University professors sometimes do silly things, like spend loads of money on a study with a bad design. However, reviewing one such experiment that was recently reported by the BBC, on how curcumin can reduce DNA methylation will help you understand the right and the wrong way to take the supplement curcumin as well as understand the business of science.
Curcumin is a natural extract of the turmeric root that’s commonly used in Indian cooking. Lot’s of prior research has shown the following:
We all know that DNA is a specialized molecule that lives in our cells and contains the instructions that make us unique. Think of methylation as a switch that can turn off those instructions. Suffice it to say that too much methylation at the wrong spots on your DNA is a bad thing, and yet having certain other genes turned off is a good thing. As we age or get sicker, generally too much methylation happens.
The researchers gave 100 patients a curcumin supplement, curcumin powder to mix in with their food, or a placebo pill. They then measured blood samples of cell stress and methylation. What they found was interesting. The subjects that mixed the curcumin powder into their food fared better on these tests than did the patients who took the supplement or who took the placebo. However, there’s a catch, as it appears that the researchers didn’t use the best supplement practices when performing the study. Let me explain.
We’ve known for some time that when Indians use turmeric or curcumin to cook, they commonly add black pepper. In fact, research has shown that you need to add a black pepper extract to curcumin to allow the gut to absorb the substance (here’s a 2nd study). However, the researchers here failed to do that, why?
While I can’t say for sure why smart researchers failed to do a simple Google search and find out that a simple black pepper extract could enhance the bioavailability of curcumin by up to 2,000%, from my US National Library of Medicine search, I have some pretty good ideas. This morning, when I went to try and find the citations on black pepper and curcumin, I discovered a frenzied record of publishing in the last 1–2 years on incredibly exotic formulations of everything from nanoparticles to chemically novel conjugates, all to enhance the bioavailability of curcumin. If we’ve known since 1998 that black pepper is very efficient at increasing absorption of curcumin, why do we need all of these other methods to do the same thing? That’s where the dark underbelly of science shows.
The problem with using black pepper (and why I suspect the scientists in this new study didn’t use it) is that it’s not patentable. There’s a slew of very promising health research on curcumin showing antiaging effects as well as benefits in cancer and arthritis, all huge markets. However, curcumin is a supplement in widespread use, and as such, it can’t be patented. Hence, if you want to earn big bucks off curcumin as a drug, you have to find an esoteric delivery method, like nanoparticles.
The upshot? First, do yourself a favor and make sure whatever curcumin supplement you take has a black pepper extract (also known as bioperine). Second, it’s always upsetting to see that widely available natural substances like curcumin and black pepper are being ditched by science merely because they can’t be made into patented drugs. That’s just plain wrong…
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About the Author
Christopher J. Centeno, M.D. is an international expert and specialist in regenerative medicine and the clinical use of mesenchymal stem cells in orthopedics. He is board certified in physical medicine as well as rehabilitation and in pain management through The American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.…