One of the premiere benefits of using the hallmarks of aging as our framework for understanding cellular aging is the number of solutions scientists have been able to explore in the last few decades. One of the solutions emerging is the use of turmeric, a plant that has been used to flavor curries and dye fabric for centuries. Turmeric is of special interest in the health sphere because of its anti-inflammatory properties and more recently due to a possible active ingredient, curcumin, which has been suggested as having anti-aging properties.
With that in mind, we took a deeper dive into the science of using turmeric to slow the hallmarks of aging. Here we’ll discuss what turmeric is and how its traditionally used, how its active ingredient curcumin may work to slow aging, what evidence exists to support anti-aging claims, and how you can incorporate turmeric into your longevity protocol.
Turmeric and Its Properties
Turmeric is a flowering plant belonging to the ginger family. The plant is native to India and parts of southeast Asia where it is gathered each year. The plant root/stem is called a rhizome and is boiled or dried then ground to create a dark yellow powder. Traditionally, turmeric has been used in Ayurvedic medicine, a type of alternative medicine that promotes the use of herbs, oils, massage, and stretching (i.e., yoga) to alleviate disease, as a therapy for skin conditions, upper respiratory infection, joint inflammation, and GI problems.
Clinical research on the efficacy of Ayurveda therapies suggest modest results at best, although published research has shown that Ayurveda may improve osteoarthritis and type 2 diabetes. With respect to turmeric, two studies (here and here) have shown that it is helpful and safe as a therapy for ulcerative colitis. While studies on the use of turmeric and other alternative therapies are often small and not always well-designed, the studies that have passed muster suggest that these therapies have bioactive components that warrant additional study.
Curcumin and Lifespan
Curcumin has garnered attention as the active ingredient that gives turmeric its healing properties. Biologically, curcumin is classified as a plant hormetic and causes a mild stress response in the body that can produce beneficial health effects. In geroscience, curcumin has shown links to sirtuins and AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), two of the major pathways shown to mediate the aging process.
Go Deeper: Check out this video of our forever fave, Rhonda Patrick, explaining how the hormetic response works and why it is health protective.
Research suggests that curcumin interacts with several different biochemical pathways to produce its effects. To date, curcumin has been shown to positively affect hallmarks of aging such as genomic instability, cellular senescence and telomere attrition, and altered cellular communication. As one of the primary hallmarks of aging, Genomic instability is one of the factors known to cause damage to our bodies. Exposure to physical, chemical, and biological factors increases oxidative stress which can damage our DNA and alter gene expression. Research suggests that as a hormetic compound, low doses of curcumin have antioxidant properties that reduce oxidative stress and thus genomic instability. Curcumin causes a mild stress response that triggers the Nrf2 pathway to activate antioxidative enzymes like heme oxygenase and sirtuins.
Source: Bielak-Zmijewska, A., Grabowska, W., Ciolko, A., Bojko, A., Mosieniak, G., Bijoch, Ł., & Sikora, E. (2019). The Role of Curcumin in the Modulation of Ageing. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 20(5), 1239. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/ijms20051239
Telomeres serve as protective end caps for our DNA and shorten with each round of cell division. When the telomere has been completely degraded, the cell suspends any further replication—senescence—in order to prevent the propagation of damaged DNA. As a cause and response to damage, telomere attrition and senescence, respectively, produce mutations and DNA damage, and inflammation that overwhelms the body's innate repair mechanisms and produces age-related diseases like cancer and heart disease. Research suggests that curcumin inhibits the growth in tumor cells by surprising telomerase activity in cancer cells; it has also been shown to suppress inflammation by decreasing the reactive O2 and proinflammatory factors produced by an overaccumulation of senescent cells and increasing the body’s antioxidant defenses.
Altered cellular communication is the end result of the degradation of normal function in the body and marks one of the main causes of functional decline with age. Aging has been hypothesized to affect the way cells communicate and maintain normal hormone signaling via four pathways, one of which is through a process called inflammaging. This progressive pro-inflammatory state increases inflammatory factors in the cells and surrounding tissues, disrupts autophagy, and inhibits normal cell function. Research suggests that curcumin activates the transcription factor NF-κB which is associated with several signaling pathways that help regulate lifespan (e.g., mTOR, FOXO).
Animal vs. Human Trials
Despite its measurable effects on key aging pathways and hallmarks, research in animal and human models often yields markedly different results. Generally speaking, curcumin has been shown to increase lifespan in fruit flies, roundworms, and mice; the same has yet to be shown in humans, however. In regards to neurodegeneration and cognitive decline, this study in middle-aged and older adults showed that when compared to controls, supplementing curcumin for 12 weeks didn’t improve motor or cognitive functions in the experimental group. Conversely, this study in mice found that curcumin was neuroprotective and decreased Alzheimer’s precursors.
Another example of the vast divergence in research results in animal and human models is heart disease. While this study performed in aged mice showed that curcumin activated SIRT1 in the vascular system, reduced oxidative stress and inflammation, and reduced cellular senescence suggesting cardioprotective effects. Human trials haven’t been as favorable; while this study using in vitro human cells showed that curcumin activates sirtuins, it failed to reduce or postpone cellular senescence in the vascular system.
Go Deeper: Learn more about the potential benefits of curcumin in longevity with these studies performed in fruit flies and roundworms
As a possible longevity compound, little evidence exists to suggest viability, though there is a debate in the scientific community. Pharmacologists note that the curcumin has yet to show health benefits in human clinical trials; this review had a particularly negative outlook on the prospect of using curcumin not just in longevity science but as a treatment for other conditions, calling it a “a highly improbable lead” due to the compounds instability and limited bioavailability (approx. 1% according to this article). In a follow-up opinion, the same reviews modified their stance slightly, noting that curcumin is one of hundreds of bioactive chemicals in turmeric and that their review of clinical trials is in no way exhaustive. Still, the sentiment of the aforementioned reviewers is echoed in this study that found no evidence for the use of “[isolated phytonutrient antioxidants and anti-inflammatories as longevity therapeutics, even though consumption of whole foods is associated with enhanced healthspan and lifespan]”.
On the other side of the debate are scientists who argue that while curcumin might be a tenuous solution, its more stable and chemically similar metabolites have yielded positive effects on age-related disease and are worth considering as therapeutics in geroscience. This study performed in mice showed that the curcumin metabolite tetrahydrocurcumin (TC) reduced neuroinflammation and soluble Aβ aggregates, both of which are contributors to Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline. Curcumin metabolites are more readily available and can be detected in the bloodstream.
Go Deeper: Check out this recent review on the effects of curcumin and its metabolites on age-related disease and lifespan.
The debate on whether curcumin is a viable longevity compound is likely to continue and we hope it does. The studies examining clinical effects of curcumin and its metabolites in humans is expanding, but likely requires much more research to make a definitive statement on efficacy. As it sits now, the biochemical mechanisms underlying the use of turmeric’s active as a longevity compound are solid. Research on pathways like mTOR and sirtuins are well studied and we know from research that plant hormetics produce favorable results. The studies that have been performed using turmeric while small, suggest that the use of the plant is very much based in What remains to be seen is which active compound found in turmeric is responsible for its anti-inflammatory properties.
Our best advice is to test it out. Turmeric is considered safe in most populations with the exclusion of pregnant women who should not consume the root in amounts excess of that which would normally be consumed in food.
Go Deeper: Click here for a list of Amazon’s top rated turmeric supplements.
Have you ever used turmeric? Would you? Let us know about your experience: firstname.lastname@example.org
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