Pandemics and Protection
Curcumin and Cancer
Curcumin Further Benefits
Obesity and Dementias
Ask Dr. J: Is Coconut Healthy?
In The Health News
Diet and Disease
Recipe of the Month: Lentil-Tomato Soup
As the avian flu spreads across continents, infecting mainly
birds and occasional humans, epidemiologists and infectious
disease specialists are concerned about the possible development
of a pandemic. Based on the history of viruses like this,
it is reasonable to be concerned and to take appropriate and
manageable precautions. As the virus spreads and mutates,
it may develop resistance to antiviral drugs, but so far they
are still effective, and I would suggest other measures in
addition. A vaccine is still being tested, but may not be
available when it is needed, and we do not yet know if it
will be effective.
In 1918, returning soldiers from the first World War helped
to spread influenza (then called the “Spanish flu”)
around the globe, leading to a pandemic that killed 25 to
50 million people in less than two years. In the United States,
about a quarter of the population became ill, and over half
a million people died. It was particularly virulent, with
a high mortality rate of over 2 percent of infected people
(in Japan, the mortality was strikingly lower, at about 0.5
percent, likely because they had no returning weakened, fatigued,
and malnourished soldiers).
The possibility of a new pandemic leads to considerable media
attention, and dire predictions of societal collapse, as people
stay out of work, goods and services stop flowing, financial
markets close, and conventional amenities such as electricity,
running water, and other modern conveniences cease to be available.
I can’t say that these predictions won’t come
true, but more recent pandemics have not been as devastating
as in 1918, and even then, 98 percent of people in developed
countries survived their encounter with the influenza virus.
Any infectious disease is more likely to be a problem for
people who are malnourished or have compromised immune systems
(the 1918 flu was unusual in that the highest mortality was
in people from 20 to 40 years old, many of them the above-mentioned
If this virus mutates into a bigger problem, I would recommend
being diligent with the usual care of personal hygiene, particularly
with hand washing and using hand sanitizers, avoiding large
public gatherings (the virus can be transmitted before symptoms),
and maintaining a strong immune system with a healthy diet
and dietary supplements. If you get infected, I’d recommend
high doses of vitamin C, including intravenous doses, plus
elderberry extract, vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, echinacea, garlic,
and a variety of other supplements.
It will be almost impossible to keep adequate food and water
on hand for a lengthy emergency. Once again we have to make
some choices about reasonable precautions versus hyper anxiety.
Living in fear and anxiety can only add to the risks, and
the vast majority of people survive pandemics. You can’t
protect yourself completely, but you can do your best, and
chances are that will be enough.
I’ve written several times about curcumin, as it is
a powerful spice that reduces inflammation, protects the brain
through its antioxidant activity, and inhibits the formation
of new blood vessels in tumors (“angioneogenesis”)
that allows them to grow. New information confirms many of
these benefits. Curcumin is one of the principal phytochemical
components of turmeric, a main ingredient in curry powder.
Turmeric is in the ginger family (and, indeed, ginger has
some of the same benefits as curcumin).
A recent animal study shows that curcumin (its chemical name
is diferuloylmethane) can reduce the toxicity of cancer chemotherapy
without reducing its effectiveness. A protein called nuclear
factor kappa-B (NF-kappaB) helps breast cancer cells survive.
NF-kappaB also increases cancer cell growth, invasion, and
spread. Taxol (paclitaxel), a breast cancer drug, actually
increases the activation of NF-kappaB, creating potential
problems in cases where the tumor is resistant to the drug.
In breast cancer cell cultures, administration of curcumin
along with the paclitaxel blocks the activation of NF-kappaB,
thus potentially reducing the growth and spread of the tumors.
Curcumin also promotes the natural process of programmed cell
death (called “apoptosis”) in cancer cells, without
any side effects, further helping to prevent tumor growth
The same researchers also studied breast cancers grafted
onto mice. In an untreated control group, 96 percent of the
mice had metastases to the lungs. The other groups were given
dietary curcumin, with or without paclitaxel, or just the
drug. Paclitaxel reduced lung metastases slightly, but in
those given curcumin, only 28 percent showed evidence of lung
tumors. This information is very promising, as no treatments
are consistently effective in advanced breast cancer.
Breast cancer is not the only tumor that may be helped by
curcumin. Colon cancers (and other related tumors) have a
high level of activity of a receptor for a substance called
epidermal growth factor. A study of cultured colon cancer
cells showed that curcumin can inhibit the gene expression
for this receptor, and thus block the growth of the tumor
Some neurological tissue tumors are also difficult to treat.
