Curcumin is the yellow pigment associated with the spice, Turmeric (curcuma longa), a member of the ginger family which is commonly used in curries and gives them flavor and a yellow colour. It is also found to a lesser extent ginger. The active polyphenols in turmeric are known as ‘curcuminoids’.
There have been numerous studies that show curcumin has powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor and antioxidant properties and has multiple uses for many health conditions.
However it is difficult to absorb into the blood stream (most is quickly metabolised by the liver and walls of the intestines and then excreted from the body) and this should be borne in mind when using supplements to ensure that they are effective. Curcumin is fat soluble so should always be taken with a source of fat – some supplements contain oils to enhance absorption.
There are good scientific studies that show Curcumin:
- Reduces inflammation in many conditions
- Osteoarthritis: There appears to be significant reductions in symptoms of osteoarthritis, with the largest decrease noted occurring after eight months of supplementation and reaching 41% of baseline (more than a halving of symptoms).
- Functionality in elderly and injured subjects: In persons with osteoarthritis, the performance on a treadmill test after eight months was significantly increased (more than twice the distance covered with curcumin relative to control).
- Reduces oedema – swelling under the skin and in body cavities
- High antioxidant profile increasing 3 primary enzymes in particular and to a large degree: SOD, glutathione and catalase that play crucial roles in promoting health by forming part of our bodies’ defence system against free radical damage.
- Pain reduction: at doses of 400-500mg the spice can reduce pain generally but also in post-operative and arthritic symptoms.
- Possibly increases HDL cholesterol (so called ‘good’ cholesterol) that brings circulating cholesterol and fatty acids back to the liver for clearance; high HDL levels are considered heart protective.
- Possibly reduces triglycerides but studies are inconsistent: circulating levels of fatty acids excessively high levels of which contribute to cardiovascular disease.
- Anxiety levels: a study found that 1g of curcumin taken with 10mg of bioperine (piperine from black pepper) significantly reduced anxiety in obese female patients.
- Helps to increase Adiponectin – a protein involved in regulating glucose levels as well as fatty acid breakdown.
- Increases blood flow (blood circulation)
- Cognitive decline: the rate of cognitive decline may be lesser with dietary inclusion of curcumin, but requires more evidence
- Colorectal cancer risk: Appears to be associated with a reduced risk for colon cancer
- Fatigue: A decrease in postoperative fatigue has been noted with curcumin supplementation
- A reduction in IL-1b (protein that induces inflammatory response) has been noted in osteoarthritic patients, which is thought to underlie the benefits to joint health seen with curcumin.
- Insulin sensitivity: In insulin resistant persons, curcumin can increase insulin sensitivity.
- Kidney function: appears to promote kidney function in instances where the function is normally hindered.
- Mucositis is the painful inflammation and ulceration of the mucous membranes lining the digestive tract, usually as an adverse effect of chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment for cancer. Curcumin has been noted to decrease symptoms.
- Prostate cancer: appears to be associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer; has been noted to decrease prostate specific antigen levels following supplementation
- Symptoms of Crohns Disease and Ulcerative colitis: Symptoms reduced with supplementation of curcumin
Conditions that require more research regarding therapeutic effects of Curcumin:
- Reduction in blood pressure
- Effect on blood glucose levels
- Liver enzymes
- Stomach ulcers
- Reduced pain in pancreatitis
- Weight management
What supplement should you take?
As mentioned curcumin is poorly absorbed into the blood stream. Companies often combine it with piperine – an extract of black pepper that improves absorption. However piperine has the ability to inhibit a process in the body that signals urinary secretion of drugs. This process prevents excessive levels of drugs and supplements in the body, but sometimes inhibits all uptake and renders some supplements useless.
When piperine is ingested, excretion of supplements is blocked and certain drugs and supplements can bypass this regulatory stage (as not all are subject to it).
Supplements that contain both Curcumin and piperine can be useful because it gets the supplement to the extremities rather than being broken down by the liver and excreted but in some other cases it can lead to elevated levels of certain drugs in the blood.
Again, elevated could be good or bad depending on context; regardless, caution should be taken when approaching this compound and if you are taking medications you should consult your GP, consultant or other health professional.
There are a number of supplements on the market that do not contain piperine but have been processed in ways to increase their absorption.
Alternatively you can add the spice Turmeric to cooking along with black pepper (both spices commonly found in curries) and by ensuring you have a good source of fats eg ghee (clarified butter often used in South Asian cooking, coconut oil or olive oil to aid absorption.
The University of Maryland makes these recommendations:
The following doses are recommended for adults:
- Cut root (fresh): 1.5 to 3 g per day
- Dried, powdered root (spice): 1 to 3 g per day
- Standardized powder (curcumin): 400 to 600 mg, 3 times per day
- Fluid extract (1:1) 30 to 90 drops a day
- Tincture (1:2): 15 to 30 drops, 4 times per day