Curcuma and Boswellia May Help Prevent Cancer

Ancient Herbs Might Save Your Life
Science finds new uses for turmeric and frankincense

"Are Curcuma and Boswellia on the menu?"
ou'll probably never see the word "polyphenols" on your favorite neighborhood restaurant's menu, but that doesn't mean that you don't eat them anyway - because you probably enjoy them all the time. Polyphenols are a group of plant compounds found in a variety of everyday foods, such as chocolate, wine, tea, fruits, vegetables, and spices. That's a good thing, because polyphenols provide a wide range of health benefits. For example, you've probably heard about the polyphenols in wine and tea that lower the risk of heart disease and improve serum lipid levels. Recently, other polyphenolic compounds from a variety of foods have been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antithrombotic properties. These findings make it clear that a diet rich in polyphenols offers a cornucopia of health benefits.

According to recent research,
curcumin possesses a variety of
qualities that may make it a
significant anticancer agent. The
most important of these is its
antioxidant, or free radical-
scavenging, capacity.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa), the spice that gives curry and mustard their yellow color, is a rich source of polyphenols. Extracted from the plant's rhizome (the underground stem), turmeric powder has long been used in Southeast Asia to enhance the flavor of food and protect against spoilage. It has also been employed in traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments, including gastrointestinal distress, inflammation, headaches, infections, and colds.

Turmeric contains over a dozen polyphenolic compounds, called curcuminoids, that yield a variety of health benefits. They function as powerful antioxidants - a significant property in light of new research suggesting that one of them, curcumin, has important anticancer properties (see the sidebar).

The Many Benefits of Curcumin

The curcuminoids found in turmeric may be best known for their antioxidant properties - especially their ability to lower the risk of lipid peroxidation (free radical damage). In fact, one study in rats showed that curcumin was eight times more potent than vitamin E in preventing lipid peroxidation, thus establishing it as a potent antioxidant.1

Tissue inflammation is associated with increased levels of free radicals and lipid peroxides generated in inflamed tissue, as well as the liver. Given curcumin's potent antioxidant properties, it's not surprising that animals supplemented with curcumin show decreased levels of lipid peroxidation and consequent reduction in chemically induced inflammation.2

In addition to these properties, curcumin is associated with a host of other health benefits. For example, it also has a protective effect on liver function, inhibits the growth and action of some microbial agents, and helps to improve blood lipid chemistry by preventing the buildup of lipids such as cholesterol. In addition, as noted elsewhere in this article, curcumin also induces antitumor activity and may reduce the risk of cancer in some individuals.


  1. Reddy ACP, Lokesh BR. Studies on the spice principles as antioxidants in the inhibition of lipid peroxidation of rat liver microsomes. Mol Cell Biochem 1992;111:117.
  2. Majeed M, Badmaev V, Shivakumar U, Rajendran R, in Curcuminoids: Antioxidant Phytonutrients. Nutriscience Publishers, Piscataway NJ, 1995,pp. 34-36.

Curcumin Benefits High-Risk-for-Cancer Patients
Medical researchers in Taiwan have recently obtained promising results in the first clinical trial designed to investigate the effect of curcumin supplementation in patients at high risk for cancer.1 Selected on the basis of tissue histology (microscopic analysis of tissue structure), all the patients had diseases or conditions that indicated they were likely to develop cancer.

The patients included those with premalignant tissue growths or another high-risk condition, including abnormal tissue structure of the stomach/intestine, oral cavity, urinary bladder, uterus/cervix, or skin.*

*The specific conditions identified in the patients were: intestinal metaplasia of the stomach (a change in cell type to an abnormal form); oral leukoplakia (white patches on mucous membranes of the mouth that may become cancerous); recently resected urinary bladder cancer (bladder cancer that has been surgically removed); uterine cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (uncontrolled growth of cells in the lining of the cervix that may become cancerous); and Bowen's disease (squamous cell carcinoma that often occurs in multiple sites in the skin).

The three-year study enrolled a total of 25 patients (13 men and 12 women) ranging in age from 36 to 77. All patients received curcumin treatment for three months. The trial was a "dose escalation" design, so not all the patients received the same dose. They were divided into five groups, receiving the following daily dosages: 500 mg (six patients), 1000 mg (six patients), 2000 mg (four patients), 4000 mg (six patients), and 8000 mg (three patients).

This trial yielded a variety of important results. First, all the doses used were nontoxic to the participants, which means that doses as high as 8000 mg/day for three months were tolerated by high-risk individuals. Second, the study demonstrated that curcumin has a chemopreventive effect against human cancers. For example, histological improvement was observed in seven of the 25 participants (28%) over the three-month treatment period. Finally, there appeared to be no difference in benefit among the different doses - 500 mg appeared to give results equal to 4000 mg. Interestingly, at the highest dose of all, 8000 mg, no improvement was observed in any of the patients. This seems to suggest that too much curcumin doesn't work, but this may simply be because there were too few patients (only three were enrolled at this dose) for a statistically significant sample.

