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22 July 2010

Discovered: Indian spice reduces Alzheimer's symptoms by 30%

Despite millions spent on drug research and development, one of the more promising treatments for Alzheimer's disease (a progressive brain disorder that affects more than 5 million Americans) is found in a substance widely known for its ability to spice (and color) food.

The compound curcumin, only found in turmeric, is a widely used spice found in Indian food, and is also popular in the cuisines of other South Asian countries like Nepal, Iran and Thailand. The bright yellow spice is familiar to fans of curry dishes, but it has been used in other preparations as well. For centuries, it has been used in Asian medicine.

Like other brightly colored foods (think blueberries, pomegranates and tomatoes), it is the compound that gives turmeric its color that makes it a powerful antioxidant — in this case, curcumin. And like the lycopene in tomatoes and the beta-carotene in carrots, bright orange-yellow curcumin has some seriously amazing health benefits. Curcumin has been found in clinical studies Preliminary clinical studies show curcumin helps reduce beta amyloid plaque in the brains of people with Alzheimer's (and prevent plaque buildup in people who don't have the disease).

This plaque is the key to understanding — and preventing — the disease. As the NY Times recently reported:
The disease is defined by freckles of barnacle-like piles of a protein fragment, amyloid beta, in the brain. So, the current thinking goes, if you block amyloid formation or get rid of amyloid accumulations — plaque — and if you start treatment before the disease is well under way, you might have a chance to alter its course.
According to Terry Lemerond, founder and president of Europharma, "Most brain researchers and Alzheimer’s specialists believe that preventing or reducing beta amyloid plaque in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease is important. Beta amyloid plaque interferes with proper brain function and contributes to dementia."

Eating lots of turmeric isn't the only option to get a regular dose of the stuff (though it's a delicious one). Curcumin extracts are available in pill form, which is how the compound has been used in clinical trials, including the one published in the Journal of Neurochemistry. That trial found a 30 percent decrease in the size of Alzheimer's-associated brain plaque in treated subjects in just one week.

Alzheimer's isn't the only condition that might be affected by the brightly-colored spice: "Curcumin has been proven to be an extraordinarily potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound. These properties make it effective for cancer (prevention and treatment), arthritis, liver disease, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, and many other health issues — all demonstrated in clinical studies," says Lemerond.

To boost the efficacy of the curcumin compound, some studies show that it should be ingested with Vitamin D supplements. The two substances then work together to stimulate a type of immune cell that can "clean up" the beta amyloid more quickly and thoroughly.

More research is needed. According to Lemerond, "Alzheimer’s is a very complex disease, and forestalling, or even reversing, dementia is not as simple as reducing plaque."

For further reading:
Drug trials test bold plan to slow Alzheimer's
Curcumin studies look at treating dementia and memory loss
More from the Journal of Neuroscience

Study suggests link of cleaners to breast cancer

A survey of Massachusetts women has found a potential link between the use of household cleaners and air fresheners and breast cancer.

The study included interviews with 787 women who had breast cancer and 721 who did not. Researchers asked all the women about pesticide use but found little association.

But when about 400 women in each group were asked about cleaning products, researchers found a potential connection.

In fact, breast-cancer risk was highest among women who reported the most use of cleaning products and air fresheners; it was double the risk for those who reported low use of the products. Most study participants were white and middle-aged and were part of the Cape Cod Breast Cancer and Environment Study, which had financial support from the state of Massachusetts.

The results are published in the journal Environmental Health.

The connection was drawn mostly between mold and mildew cleaners and air fresheners. Surface and oven cleaners were not associated with increased risk. Chemicals of concern include synthetic musks, phthalates, 1,4-dichlorobenzene, terpenes, benzene and styrene and some antimicrobial agents, said Julia Brody, the lead researcher and executive director of the Silent Spring Institute.

Studies of this nature come with an inherent weakness, called recall bias. The researchers acknowledged that women who have cancer and believe in an association with cleaners might be more likely to report high use of them.

That said, the study adds weight to previous animal research showing that the same chemicals cause mammary-gland cancer in animals and disrupt the endocrine system, contributing to tumor growth, Brody said.

Much about the causes of breast cancer remains unknown. Many patients believe in environmental links, but they are notoriously difficult to prove.

"Although there seems to be an association between cleaning products and cancer, that's a long way from saying, 'Cleaning products cause breast cancer,'" said Dr. Charles Shapiro, director of breast medical oncology at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"I wouldn't take too much from it," Shapiro said, noting that the study was relatively small and that it's impossible to draw definitive conclusions about cause and effect. He also cautioned that what is found in the laboratory in animal models doesn't necessarily play out among humans.

"The take-home, if any, is if you're worried about it, try to avoid those products," he said.

Sandra Steingraber, a New York ecologist, cancer survivor and author of Living Downstream, said she'd advise everyone to stop using chemical cleaners. She uses vinegar and baking soda to clean her house.

"I just see this as such an easy problem compared to a lot of things," said Steingraber, who is on the faculty at Ithaca College.

The new research, she said, "points to the really vexing problems of trying to make correlations between past exposures and present disease rates."

Steingraber said: "Clearly, the conversation is shifting now. We can't just sort of look at the murky evidence on cancer and the environment and sort of set it aside because it's too inscrutable."