Eating a curry not only spices up your life, it could save it too. Almost a third of breast cancer cases could be prevented by following a healthy diet and lifestyle.
So says Cancer Research UK, which estimates that with the right nutrition and physical activity, 27 per cent fewer people would develop the disease. However could a popular Indian spice also be useful for preventing certain types of cancer?
Scientists believe that curcumin, an extract from turmeric root, could have powerful anti-cancer properties. Turmeric has long been used to treat a variety of illnesses and studies show it has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antitumour properties.
Native to southern Asia, particularly India, the powder form of turmeric has a distinctive, vibrant yellow colour and a slight peppery taste. It forms the backbone of ancient Ayurvedic medicine and is traditionally thought to protect the liver, reduce inflammation, inhibit certain types of flu virus and restrain bacterial infections.
Breast cancer rates in India, where turmeric is a staple ingredient, are more than three times lower than in the UK and hundreds of studies over the past decade have looked at the effects of curcumin on breast cancer as well as other diseases.
Elderly people in India who consume turmeric regularly have the lowest incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in the world.
Cancer specialist Professor Will Steward, who has led many research projects on the effects of curcumin, believes it has enormous potential.
“Curcumin can target a variety of processes which are important in breast cancer development,” he says.
“These include reduced proliferation, reduction in potential to spread and increase in programmed cell death of tumour cells.”
Recent studies have found that curcumin appears to prevent the formation of molecules that allow circulating tumour cells to spread and attach to other body parts. It is possible that curcumin could interfere with one of the important mechanisms of cancer development.
However the benefits of curcumin as an anti-cancer agent may not be restricted to breast well-being.
“Some studies in humans and from laboratory experiments suggest potential benefit in pancreatic cancer, colorectal cancer and lung cancer,” says Professor Steward.
“We are running a trial, treating colorectal cancer patients with chemotherapy with or without the addition of curcumin. We hope to show that curcumin is safe, well tolerated and has the potential to improve the ability of chemotherapy to kill cancer cells.
“Also, new formulations of curcumin are being developed to increase its absorption into the body and hopefully its effect on tumours throughout the body.”
A daily dose contains the same amount of curcumin as roughly eight level teaspoons of turmeric. It also contains lycopene, a phytochemical found in tomatoes which acts as a blood thinner and is a powerful antioxidant, zinc and vitamin D3.
To promote better breast health, oncology dietitian Tara Whyand also recommends maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol, carbohydrates and saturated fats. Foods rich in zinc such as lean red meat and mixed nuts, lycopene (found in tomatoes and watermelon) and vitamin D (from oily fish and eggs) are healthy additions to your diet.
Post-menopausal women who have not had breast cancer should eat more phytoestrogens, found in soya bean products and the fibre of whole grains, fruit, vegetables and flaxseeds.