Aggarwal, a biochemist at the MD Anderson Cancer Center began researching turmeric, however, there were, in total, less than 50 published scientific studies on the healing potential of spices.
Western scientists discovered curcumin about two centuries ago, and its chemical structure was identified as early as 1910. The first studies considering its medical uses came out in 1949, and the 70s brought renewed scientific interest in natural treatment options. But it was only when Aggarwal and his research team began publishing their work on curcumin in the 1990s that research into curcumin’s therapeutic applications accelerated rapidly.
Aggarwal grew up in India, where turmeric has been used for centuries to treat ailments ranging from broken bones to sore throats. Turmeric’s role as a significant anti-inflammatory agent in Ayurvedic medicine led him to devise pioneering research studies to explore how turmeric might block anti-inflammatory pathways. Since Aggarwal’s initial study, more than 1,500 papers on curcumin have been published, covering its potential to treat conditions ranging from cancer to psoriasis, arthritis to diabetes, Alzheimer’s to heart disease.
Aggarwal and his colleagues found that turmeric contains high concentrations of phytochemicals, non-nutritive plant chemicals that have protective or disease preventative properties. These phytochemicals, and other potent compounds found in curcumin, promote healthy responses to environmental stressors. Based on the promising implications of his initial inquiries, Aggarwal went on to conduct Phase I and II human clinical trials focused on several types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer, which has proved to be largely incurable using conventional methods.
Curcumin’s ability to treat pancreatic cancer is just one of its literal hundreds of benefits. Experiments show the curcumin affects more than 100 separate pathways inside each cell. Its antioxidant properties (meaning its capacity to fight inflammation) are some of its most exciting. At least six human trials have confirmed that curcumin can be safely used to quell inflammation , the underlying cause of conditions including…
- Digestive disorders
- Neurodegenerative diseases
- Cardiovascular issues
Studies have even pinpointed the exact way curcumin combats inflammation—it prevents a molecule called NF-kB from traveling straight into the nucleus of a cell and activating the genes associated with inflammation.
When discussing the properties of curcumin, it’s important to keep in mind that not all studies use the exact same formulations. One distinction that’s often glossed over in news coverage is whether a study used curcumin specifically, or a formulation that included the other components of the turmeric root. The words “turmeric” and “curcumin” are sometimes used interchangeably, as if they refer to the exact same thing. But curcumin is not the only compound turmeric contains that has profound medicinal benefits.
To determine whether curcumin alone could be responsible for turmeric’s healing abilities, researchers experimented with curcumin-free turmeric (CFT) extracts. They found that CFT extracts had many of the same properties as turmeric, including strong anti-inflammatory effect. In addition to curcumin, turmeric contains a multitude of compounds shown to reduce inflammation, such as…
- Calebin A
Researchers now believe that individuals seeking to use curcumin to prevent or treat health problems should choose a full-spectrum curcumin supplement that contains the components of the raw turmeric root which are typically removed during the curcumin extraction process. It appears that the whole turmeric root’s natural components work together synergistically, and when they’re all present in a supplement, its bioavailability—the ability of the body to absorb and utilize it—is dramatically enhanced.