Can Common Cooking Spice Combat Obesity?

Turmeric, an Asian spice found in many curries, has a long history of use in reducing inflammation, healing wounds and relieving pain, but can it prevent diabetes? Since inflammation plays a big role in many diseases and is believed to be involved in the onset of both obesity and type 2 diabetes, researchers were curious what effect the herb might have on diabetic mice.

Drew Tortoriello, M.D., an endocrinologist and research scientist at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University Medical Center, and his colleagues 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 mice by dampening the inflammatory response provoked by obesity.

The inflammation associated with obesity was shown several years ago by researchers in the Naomi Berrie 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, and islets of the pancreas, while also increasing insulin resistance in muscle and liver. Researchers hypothesized 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.

It’s too early to tell whether increasing dietary curcumin [through turmeric] 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 likely impractical, it is entirely possible that lower dosages of curcumin could nicely complement our traditional therapies as a natural and safe treatment.”

For now, the conclusion that Dr. Tortoriello and his colleagues have reached is 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.

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