A brain tumor called astrocytoma can be very invasive, spreading
rapidly through the brain, although not all such tumors are
so aggressive. The spread of these tumors is promoted by the
same NF-kappaB protein. In a new study, curcumin was shown
to inhibit NF-kappaB in five different astrocytoma cell lines.
It also promoted apoptosis in these cultured cells.
Similar studies show that curcumin inhibits proliferation
of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cells while not harming normal
blood cells. It also inhibits squamous cell cancer growth,
and applied topically to squamous cell cancer grafts, curcumin
inhibits the growth and spread of these tumors. In addition,
through similar mechanisms it induces apoptosis in leukemia
Overall, curcumin is turning out to be a very desirable spice,
both in cooking and as a dietary supplement. In addition to
its many cancer-fighting properties, it protects the kidneys
from the side effects of toxic drugs and oxidative stress,
and has been used in traditional medicine in India for rheumatic
disease, sinusitis, diabetic wound healing, and liver disorders.
Because chronic inflammation is a contributor to aging and
age-related vascular disease, curcumin is likely to be beneficial
as an anti-aging supplement. It protects against degenerative
brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD). In
AD, the brain accumulates a substance called amyloid. Curcumin
binds with amyloid, reversing the process. Curcumin fed to
aged animals crosses the blood-brain barrier to bind with
amyloid and reduce brain plaques.
Curcumin inhibits oxidative and inflammatory contributors
to degenerative diseases, and is better than anti-inflammatory
drugs without side effects. It is useful for injuries and
chronic arthritis, it lowers CRP, the inflammatory marker
of cardiac risk, and it also binds with excessive iron accumulation
to reduce oxidative damage.
It is easy to incorporate curcumin into the diet by eating
a variety of curry dishes that are so common in India. They
are delicious and healthy. An alternative is to take supplements
of standardized extract. Typical daily doses range from 300
to 600 mg twice per day.
Last month I reported on research showing that obesity is
related to heart disease in part because fat cells produce
the inflammatory marker, CRP. Fat cells also produce substances
that increase insulin resistance, worsening another risk factor.
New research shows that obesity is related to an increased
risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
Researchers followed 1449 Finnish middle-aged adults from
the 1970s for an average of 21 years. They found that those
who were obese had a higher risk of Alzheimer’s compared
to their peers who were thinner. Although high blood pressure,
smoking, and high cholesterol were also found to be risk factors,
when the researchers controlled for those risks, the data
showed that obesity by itself was associated with double the
risk of dementia.
High blood pressure and cholesterol were independently associated
with about double the risk. Because some dementias are related
to vascular disease, it is not surprising that smoking, high
cholesterol, and hypertension are likely to contribute to
this risk. It is not yet clear that weight reduction will
lessen the risk, but it is clearly beneficial for many other
For even more protection, it is important to engage in regular
exercise. A new study on the same Finnish population shows
that mid-life phyical activity at least twice a week reduces
the risk of dementia in half, and the risk of Alzheimer’s
disease by 42 percent. (I would add curcumin, vitamin E, lipoic
acid, ginkgo, and other supplements to your program.)
Q. Is eating coconut or coconut milk a problem
for heart disease risk? I know it is high in saturated fat.
—GK, Quebec, Canada, via Internet
I have often been asked whether coconut is a risk factor
for the heart because of its saturated fat content. The information
is mixed, but in moderation it is unlikely to be a problem.
A recent study of West Sumatrans who consume a lot of coconut
helps to clarify this. The researchers evaluated heart disease
patients and case controls. (Lipoeto NI, et al., Dietary intake
and the risk of coronary heart disease among the coconut-consuming
Minangkabau in West Sumatra, Indonesia. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr.
2004;13(4):377-84.) They found that both groups had a high
intake of coconut, but it was unrelated to the risk of heart
disease. The subjects with heart disease consumed the same
amount of coconut as the controls. However, those with heart
disease had a higher intake of animal fat and cholesterol,
and a lower intake of carbohydrate than the controls.
The researchers also noted that the heart patients had a
higher animal protein intake. Coconut contains medium chain
triglycerides and tocotrienols (in the vitamin E family of
nutrients) but no linolenic acid (an essential fatty acid).
Other research suggests some increase in certain risk factors
compared to eating fish oils.
I think that eating coconut is unlikely to be a problem
(other than being careful of total calorie intake in overweight
people), if it is not excessive and is balanced with other
essential fatty acids. My August curry recipe includes coconut
milk and shredded coconut. I also use these in smoothies (and
add flaxseeds for linolenic acid).
