Analysis: Ancient medicine useful today

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arthritisWASHINGTON, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- Two new studies, one in animals, suggest that ancient medicine may have a lot more to offer than traditional drugs.

A study in the November issue of Arthritis and Rheumatism Journal suggests that turmeric and turmeric dietary supplements may prevent rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis in lab animals.

The root turmeric has been used in Asian medicine for centuries for its ability to treat arthritis. Modern anti-inflammatory medications used to treat arthritis have many side effects, so doctors and researchers have been seeking alternative, holistic treatments for the condition.

Today, turmeric dietary supplements are marketed as curcumin, the chemical that gives turmeric its yellow color. It's also thought to act as an anti-inflammatory.

"Our goal with the botanical treatments in particular is to separate ... that which is good in traditional medicinal plants from that which is harmful," said Dr. Janet L. Funk of the University of Arizona College of Medicine, one of the study's lead researchers.

"In this way, we hope not only to understand and test traditional treatment practices, but to advance and improve their use."

Funk worked with Dr. Barbara N. Timmermann, then-director of the National Institutes of Health-funded Arizona Center for Phytomedicine Research, to test turmeric dietary supplements available on the market. They found that on average, store-bought supplements contain only 40 percent of what is listed on the label. In order to better study the effects of curcuminoids, Funk and Timmerman created their own extracts that contained the amount of chemicals that supplements claim to contain.

"There's no monitoring of what goes into dietary supplements," said Funk. "The study we conducted was a very different kind of study than what's out there for botanicals, because we used such well-characterized extracts."

The researchers tested the effectiveness of the extracts on lab rats that had rheumatoid arthritis. The results demonstrated that curcuminoids do in fact relieve symptoms.

The study suggests that similar results are likely to occur in humans, but this is a hypothesis that can only be proven with clinical trials, Funk said.

Although more work needs to be done to show turmeric is beneficial to humans, Dr. William Boggs, medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, said it's a good start.

"It's nice to be able to see some evidence that supports what people have been practicing for a long time," Boggs said.

If results turn out to be the same in humans, then people would probably need about 1.5 grams of curcuminoids per day, about 10 times the amount of turmeric an average person in India consumes daily, Funk said. The only way to take in this amount of curcuminoids would be a dietary supplement.

The study is the first of its kind to try to document the effect of curcuminoids in live animals. It's also the first study to test extracts similar to those sold in stores.

"We're in the process of creating the same type of rigorous scientific standards for botanicals as exist for pharmaceutical drugs," Funk said.

Prior to this study, the knowledge of turmeric's effects on arthritis was based on one small clinical study of rheumatoid arthritis and three small animal arthritis studies.

Funk's study revealed that there are other non-curcumin parts of turmeric that are also anti-inflammatory, and these components may act together and/or with curcumin to block inflammation.

Perhaps the most important part of the study is that it was funded by the Office of Dietary Supplements and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the NIH, Funk said.

"The fact that it's not industry-funded gives it more credibility," she said.

Another study that will also be published in the November 2006 issue of Arthritis and Rheumatism examines the combined effect of acupuncture and traditional treatment as compared to just traditional treatment in patients with osteoarthritis.

Led by Dr. Claudia M. Witt of the University Medical Center in Berlin, Germany, the study followed 3,553 sufferers of osteoarthritis of the knee or hip between July 2001 and July 2004.

The subjects were divided into three groups: 322 in a randomized group that immediately received up to 15 sessions of acupuncture in the first three months of the study; 310 in the control group, which received no acupuncture for the first three months; and 2,921 in the non-randomized group, which received the same treatment as the acupuncture group.

The patients who received acupuncture showed marked improvement in contrast to the patients who underwent traditional treatment alone.

Many studies conducted on acupuncture suggest it relieves symptoms of arthritis.

"Clinical evidence is growing that people with osteoarthritis can benefit from acupuncture in addition to other treatment," Boggs said.

Although these studies show that alternative medicine may offer advantages, they do have limitations. In the acupuncture study, neither patients nor providers were blinded, which can lead to bias. Also, the exact type of acupuncture used was left to the discretion of the providers, meaning that all patients did not necessarily receive the same treatment.

Research is still needed on how dietary supplements may interact with other drugs, Boggs said.

"People who want to use turmeric should do so in consultation with their practitioner so that they can do it safely."

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