Boswellic acids have strong
anti-inflammatory action and thus
help to reduce the pain and other
symptoms associated with
inflammatory diseases.

The results of this study are promising, yet the researchers caution that larger studies are needed to confirm curcumin's therapeutic effect on specific tissue lesions. For example, tissue examined microscopically revealed histological improvement in one of two patients (50%) with recently resected urinary bladder cancer; two of seven patients (29%) with oral leukoplakia; one of six patients (17%) with intestinal metaplasia of the stomach; one of four patients (25%) with cervical intraepithelial neoplasia; and two of six patients (33%) with Bowen's disease. A comparison of these percentages is meaningless, because the numbers of patients involved are so small. Trials consisting of larger study populations and longer treatment programs may help to determine which diseases would be most susceptible to curcumin therapy.

Curcumin Helps Prevent Tumor Growth
According to recent research, curcumin possesses a variety of qualities that may make it a significant anticancer agent.2 The most important of these is its antioxidant, or free radical-scavenging, capacity. Free radicals can damage many different components of cells, including DNA. Curcumin's protective role against free radical damage to lipids and DNA may serve as a significant mechanism to help reduce the risk of cancer in some individuals.

Curcumin's capacity to inhibit chemical carcinogenesis may also serve to reduce tumor growth. Carcinogens are chemicals that carry a high risk of inducing tissue damage that can lead to cancer. In an animal study, curcumin was found to inactivate a range of these chemical carcinogens before they caused cellular damage.2 This experiment also demonstrated that supplementation with curcumin can play a protective role against tumor formation.

Additional research3 suggests that curcumin may induce cancer cells to self-destruct. The details of this process are still obscure, but it may be that curcumin interferes with crucial communication pathways that cancer cells require in order to proliferate and produce tumors.

Boswellic Acid Also Helps Fight Cancer
Boswellia serrata is another natural healing herb from Southeast Asia. Best known as the source of frankincense, one of the three Gifts of the Magi, Boswellia is a large, deciduous tree found throughout the drier hilly regions of India. Long used as a traditional healing aid, its therapeutic properties have been confirmed by recent scientific evidence of its role in reducing pain and swelling associated with inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis, colitis, Crohn's disease, and asthma.

Inflammatory processes are generally characterized by increased leukotriene production. Leukotrienes are a special type of signaling molecule produced by cells of the immune system that recruit additional immune cells to the affected area to mount a rapid response. This inflammatory response is characterized by five symptoms: redness, heat, pain, swelling, and decreased function of the affected body part. Because boswellic acids - the group of related active compounds found in Boswellia - appear to be specific inhibitors of leukotrienes, they have strong anti-inflammatory action and thus help to reduce the pain and other symptoms associated with inflammatory diseases.

Data on Boswellia's effectiveness as an anticarcinogenic agent are also accumulating. To date, these studies have been performed exclusively with animals or with cultured cells in the laboratory, yet they show much promise. For example, boswellic acids have suppressed tumor growth in laboratory animals treated with tumor-promoting compounds.4 In addition, two separate studies have demonstrated that boswellic acids inhibit DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis in human cancer cells (specifically, leukemia cells).5,6 As a result, the cancerous cells are no longer able to proliferate.

Are Curcuma and Boswellia on Your Menu?
In the recent scientific studies identifying the remarkable therapeutic properties inherent in these time-honored herbs, Curcuma and Boswellia, the ancient world's wisdom is upheld anew: both of them offer great value as health aids.

A diet rich in fruit and vegetables goes a long way toward protecting you against illness caused by free radicals and inflammatory disease. But let's face it: when higher amounts that can't be obtained from your daily diet are identified as beneficial, you may wish to consider the added protection provided by the tried-and-true herbs of Southeast Asia, Curcuma and Boswellia, to give your health that extra edge.


  1. Cheng A-L, Hsu C-H, Lin J-K, et al. Phase I clinical trial of curcumin,a chemopreventive agent, in patients with high-risk or pre-malignant lesions. Anticancer Res 2001;27:2895-2900.
  2. Surh Y-J, Han SS, Keum Y-S, Seo H-J, Lee SS. Inhibitory effects of curcumin and capsaicin on phorbol ester-induced activation of eukaryotic transcription factors, NF-kB and AP-1. BioFactors 2000;12:107-12.
  3. Choudhuri T, Pal S, Agwarwal ML, Das T, Sa G. Curcumin induces apoptosis in human breast cancer cells through p53-dependent Bax induction. FEBS Lett 2002 Feb 13;512(1-3):334-40.
  4. Majeed M, Badmaev V, Gopinathan S, et al., in Boswellin: The Anti-inflammatory Phytonutrients. Nutriscience Publishers, Piscataway NJ, 1996, p. 7.
  5. Huang MT, Badmaev V, King Y, et al. Anti-tumor and anti-cancergenic activities of triterpenoid, beta-boswellic acid. Biofactors 2000;13:225-230.
  6. Shao Y, Ho CT, Chin CK, et al. Inhibitory activity of boswellic acids from Boswellia serrata against human leukemia HL-60 cells in culture. Planta Med 1998;64:328-31.

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