Curcumin’s immune-boosting powers pin-pointed

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

The health boosting activity of curcumin may be due to the molecule’s ability to stabilise cell membranes and increase the cell’s resistance to infection, suggests a new study.

The research, published in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society​, may help scientists understand how curcumin works inside the body.

Ayyalusamy Ramamoorthy and colleagues at the University of Michigan used solid-state NMR spectroscopy to show that curcumin physically alters the cell membrane at an atomic level.

History of use

Curcumin, the natural pigment that gives the spice turmeric its yellow colour, has increasingly come under the scientific spotlight in recent years, with studies investigating its potential benefits for reducing cholesterol levels, improving cardiovascular health, reducing the risk of Alzheimer's, and potential protection against cancer.

Turmeric has a long history of use in folk medicine for the treatment of wounds, infections, and other health problems, said the Michigan researchers.

Some experts recommend however that consumers wishing to make use of curcumin's properties consume it in supplement form rather than eating more curries, which tend to be rather high in fat in their Western form.

According to Ramamoorthy, curcumin can induce a negative curvature of the membrane, which would explain the potential anti-cancer activity of the compound, since other studies have shown that such changes may increase the activity of proteins such as tBid, which play an important role in apoptosis, or programmed cell death.

Atomic levels

Using solid-state NMR spectroscopy, the Ramamoorthy and his co-workers report that molecules of curcumin insert themselves into cell membranes and make the membranes more stable and orderly. This makes the cells more resistant to infection by disease-causing microbes, they added.

The study also revealed that curcumin exerts this strong effect on the membrane structure at low concentrations. This research was supported by funds from the NIH.

Curcumin’s benefits

Over the last couple of years, curcumin has been linked to a range of health benefits, including potential protection against prostate cancer (Clinical Cancer Research​, 2008:14 - using Sabinsa's Curcumin C3 Complex), Alzheimer’s (Journal of Alzheimer's Dis​ease, 2006, Vol. 10, pp. 1-7; American Journal of Epidemiology​, 2006, Vol. 164, pp. 898-906), protection against heart failure (Journal of Clinical Investigation​, doi: 10.1172/JCI32865); diabetes (Molecular Nutrition & Food Research​, 2008, doi: 10.1002/mnfr.200700184); and arthritis (Arthritis & Rheumatism​, 2006, Vol. 54, pp. 3452-3464).

Source: Journal of the American Chemical Society​ 2009, Volume 131, Number 12, Pages 4490-4498, doi: 10.1021/ja809217u“Determining the Effects of Lipophilic Drugs on Membrane Structure by Solid-State NMR Spectroscopy: The Case of the Antioxidant Curcumin”​Authors: J. Barry, M. Fritz, J.R. Brender, P.E.S. Smith, D.-K. Lee, A. Ramamoorthy

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