Fitness50 – Turmeric – A Superfood? Close but not quite

[This is an installment in a series I’m writing on living long and living well.  I expect to take about fifty years to write it. Go here to read the introduction. At this point I have no plans for scheduled installments and I’m not following any couch to marathon plan. I write about fitness and food but am also deeply interested in more nuanced things that make life good. If you would like to know when I publish please enter your email address in the follow button at the top right of any page. Thanks!]


Copyright 2015, Dennis Mitton

tumeric1Regular readers know that I patently reject the idea of super foods or super evil foods. There is no food or supplement on the planet that will catapult you to immediate superhealth nor is there any food, sans toxins or poisons, that will cause immediate disease. These are sales pitches meant to sell a product. So when Dave Asprey over at Bulletproof Executive is urging you to buy from his last lots of charcoal tabs (yes – he wants you to swallow charcoal) please – ignore it and char your black bean burger if you feel the need for some burnt organics in your life.

My argument is simple: living a healthy life of good food, simple exercise, and meaningful relationships will promote and maintain health better than anything from a bottle. The counter argument – a good one – is that most people don’t eat right, hate exercise that doesn’t include lifting a sixteen ounce liquid weight to your mouth, and generally despise their family. I won’t argue. But my goal is to encourage people who opt for health. There are plenty of others who recognize that the money comes from pointing out just how unhealthy you are and selling you things to cover your symptoms.

But lately I’ve become uncharacteristically enamored with turmeric (also called curcumin) after reading an article claiming that the region in India where the most turmeric is consumed is almost devoid of Alzheimer’s Disease. I can’t find where this has been shown to be true and, though the link is anecdotal and correlative at best, there is much interesting research in the area.  But beware – this kind of news story causes almost uncontrolled glee from makers of vitamins and other sales folks as they see a veritable trough of money rolling down the aisle from folks wanting to avoid the heartbreak of Alzheimers – and who doesn’t? But the science is clear at this point – while turmeric has promise there is yet any clear and causal relationship between turmeric,or curcumin and a healthy brain.

turmeric1Per the Alzheimers Society turmeric is known to have anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anti-amyloid characteristics. They note that it has been shown in studies to break down amyloid-beta plaques which are the putative symptom causing neural traits of the disease. Put most simply these ‘holes’ in the brain are akin to breaks in a train track – as thoughts travel in your brain they are derailed and can’t be completed. What kind of restored brain function one would have if these breaks were repaired is not clear. They note that while turmeric’s anti-plaque activity can be shown in research studies (in rats or mice?) the results are not duplicated in human clinical studies. Turmeric is not easily absorbed (low bio-availability) which may be the cause of this difference between lab and clinic. Or it just might not have the same effects in humans. More work is needed.

From the Alzheimers Society’s site I learned that another compound in turmeric, turmerone, has the unique ability to promote neural stem cell growth. These studies have only been performed on animals to date that they warn that it would be unlikely that humans would eat the amounts necessary to see results.

For what it’s worth I have decided to up my turmeric intake. I love curry and could eat Indian food most days of the week but will happily satisfy myself with a comfortable hot tea. I use a peeler to collect several slices of turmeric and ginger and steep them in hot water with honey for a few minutes and voila! At work I drink a cup of Pukka brand turmeric tea in the afternoon. If your tea taste leans toward jasmine or Lipton this brew will be different. It’s earthy and peppery which gives me a nice jolt in mid-afternoon.

Besides the science of turmeric and Alzheimers the other take away here is to always check in with a recognized source of science information for questions about health and wellness.  Have you ever seen a book with ‘Not a Great Read!’ splashed on the cover? Neither will you find that anyone selling you stuff reveals that it probably won’t do what they’re selling it for. Educate yourself to make informed decisions about your health. No one else will.

turmericI doubt very seriously that a cup of tea per day, or even a plate of curried vegetables, will stave off any of the issues associated with neural plaques. But, as I repeat often, when it comes to health and exercise it all adds up. And the tea tastes good and there appears to be no downside. So drink up and enjoy.

Go here to see the turmeric page for the Alzheimer’s Society

Go here for an excellent overview of the relationship of turmeric to health in the Annals of Indian Academy for Neurology

Go here for the WebMD turmeric page

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Ghostly and absurd, the works of Francesca Woodman

woodman2Something a little different tonight. While my first love is evolution and biology I was, for a time, an ardent art history major. True enough, the two disciplines are just about as far as you can get but there it is. For reasons that I probably shouldn’t explore my favorite photographer is Francesca Woodman. She died young and sadly and never really crossed the line into a professional art career. Her work spans her young life as a student beginning with a self-portrait at 13.woodman1

Somehow – and this is the wonder of art – she captures something for me. He photographs are typically of herself, often nude, often out of kilter and out of focus, and tinged with the absurd. Looking at her photos reminds me of watching The Blair Witch Project: though you know from the outset that it’s a ruse you are still drawn in and tempted with belief. The ghostliness of her photos carries the same theme of an in-between – is she moving or is the photo just blurred. She explores the theme again with photos of her emerging from the wall, the window, everything is caught between coming and going.

I don’t know how her vision ties to her illness. She attempted suicide, spent time in therapy, and then finally leapt from an upstairs window.

Here is her Wiki entry.

Here for a NYT review of her life and work.