Turmeric: Natural Protector From Chemo & Radio Side Effects

Turmeric is one such herb that the more you get to know about it the more it leaves you amazed. Curcumin is its biologically most important molecule and offers it the brilliant yellow color.

Turmeric is mainly used as a spice but traditional systems of medicine use it as a cure for all.
One of its most important pharmacological activities is turmeric’s anti-cancer property. We have already covered this in Turmeric for cancer.

Interestingly just as how curcumin destroys cancer cells, similarly it offers protection to normal cells. This is amazing since curcumin can differentiate between normal and cancer cells and thereby act deferentially towards them.

How does turmeric protect from side effects of chemotherapy?

turmericMost of the research on chemotherapy today is directed towards developing medications that target specific biological molecules in cancer cells and overcoming the drug resistance that cancer cells are developing.

However there is one drawback of chemotherapy that requires adequate attention and that is the deleterious effect it has on normal cells.

Chemotherapeutic agents are designed to attack a protein called nuclear factor-kappaB. This protein controls a number of processes in the body, one of them being cell proliferation and development.

Although this attack is targeted on tumor cells, the toxic effect of this reaction can affect surrounding cells. Other side effects include hair loss, diarrhea, fatigue, mouth sores etc.

Now what is interesting about curcumin is that it downregulates nuclear factor-kappaB in tumor cells and at the same time protects normal cells from the side effects of such a reaction. That is how it works as a chemoprotector.

Curcumin protects against chemotherapy induced toxicity

Curcumin by means of its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties reverses toxicity induced by chemotherapeutic agents in other tissues than cancer cells. Studies suggest that curcumin ameliorates :

  • Cisplastin induced damage to kidney tissues and ear
  • Protects gastrointestinal lining which prevents infection and gastric side effects
  • Adriamycin induced damage to heart and kidney tissues
  • Provides protection against bleomycin induced damage to lung tissues
  • Protects against breast cancer metastasis

Due to its chemoprotective and chemosensitizing action, curcumin is suggested as an adjunct to chemotherapy.

Curcumin destroys cancer stem cells and protects normal ones

A recent hypothesis has been developed that says that cancers contain a small population of stem cells which renew by themselves and resist conventional treatment. Therefore a therapy is required to target both cancer stem cells and non stem cancer cells.

Peter P. Sordillo and Lawrence Helson in their paper suggest that curcumin can act against cancer stem cells by reducing the production of inflammatory chemicals and interfering in the activity of a number of biochemical pathways responsible for cell survival.

However the authors also describe how curcumin protects normal stem cells and these are the reasons listed:

Curcumin is readily taken up by malignant cells compared to normal cells but that would be when both are present in the same environment.

Curcumin makes the conditions adverse for development of cancer stem cells and at the same time favourable for development of normal stem cells.

Curcumin may not always cause toxic effects to cancer stem cells. It may promote them to develop into cancer cells and then cause cell death. In this manner no toxic effects are produced that would affect normal cells.

This nature of curcumin to differentiate between cancer and normal cells and demonstrate different therapeutic action against each is very interesting.

Note: Curcumin offers protection against side effects of chemotherapy. It protects normal cells from the side effects, prevents chemotherapy induced toxicity in other tissues and also protects normal stem cells while killing cancer stem cells. This activity is a result of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory property.


How does turmeric protect from side effects of radiation therapy?

Radiation causes cell death by increasing formation of reactive oxygen species which damage the cell DNA. Curcumin offers radioprotection in the following manner:

  • Scavenges free radical species or reactive oxygen species
  • Raises the level of antioxidant enzymes
  • Reduces lipid peroxidation (type of cellular damage caused by free radicals)
  • Increases DNA repair and reduces DNA damage
  • Controlling cell cycle

This radioprotective nature of curcumin can be applied to radiation treatment or even as a protection from UV or harmful radiation that can cause malignancy or skin cancer.

Parshad et al were among the first researchers to suggest curcumin’s radioprotective activity. They observed that treating skin cells and immune cells with curcumin prior to radiation exposure reduces the frequency of DNA damage in normal cells.

This effect was attributed to curcumin’s antioxidant property. Similar results were seen in case of blood cells even at high doses of radiation. Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory property also protects against radiation induced skin toxicity.

Kunwar et al have described that a complex of curcumin and copper protects spleen cells from radiation induced damage by restoring the activity of antioxidant enzymes.

An animal study shows that curcumin administration 2 hours prior radiation exposure or immediately after treatment attenuates radiation induced DNA damage in bone marrow cells.

