Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a culinary herb that is an amazing medicinal multi-tasker! It has a bright yellow/orange hue that gives curry its vibrant color. A member of the ginger family, turmeric contains many compounds including several in the curcumin family. Curcumins are known to have anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-cancer properties.
Despite that curcumin has been used medicinally in Ayurvedic medicine in India for centuries, it is only more recently that interest has caught on in the U.S. Luckily for all of us, the enormous potential of curcumin has resulted in a growing body of research to help us understand how it works and which scenarios it works best in. Currently there are ongoing studies looking at arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease treatment, colon cancer prevention, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, to name just a few.
Cooking with turmeric is an easy and healthy way to benefit from curcumins. It adds a delicious color and flavor to dishes. Turmeric tea is another excellent way to enjoy this powerful herb. It does seem, however, that the doses needed to get full medicinal effect are much higher than one could ever get in a helping of your favorite curry. Although I always encourage people to get their nutrition from food before supplements, this is one case where taking a curcumin supplement does much more for you than simply cooking with it.
How to use Curcumin Medicinally
In the case of arthritis, curcumin works by neutralizing free radicals as well as by inhibiting pain and inflammation. In fact, it suppresses multiple inflammatory chemical messengers that the body makes. It does this by inhibiting several enzymes along the inflammation cascade, the very same enzymes that ibuprofen and naproxen block.
And research supports this. A well designed study of 367 arthritis patients found it to be as effective as the traditional anti-inflammatory drug, ibuprofen with fewer side effects1. Additionally, curcumin has been found to decrease substance P in nerve cells which is an additional way that in can improve pain in all kinds of arthritis.A typical dose would be 500mg taken 1-3 times a day.
As a gynecologist I am always looking for ways to help women manage their period problems. For the same reason that curcumin helps arthritis, it is logical that it would be helpful for pain associated with menstrual cramps. One prospective randomized trial of 70 women with PMS showed that 100mg taken twice a day for 10 days starting one week before menses reduced PMS scores by 59% compared to just 14% in placebo group. Effects were seen for all three symptom categories: physical, behavioral, and emotional2. What’s nice about this study is that the authors used a relatively low dose compared to other applications. Lower doses mean fewer potential side effects.
Curcumin’s powerful anti-inflammatory effects and limited absorption from the GI tract make it an excellent agent to treat inflammation in the gut. There are ongoing studies looking at curcumin as a treatment for inflammatory bowel disease. One such study of 89 people with ulcerative colitis found that when in remission, those who took 1,000mg curcumin twice a day for six months, along with their regular medicine, had lower relapse rates than those who took placebo.3
From a cancer perspective, curcumin has the ability to alter gene transcription and actually stop cell growth, known as apoptosis. Its anti-cancer properties are also thought to come from anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. It has been studied and used for prevention or treatment of colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, multiple myeloma, lung cancer. Interestingly, there are also studies to suggest that whole turmeric has anti-cancer properties beyond curcumin extracts alone.4
Things to Know:
Because curcumin is not well absorbed by itself you will need to use a preparation that has been specially formulated so that your body can digest it. Many supplement preparations have black pepper, also known as bioperine, added to it which improves intestinal absorption by about 1000%. There is some concern that pepper is irritating to the GI lining which might be problematic. Alternatively, some brands have specially formulated the herb in a delivery system that optimizes absorption.
Dr. Blum’s non-GMO Super Curcumin, available in our online store, is formulated with super-absorbable sunflower lecithin so that you will reap the benefits of every milligram. See it Now
Who Should Not Take Curcumin
Curcumin is usually well tolerated but can lead to GI upset if taken in high doses and could cause an allergic reaction. People with gallbladder obstruction should avoid curcumin because it can cause the gallbladder to contract. This can be helpful for some kinds of digestion, but could make things worse if you have a gallstone blockage. Additionally, patients with gastric ulcers should avoid curcumin. Patients on blood thinners should be careful with curcumin. Always tell your healthcare provider if you are taking any herbs. I don’t recommend curcumin supplements in pregnancy due to lack of safety data.
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- Kuptniratsaikul V et al Clin Interv Aging. 2014 Mar 20;9:451-8. Efficacy and safety of curcum domestica extracts compared with ibuprofen in patients with knee osteoarthritis: a multicenter study.
- Khayat S et al Complement Ther Med. 2015 Jun;23(3):318-24 Curcumin attenuates severity of premenstrual syndrome symptoms: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial
- Hanai H, et al Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2006 Dec;4(12):1502-6 Curcumin maintenance therapy for ulcerative colitis: randomized, multicenter, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial
- Devassy JG, et al Nutrition Reviews, Volume 73, Issue 3, 1 March 2015, Pages 155–165. Curcumin and cancer: barriers to obtaining a health claim