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Turmeric + Stem Cells
Turmeric has been well documented to increase production of a brain and central nervous system protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor).1,3 BDNF is essential for learning, nerve growth, and neuroprotection, as well as regeneration and expression of pro-survival genes.2 BDNF also stimulates and controls growth of new neurons from neural stem cells (neurogenesis).2 This begs the question: does turmeric increase stem cells?
What are Stem Cells + BDNF?
What are stem cells? They are special human cells with the ability to develop into many different cells types, from muscle to brain cells. Supplementation with one of the 300 constituents of turmeric—curcumin—has been shown to increase brain cells in the hippocampus, indicating curcumin enhances stem cells in adult hippocampal neurogenesis.
While results were positive, the curcumin dose had to be precise. At a lower dose, stem cell activity increased, resulting in new nerve (brain) cell formation, but at a higher dose, curcumin was toxic.4
In another study, curcumin increased bone marrow stem cells at a low dose, while a higher dose did not increase bone marrow stem cells, and in fact had toxic effects.5 Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) plays an important role in neuronal survival and growth, serves as a neurotransmitter modulator, and participates in neuronal plasticity, which is essential for learning and memory. It is widely expressed in the CNS, gut and other tissues.
BDNF binds to its high affinity receptor TrkB (tyrosine kinase B) and activates signal transduction cascades (IRS1/2, PI3K, Akt), crucial for CREB and CBP production, that encode proteins involved in β cell survival. BDNF and insulin-like growth factor-1 have similar downstream signaling mechanisms incorporating both p-CAMK and MAPK that increase expression of pro-survival genes. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor regulates glucose and energy metabolism and prevents exhaustion of β cells. Decreased levels of BDNF are associated with neurodegenerative diseases with neuronal loss, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Huntington’s disease. Thus, BDNF may be useful in prevention and management of several diseases, including diabetes mellitus.
Curcumin is not the only constituent of turmeric root shown to boost stem cell activity. Ar-turmerone, one of the aromatic portions of turmeric, has been shown to induce neural stem cell activity,6 suggesting once again that using only one or two out of the 300 constituents of turmeric may be short-sighted at best.
Less is More
These studies were performed with only one or two parts of turmeric—curcumin or ar-turmerone. There are 300 bioactive constituents in turmeric root—how do we know that taking just one or two is better than taking the whole herb?
An extract like curcumin is a highly concentrated, “more potent” version of the whole herb, which may be why higher dosages of curcumin were toxic.4,5 In nature and for sure in Ayurveda, more is not necessarily better!
While stem cell studies have not been done on whole turmeric root, it makes sense, based on the science, that curcumin is a double-edged sword—how much will boost stem cells and how much will be toxic?
Plus, with research now showing another bioactive constituent of turmeric—ar-turmerone—that can boost stem cells, doesn’t it make you wonder if we could just use the version of turmeric that has been used for thousands of years and stop trying to make some “more potent” and possibly toxic extract?
Whole Herb vs Extract
Whenever Western scientists discover an herbal medicine, they quickly try to isolate the active ingredient and patent a process of extracting it, making it into a drug that only they can sell. This almost always backfires, as it has with turmeric.
To study this, researchers took curcumin out of turmeric root and studied effects of curcumin-free turmeric. The results were surprising: turmeric without curcumin significantly outperformed curcumin extract. The other constituents, such as turmerin, turmerone, elemene, furanodiene, curdione, bisacurone, cyclocurcumin, calebin A, and germacrone, were shown to provide more potent support for healthy blood sugar, a normal inflammation response to changes in diet and exercise, and healthy cellular division.7
Raw turmeric root is rich in fatty acids that help boost bioavailability by 7-8%.8 Naturally occurring fats slow down the liver from processing and converting the numerous turmeric constituents into water-soluble metabolites, easily flushed from the body. Curcumin is basically devoid of such fats, and much of the bioavailability of turmeric is lost in the extraction process.
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Ayurvedic practitioners have much understanding around these fatty bioavailability benefits, as they would commonly deliver it in a paste with ghee, which also slows the liver’s processing time of turmeric, allowing constituents to linger in the bloodstream much longer.
Black pepper was also used in curry powder to boost bioavailability of turmeric. As it turns out, peperine in black pepper is a potent inhibitor to the liver’s ability to metabolize turmeric. In fact, mixing one part black pepper with 16 parts turmeric boosted bioavailability by a whopping 2,000%.9,10
Numerous studies suggest effects of raw turmeric are just as potent, if not more potent, than curcumin extracts,7 and these effects can be further boosted with ghee and black pepper.
Herbal Extracts Like Curcumin are Sterile!
If you aren’t yet convinced that whole herbs are generally better than extracts, read this: when herbs are made into extracts, they are soaked in food-grade alcohol, killing microbes thought to boost biochemistry and potency of the plant. The understanding of how and why microbes are specifically attracted to certain plants and how these microbes boost their effectiveness and change our microbiome is under current investigation.
That said, US regulatory standards for the manufacture of dietary supplements allow 1,000x more potentially beneficial microbes compared to herbal extracts of the same plant.8,11
Microbes in soils change from season to season, and do so in perfect synchrony with the kind of plants harvested in that season. Disturbing this may be one reason why whole herbs regularly outperform herbal extracts or isolated “active constituents.”
Turmeric Health Benefits Outperform Curcumin
In one study, a whole plant extract of turmeric was compared with curcumin. Turmeric was more effective at inducing a heightened expression of perforin (a protein that plays an important role in lymphatic drainage and immunity) two-fold compared to the isolated curcumin alone.12
In another study, a whole plant turmeric extract was shown to have twice the amount of antioxidant activity compared to isolated curcumin.13
Another study showed that low doses of curcuminoids from whole plant extracts administered over a longer period of time were more effective at supporting natural drainage of dangerous toxic aggregates from the brain than high doses of isolated curcuminoids administered rapidly.
Note: While there is compelling evidence that the intelligence of the whole plant is preferred over an isolated extract, for medical purposes, in order to boost a certain biochemical effect, there are times when curcumin and its curcuminoids would be more advantageous. That said, for everyday or seasonal use, I suggest using raw, organic turmeric mixed with black pepper at a ratio of 16:1.
Benefits of Raw Turmeric14
- Supports stable mood
- Boosts immunity through antioxidant activity
- Helps liver + detoxification of environmental toxins
- Helps maintain healthy lymphatic drainage
- Supports inner + outer skin health
- Maintains healthy joint function
- Supports overall intestinal health
- Boosts gallbladder + bile function
- Supports healthy blood sugar balance
- Maintains brain + cognitive function
- Supports a normal inflammation response to changes in diet + exercise
- Boosts stem cells4-6
Plants have their own intelligence, and they generally don’t need too much human interference to bring out their healing wisdom. So next time you see curcumin or another “active constituent” at the store, you’ll know what to do!