Curcumin is also proven to protect from radiation induced cataract formation and molecular or cell based lesions occurring after whole body irradiation. Results of other studies also suggest that curcumin is an effective radioprotector in order to control acute and chronic effects.

Radiation therapy tends to interfere with normal response and delays wound healing. In India applying turmeric paste to wounds is a famous home remedy to treat cuts and burns. Animal studies demonstrate that curcumin enhances repair response of irradiated wounds.

Note: Curcumin offers radioprotection mainly via its antioxidant property. This protection is of use not only in radiotherapy but also against any other harmful radiation exposure like UV rays. It protects normal cells from radiation and also prevents radiation induced toxicity in other parts of the body.

Study in humans shows turmeric protects from side effects of cancer therapy

A study published in Phytotherapy Research, 2014 by Belcaro et. al shows that a specialized formulation of curcumin, one of the active ingredients of turmeric protects cancer patients from toxicity due to cancer treatment.

Patients suffering from solid tumors, undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and independent (not in critical sages of the disease) were enrolled in the study.

turmeric powderPatients were given 500mg Meriva or placebo thrice a day after meals. Those undergoing chemotherapy but receiving Meriva experienced a significant reduction in side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, organ toxicity, reduced platelet count and they even experienced an improvement in cognitive function such as memory and thinking.

Even after 2 months of chemotherapy, Meriva improved health status of cancer patients and there was a reduction in % of individuals facing fatigue, weight loss, cognitive impairment, nausea/vomiting while this was not observed in the group receiving placebo.

In the radiotherapy group, Meriva reduced inflammation of mucosal lining of site treated such as inflammation of the mouth, throat, bowels, reduced swallowing difficulties, nausea, fatigue, weakness and also reduced dependence on medications required to control side effects of cancer treatment.

Even after the treatment, Meriva was found to reduce side effects of radiotherapy significantly better than control group.

No side effects was observed with Meriva treatment and compliance was good (97%). Due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties curcumin was found to protect from side effects of cancer therapy. No cases of drug interaction were mentioned.

Overall Meriva was found to be effective in reducing toxicity and side effects of cancer therapy. Authors of this paper are associated with the company Indena SpA that manufactures Meriva.

What does this mean?
Specialized formulations of curcumin such as Meriva protects cancer patients from side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Turmeric dosage to protect from side effects of Cancer Therapy

Turmeric is safe when incorporated in food. Turmeric supplements are also available in the form of capsules, tinctures and fluid extract. The dosage of standardized powder of curcumin is 400-600mg 2-3 times a day.

For a more accurate dose of turmeric/curcumin for cancer refer to: Turmeric / Curcumin Dosage for Cancer : A Scientific Plan

Including 1/2-1 teaspoon of turmeric in diet with black pepper and healthy fats can help. Golden Paste, Turmeric Tea and Turmeric Milk are some great ways of taking turmeric.

If you need help identifying good brands of turmeric please check this.


When taking turmeric supplements there are a few things you need to be cautious about. Avoid taking turmeric supplements during pregnancy and lactation and also if suffering from gall bladder disorders.

Discontinue turmeric supplements 15 days prior to surgery to avoid risk of bleeding. If suffering from bleeding disorders or taking blood thinning medications please consult the doctor about consuming turmeric.

If suffering from gout or kidney stones, limit intake of turmeric as a spice as it is high in oxalates.

Turmeric supplements can have interactions with medicines used to lower stomach acid and also those that lower blood glucose. Contact your health physician before taking turmeric supplements.


Curcumin is a pleotropic molecule that is, it has multiple modes of action. Based on the environment, it can act as radio/chemo-sensitizer or radio/chemo-protector.

This novel property of curcumin makes it an absolute essential in cancer therapy or even as a preventive measure. The best way to take turmeric is to include turmeric in your diet. Consult your physician regarding turmeric supplements.




About the Author


Turmeric for Health's writer team consists of passionate writers from the fields of biotechnology, pharmacy, nutrition, Ayurveda & microbiology.Our writers are highly qualified with many having Ph.D., M.Tech & MSc degrees while others having B.Tech, BSc, B.Pharm. Our differentiation lies in researching and presenting ONLY FACTUAL SCIENTIFIC information. We spend 10s of hours to write a single article. Info of our articles is sourced from reliable scientific sources which are also provided as a link alongside for readers to refer if they want. You can read more about our team in the " About us" section.

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