Turmeric is widely recognized as the spice that gives curry powder its distinctive color and flavor, but it’s more than a culinary staple. In fact, the golden spice has been used as an herbal medicine for nearly 4000 years.1

In recent decades, researchers have studied turmeric’s main active ingredient, curcumin, to see if it’s a viable treatment option for various prominent disease states. What does science say about turmeric’s potential role in combatting cancer, type 2 diabetes (T2D), depression, and arthritis?

Cancer

In vitro and animal model studies suggest that curcumin has anticancer properties. The bright yellow chemical is thought to inhibit cell proliferation by decreasing the expression of cell-signaling components that are important for cancer growth.2,3

While high-quality clinical trials are in relative short supply, there have been notable in-human studies on the subject. In a 2016 pilot phase 2 study, researchers evaluated 26 men with progressive chemotherapy-naive metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (CRPC) who received curcumin 6 g daily in combination with docetaxel and prednisone for 6 cycles. A prostate-specific antigen (PSA) response of 59% was noted, and 40% of patients experienced a partial response. No adverse events were attributed to curcumin.4

Also in 2016, researchers evaluated the efficacy of curcumin for leukoplakia. In a phase 2 trial, investigators found that curcumin administration resulted in a higher number of clinical responses compared with placebo (67.5% vs 55.3%).5

Bottom Line: While laboratory research and early phase clinical trials show anticancer properties in curcumin, it’s premature to state that its anticancer effects are applicable to humans. Currently, there is a lack of large-scale, well-controlled, late-phase clinical trials on the subject.

Type 2 Diabetes

In 2013, researchers published a systematic review of curcumin and T2D. The investigators found that turmeric may help lower blood glucose levels and other diabetes-related complications. However, many of the findings included were from animal studies. The researchers concluded that clinical trials are needed to confirm curcumin’s potential in limiting diabetes and associated disorders.6

One noteworthy clinical trial was conducted in Thailand. In the randomized, double-blind study, 240 participants with prediabetes were randomly assigned to receive curcumin or placebo capsules for 9 months. After treatment, 16.4% of subjects in the placebo group were diagnosed with T2D mellitus, while none of the people in the curcumin group received the same diagnosis.7

Bottom Line: While there is some evidence to suggest that curcumin can help prevent the onset of T2D, multiple robust clinical trials are needed to verify its effectiveness in this disease state.

This article originally appeared on Clinical Advisor