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Turmeric: the anti-catabolic in your kitchen cupboard

Are you a bodybuilder looking for a new substance to experiment with? And one that's completely legal to boot? Then the most popular newsletter in muscle-land has a tip for you: try turmeric.

You can't get more legal than that. You can find turmeric among the herbs & spices in the supermarket. And if we can believe the recent articles, the stuff is an anti-catabolic as well.

Turmeric is a spice from India, made from the dried roots of the Curcuma longa plant, a relative of ginger, Zingiber officinale. The colouring in C. Longa gives certain foods their yellow colour and turmeric powder is an ingredient in curry.

Traditional healers in India have used turmeric for centuries for its anti-inflammatory properties. They prescribe it for people who have respiratory problems or problems with wounds that will not heal. An important active ingredient in the plant is curcumin or diferuloylmethane. This is what is sold as yellow food colouring in the shops. The diagram below shows the chemical structure of curcumin.

Turmeric: the anti-catabolic in your kitchen cupboard

Some researchers believe that curcumin protects the brain. In animal studies curcumin has reduced the damage caused to the brain by cadmium and lead. Epidemiologists suspect that curcumin protects the brain against Alzheimer's disease, and that this is why the disease is less prevalent in India – where the consumption of turmeric is high – than in other parts of the world. [And there we were thinking that this had something to do with the low life expectancy there - Ed.]

Turmeric: the anti-catabolic in your kitchen cupboard
The anti-catabolic effect of turmeric is also the work of curcumin, according to a review article by researchers at Harvard Medical School. The article focuses on curcumin as a medicine against muscle breakdown as a result of blood poisoning, the researchers' specialisation. But, they write, "there is evidence that curcumin may inhibit the catabolic response in skeletal muscle during other catabolic conditions".

They are referring to animal studies that have shown the anti-catabolic effect of curcumin in cancer and damaged muscle tissue. In some of the studies curcumin also enhanced muscle tissue recovery.

In studies in which test animals could not use their muscles, the curcumin did not inhibit the breakdown of muscle protein though. So curcumin doesn't always work.

Researchers suspect that curcumin inhibits muscle breakdown mainly by sabotaging the molecular switch [a transcription factor] nuclear factor-kappa-B (NFkB). NFkB reacts to pretty much anything that is bad for the cell: from free radicals to UV light to oxidised LDL cholesterol. In these cases the transcription factor attaches itself to the DNA and in doing so turns on a whole battery of destruction mechanisms.

In cases of blood poisoning, but also cancer, heavy operations and malnutrition, NFkB can cause a lot of damage to muscle tissue. Curcumin is cheap and not toxic in high quantities. It could be an alternative to anabolic hormones, which are expensive and sometimes have side effects. That's why the researchers want to know more about it.

One problem is that the body does not absorb curcumin easily. Manufacturers are therefore working on nano-preparations of the substance. An alternative is to administer curcumin with pepper, the researchers write. "Another method to increase the bioavailability of curcumin is to add piperine, found in black pepper, which increases the uptake of curcumin by 2000 per cent in humans."

For the record: the writers of the article are not planning on marketing curcumin themselves. They were financed by the American National Institutes of Health.

The amount of muscle you develop depends on your anabolic and catabolic processes. If you raise the anabolic processes in your body you’ll progress faster. Reducing the catabolic processes will also have the same effect.

Whether curcumin has an anti-catabolic effect during and after heavy training has not been studied. But we definitely want to try it out.

Bet it tastes horrible though.

Nutrition. 2009 Feb;25(2):125-9.