Turmeric has long been used as a favourite ingredient in global cooking, especially in India as the spice that gives curry its distinctive yellow colour. Turmeric however has been proven to be much more than just a simple way to jazz up a recipe and has been used medicinally for years in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine.
Turmeric is full of a compound know as curcumin, and it is this molecule which gives turmeric its wide range of useful properties for animal and human health.
“Curcumin’s diverse array of molecular targets affords it great potential as a therapeutic agent for a variety of inflammatory conditions.” – Jurenka 2009
Most of these properties stem from the fact curcumin can act both as an antioxidant, and as an anti-inflammatory. Both these actions can have positive ramifications throughout the body, and are great for general health too. Acknowledgement of these properties has stimulated a raft of research, with curcumin being mentioned in over 10,000 published clinical papers.
How does it work?
Inflammatory processes are happening all over the body, all of the time. Every time our immune systems attacks pathogens, or we suffer any knocks or falls, our inflammatory processes are there to both protect us and initiate repair. Like many things, small amounts of inflammation are natural and healthy, but when inflammation becomes chronic, problems soon start to arise. Chronic inflammation, that lasts from weeks to even years, is linked to a huge range of diseases seen in both us and our canine friends. These include arthritis; kidney, liver and cardiac disease; cognitive dysfunction (dog Alzheimer’s) and even cancer.
Curcumin works on a specific part of the pathway of inflammation, on a substance called NF-kB. This substance is involved in ‘switching on’ inflammation and is therefore a perfect target for ameliorating this overactive inflammatory response. Curcumin also reduces production of inflammatory molecules such as prostaglandins, tumour-necrosis factor and interleukins, as well as regulating cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes. The selective inhibition of COX-2 enzymes inhibits inflammation without impacting on other pathways, a major bonus for turmeric. This targeting works so well that curcumin can even match the effectiveness of some anti-inflammatory drugs, as well as being completely safe. Let’s not forget, most pharmaceuticals, especially with chronic use, come with a whole raft of unpleasant side effects.
As well as the anti-inflammatory effects, the antioxidant effects of turmeric also have health benefits in chronic disease. All inflammation creates oxidative stress, when cell damaging free radicals outnumber the antioxidants needed to neutralise them. This process drives propagation of all sorts of conditions, including osteoarthritis, kidney failure and liver cirrhosis. Supporting the body in times of oxidative stress by supplementing antioxidants can help restore this balance, and reduce the side effects of chronic inflammation such as the laying down of scar tissue within organs (a process known as fibrosis). Curcumin has also been shown to be not only an antioxidant itself, but also to increase the levels of antioxidants produced by the body, having a double effect on oxidative stress. The anti-oxidant effect of curcumin has been shown to be as powerful as vitamins C and E!
Although the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effect of turmeric has action across a wide range of conditions, the most commonly seen in dogs are osteoarthritis and cognitive dysfunction.
Turmeric is being regularly recommended for use in arthritis due to its potent anti-inflammatory action. Osteoarthritis is a painful degeneration of joint cartilage, due to wear and tear, combined with the action of cartilage destroying enzymes stimulated by inflammation, and the abnormal growth of new bone.
Osteoarthritis is characterised by stiffness, reduced range of motion and a reduction in normal energetic behaviours. Owners may notice dogs struggling after longer walks, unwilling to tackle stairs and no longer jumping onto the bed or into the car.
Almost all dogs will get some level of osteoarthritis in their lives. Osteoarthritis can occur even in young to middle aged dogs if they have predisposing factors, such as hip or elbow dysplasia (malformed joints) or obesity.
The high prevalence of arthritis, both in pets and people, means there is a push to develop novel treatments. The role of curcumin is coming to the fore in osteoarthritis research, with multiple clinical papers underpinning the positive impact of curcumin on inflamed joints.
“Curcumin offers a complementary ant-inflammatory support for OA treatment in dogs.” – Colliti 2012
Reducing inflammation not only reduces pain, but also slows down the progression of arthritis. Inflammatory mediators induce cartilage destroying enzymes that can speed up destruction of affected joints, and managing the underlying inflammatory process is key to putting the brakes on that process. Curcumin has been shown to reduce the effect of these cartilage destroying enzymes, such as matrix metalloproteinases.
A human study on patients with rheumatoid arthritis also found that curcumin was a more potent anti-inflammatory than the recommended drug diclofenac, and without any side effects!
The brain is made of specialised cells called neurones, that struggle to replicate. Complex processes have to happen to allow neurones to grow, and over time these processes fail more frequently, resulting in an overall loss of brain function – what we see as an aging brain. Turmeric has been shown to support this nerve growth, by stimulating something called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), which is a strong driver of the neurone generation process.
The benefits of turmeric go beyond an aging brain. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common neurodegenerative disease in the world, and our pets can get it too. In canines, we call this ‘cognitive dysfunction’ and it affects over a quarter of 11-12 year old dogs.
Vets are not sure what causes cognitive dysfunction, but it has been proven that supplementing antioxidants for dogs with cognitive dysfunction improves disorientation, reduces house-soiling and increases night-time sleep.
“Results support the clinical practice of nutritional supplementation as a valuable component of the therapeutic approach in cases of canine cognitive dysfunction.” – Heath 2007
Curcumin, a direct antioxidant, can cross the blood-brain barrier, and therefore has the ability to exert direct effect on the brain – a property not shared with many other molecules. It can also reduce the build-up of protein plaques in the brain, which are a hallmark of both Alzheimer’s disease in people and cognitive dysfunction in dogs.
There is no doubt we will see a rise in the use of turmeric and its extracts for therapeutic purposes in dogs, and the rise in clinical research shows that scientists are following the natural trends. The use of turmeric for common conditions such as osteoarthritis and cognitive dysfunction means there is a huge demand within the veterinary sector, and a growing awareness in the general public.
As we continue to research it is likely we will only discover more benefits of turmeric. Improvements in our understanding of the working of turmeric however only proves what our Eastern forefathers have known for generations; turmeric really is a wonder spice.
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