Common cooking spice found to combat diabetes, obesity


Turmeric, a common Asian spice that gives curries and other dishes their bright yellow colour, has a long history of use in reducing inflammation, healing wounds and relieving pain.

Recently, at a medical conference in San Francisco, participants heard that tumeric also is effective at combating two health problems that many people suffer from - diabetes and obesity.

Since inflammation plays a big role in many diseases and is believed to be involved in onset of both obesity and Type 2 diabetes, Drew Tortoriello, MD - an endocrinologist and research scientist at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University Medical Center in New York - and his colleagues were curious about what effect tumeric might have on diabetic mice.

The scientists discovered that turmeric-treated mice were less susceptible to developing Type 2 diabetes, based on their blood glucose levels and glucose and insulin tolerance tests. They also discovered that turmeric-fed obese mice showed significantly reduced inflammation in fat tissue and liver compared to controls.

They speculate that curcumin - the anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant ingredient in turmeric - lessens insulin resistance and prevents Type 2 diabetes in these mouse models by dampening the inflammatory response provoked by obesity.

Their findings are the subject of a soon-to-be published paper in the journal 'Endocrinology' and were presented at ENDO 2008 - the Endocrine Society's annual meeting.

Humans can eat turmeric - Curcuma longa - in doses of up to 12 grams daily without ill effects, Tortoriello said.

The researchers fed high doses of dietary curcumin to two different mouse models of obesity and Type 2 diabetes - mice fed a high-fat diet and leptin-deficient obese female mice. Lean wild-type mice that were fed low-fat diets were used as controls.

The inflammation associated with obesity was shown - several years ago - by researchers at the same diabetes center to be due, in part, to the presence of immune cells called macrophages in fat tissues throughout the body.

These cells produce 'cytokine' molecules that can cause inflammation in organs such as the heart, while also increasing insulin resistance in muscle and liver.

Researchers thought that by suppressing the number and activity of these cells with turmeric - or a drug with similar actions - it may be possible to reduce some of the adverse consequences of obesity.

In addition, eating curcumin also was associated with a 'small but significant' decline in body weight and fat content, despite level or higher calorie consumption - suggesting that curcumin beneficially influences body composition.

"It's too early to tell whether increasing dietary curcumin intake in obese people with diabetes will show a similar benefit" - Dr. Tortoriello said. "Although the daily intake of curcumin one might have to consume as a primary diabetes treatment is, most likely, impractical, it is entirely possible that lower dosages of curcumin could nicely complement our traditional therapies as a natural and safe treatment" - he added.

For now, Dr. Tortoriello and his colleagues have concluded that turmeric - and its active anti-oxidant ingredient, curcumin - reverses many of the inflammatory and metabolic problems associated with obesity and improves blood-sugar control in mouse models of Type 2 diabetes.