Eastern spice to tackle a Western epidemic

Jul 18 2015

By Professor Manohar Garg *

As National Diabetes Week draws to a close, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes worldwide continues to soar at an alarming rate due to poor nutrition, physical inactivity, urbanisation in developing countries and genetic predispositions.

Over one million Australians are currently living with diabetes and 200 new cases are diagnosed every day. Overall cost to our economy is estimated to be as high as $14 billion annually.

In comparison, India has more than 65 million people suffering from diabetes and this number is expected to almost double in the next 20 years, representing over 10 per cent of the adult population.

With the influx of nutrient-poor, energy-dense Westernised (fast) foods in recent years, the incidence of diabetes has sky-rocketed in India. Traditional meals rich in herbs and spices, rich in healthy natural compounds, have been replaced by calorific foods.

Was there something in traditional meals that protected Indians from transitioning into diabetes? Can we identify bioactive constituents of Eastern diets that may have provided protection against diabetes for centuries?My team at the University of Newcastle’s Nutraceuticals Research Group believe that curcumin, which is isolated from the spice turmeric belonging to the ginger family, can delay the onset of type 2 diabetes or prevent it altogether.

Turmeric has a rich history in India, being best known as a food colouring but also used to promote healing of bruises, sprains, infected wounds and inflammation. Mixed with borax as a paste, turmeric is also applied to reduce tissue swelling due to inflammation.

In olden days, a teaspoon of turmeric powder stirred in a glass of warm milk was used as a treatment for skin cuts, infections and pain reduction. My mother fed me this when I was injured or had inflammation as a child, and invariably I would get a good sleep and feel better when I woke up.

Nowadays in India the level of curcumin (turmeric) intake has dropped considerably and it parallels with the diabetes epidemic we’re now seeing.

The root cause of diabetes is systemic inflammation, which damages the beta cells of the pancreas and impacts insulin secretion and function, causing an elevation in sugar levels.

Curcumin is almost tasteless but it’s a potent anti-inflammatory substance. We have a lot of data from pre-clinical trials and need to confirm this in people who are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Our goal is to nip the inflammation in the bud.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also well known to reduce inflammation as well as improving cardiac health.

The biological mechanisms surrounding curcumin and omega-3 fats are different, so we want to test if they complement each other and have treatment synergies beyond their individual effects. The thinking is that the combination is safe, free of any side-effects and may prove as effective as pharmacological drugs commonly used for management of diabetes.

The randomised control trial will test both compounds, with the recruitment group being segregated into four. One will get curcumin only, the second will get omega-3 fat only, the third will receive both, and the fourth will serve as a control group.

The capsules contain 200 milligrams of curcumin and 1 gram of omega-3 fat respectively.

People who are prone to develop diabetes because of impaired glucose tolerance or impaired fasting glucose, and who are aged between 30 and 70, may be eligible. They should call Rohith Thota on 4921 5636 or email rohithnagendra.thota@uon.edu.au.

* Reprinted from Newcastle Herald Opinion piece, 18/7/15. Professor Manohar Garg researches in conjunction with HMRI’s Cardiovascular Research program.