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Aggarwal BB, et al., Curcumin suppresses
the Paclitaxel-induced nuclear factor-kB pathway in breast
cancer cells and inhibits lung metastasis... Clin Cancer Res
2005, 15 Oct;11:7490-7498.
Chen A, et al., Curcumin inhibits human
colon cancer cell growth by suppressing gene expression of
epidermal growth factor receptor ... Oncogene. 2005 Sep 19;
[Epub ahead of print]
Nagai S, et al., Inhibition of cellular
proliferation and induction of apoptosis by curcumin in human
malignant astrocytoma cell lines. J Neurooncol. 2005 Sep;74(2):105-11.
Sun C, et al., Anticancer effect of curcumin
on human B cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. J Huazhong Univ
Sci Technolog Med Sci. 2005;25(4):404-7.
LoTempio MM, et al., Curcumin suppresses
growth of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Clin Cancer
Res. 2005 Oct 1;11(19 Pt 1):6994-7002.
Tirkey N, et al., Curcumin, a diferuloylmethane,
attenuates cyclosporine-induced renal dysfunction and oxidative
stress in rat kidneys. BMC Pharmacol. 2005 Oct 15;5(1):15
[Epub ahead of print]
Banjerdpongchai R, Wilairat P,.Effects
of Water-soluble Antioxidants and MAPKK/MEK Inhibitor on Curcumin-induced
Apoptosis in HL-60 Human Leukemic Cells. Asian Pac J Cancer
Prev. 2005 Jul-Sep;6(3):282-5.
Yang F, et al., Curcumin inhibits formation
of amyloid beta oligomers and fibrils, binds plaques, and
reduces amyloid in vivo. J Biol Chem. 2005 Feb 18;280(7):5892-901.
Baum L, Ng A, Curcumin interaction with
copper and iron suggests one possible mechanism of action
in Alzheimer’s disease animal models. J Alzheimers Dis.
Kivipelto M, Obesity and vascular risk
factors at midlife and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer
disease. Arch Neurol. 2005 Oct;62(10):1556-60.
Rovio S, et al., Leisure-time physical
activity at midlife and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s
disease. Lancet Neurol. 2005 Nov;4(11):705-11.
Common environmental toxins are more pervasive and dangerous
than is suggested by health authorities. Of particular concern,
according to researchers, are lead, radon, tobacco smoke,
and byproducts of chemicals used to disinfect municipal water
supplies, including trihalomethanes (THM). They suggest that
allowable levels (80 parts per billion in the USA) are far
too high. As little as 1 ppb can increase the risk of bladder
cancer. (Wigle DT, Lanphear BP, Human Health Risks from Low-Level
Environmental Exposures... PLoS Med. 2005 Oct 18;2(12):e350
[Epub ahead of print].) Using a solid carbon block filter
can virtually eliminate the lead and THM from drinking water.
Ventilation of homes can reduce the radon risk.
Chronic back pain is a leading cause of lost work days. An
exercise program with both strength and flexibility training
for 2-4 months is effective treatment, and is better than
ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and hot packs. More intensive
activity appears to be even better than less intense regimens,
refuting the myth that bed rest is a good treatment for back
pain, but it requires some effort. (Exercise training may
ease chronic back pain. Reuters Health, October 4, 2005.)
Consuming more beans, nuts, and cereal grains provides protection
against cancer. These contain inositol pentakisphosphate (similar
to phytate, or inositol hexaphosphate–IP6, already shown
to help with cancer), which blocks PI3K, an enzyme that promotes
tumor growth through angiogenesis (Maffucci T, et al., Inhibition
of the phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase/Akt pathway by inositol
pentakisphosphate results in antiangiogenic and antitumor
effects. Cancer Res. 2005 Sep 15;65(18):8339-49). These foods
have many other benefits (fiber and flavonoid content) and
many tasty recipes include them.
This is a Mediterranean-style hearty soup for chilly fall
days. Sauté onions and garlic with diced carrots and
celery in olive oil, adding chopped fresh basil and parsley,
thyme, rosemary, and some freshly ground pepper. When the
garlic starts to turn brown, add boiling water, lentils, cubes
of potato, barley (about half as much as the lentils), and
a can or two of organic fire-roasted tomatoes or fresh, grilled
tomatoes). Let this simmer until the potatoes, lentils, and
barley are all soft. Add chopped green leafy vegetables (chard,
spinach, or kale), and when these are wilted, add some lemon
juice and a small amount of salt or soy sauce. As a final
step, turn off the heat and fold in some chopped fresh cilantro.
You can use brown rice or millet instead of the barley, or
you can leave the grain out and serve the dish with a side
of whole grain bread.
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