Spicing Up Your Life

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Since I'm of Indian descent, spicy foods have long been a part of my diet. The distinctive smell of curry often wafted through my childhood home as my mom prepared her deliciously spicy dishes, often served with a dose of "it's good for you." She is a fantastic cook, and it turns out she may have been right about the health benefits of curry as well. According to preliminary research presented last week at a meeting of the American Physiological Society, curcumin, which gives the curry spice tumeric its yellow color, may help protect the brain against Alzheimer's disease.

Scientists have long theorized that free radicals released as we age could be a major cause of Alzheimer's. The new study, conducted by researchers at three centers in Italy, as well as New York Medical College, found that curcumin triggers production of a protein called HO-1 that protects against free radicals — at least in lab rats. According to New York Medical College's Nader Abraham, curcumin, which is also found in turnips, brussels sprouts and cauliflower, could help protect human brains as well.

Other scientists are more cautious. Zaven Khachaturian of the Alzheimer's Association warns that large-scale human studies will be necessary to determine just how effective curcumin is, what the appropriate dose should be and whether there are any side effects. But if the studies pan out, curcumin could join a growing list of spices with known or suspected medicinal properties.

For example, cardamom, an aromatic herb native to India that tastes like black licorice, has long been used to treat indigestion. Cumin, which is used to spice up chili con carne and hot tamales, may help ward off prostate cancer. Capsaicin, the main chemical in chili pepper, is used in topical creams to provide relief from arthritis. And allicin, the main ingredient in crushed garlic, can, when consumed in large quantities, reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. Some studies have shown it may even help prevent certain cancers.

Intriguing as such associations are, none of these kitchen spices is ready for the medicine cabinet. And they are no substitute for a healthy diet, lots of exercise and regular visits with your doctor — especially if you have a family history of Alzheimer's or heart disease.

Sanjay Gupta is a neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent