Lately, it seems everywhere you turn, people are singing the praises of turmeric—taking it in pill form, sipping it in smoothies, or adding it in hefty doses to their cooking. If you get the feeling more and more people are jumping on the turmeric bandwagon, you’re right: research shows that usage has seen a dramatic rise since 2004. (Yes, there are people who track these things.) What’s the big deal about this common pantry spice, and does it really confer the health benefits many consumers believe?
The big deal, as it turns out, isn’t turmeric itself, but a chemical compound it contains, called curcumin.
What Is Curcumin?
A bright yellow chemical found in the Curcuma longa plant, curcumin is considered the “active ingredient” in both turmeric and curry powder. The plant itself is a member of the ginger family and grows primarily in East Asia. Its use dates back almost 4,000 years in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine as a treatment for maladies like asthma, digestive conditions, cancer, and menstrual problems. Marco Polo first described turmeric during his travels in 1280, but it wasn’t until 1815 that curcumin was isolated as the part of the turmeric plant responsible for its color. Mainstream Western interest in (and research around) its healing powers has arisen only relatively recently, correlating with the increase in popularity of herbal supplementation.
In addition to treating the body, curcumin has other unexpected uses. It frequently lends its color to dyes and cosmetics. (We dare you to name another herbal supplement can double as eye shadow.) It also serves as a potent addition to food flavorings, and as a food coloring. Next time you buy yellow mustard, turn the bottle around! Likely, you’ll see turmeric listed as an ingredient, as curcumin supplies mustard’s signature yellow color.
The average consumer, however, is probably more interested in taking curcumin as a dietary supplement than using it to color condiments or make a groovy yellow tie-dyed shirt. For most of us, curiosity about this up-and-coming food as medicine centers around its health benefits. How might this potent plant extract boost our well-being?
Curcumin’s Health Benefits
Despite its many reputed medicinal uses throughout history, peer-reviewed scientific evidence of the healing properties of curcumin is really still in its infancy. But with popular interest in food as medicine at an all-time high, it’s certainly a hot topic, and new studies crop up almost weekly. The magic bullet behind curcumin’s potential benefits appears to be its anti-inflammatory effect.
Inflammation lies at the root of numerous health conditions, either causing or exacerbating them. New evidence indicates that many (if not most) of the chronic diseases that plague Western society can be traced back to this irritation within the cells. Autoimmune conditions, arthritis, and even the narrowing of arteries that leads to cardiovascular disease have all been linked to the mis-firing of the immune system that creates inflammation. Like an itty-bitty superhero, curcumin is able to target inflammation on a molecular level—an act of biological valor that helps treat or alleviate many disease symptoms. Studies have been conducted on curcumin’s effects on numerous inflammatory conditions, such as ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s, with cautious but hopeful results. If you suffer from a condition involving an inflammatory process, curcumin may be a supplementary treatment worth exploring.
Several types of cancer also seem to be affected by curcumin to some degree. (Not surprising, since we now know that inflammation plays a role in the development of cancer.) One study found that curcumin supplementation reduced the number of abnormal cells in patients with colorectal cancer. Another performed on animals showed that turmeric inhibited tumor progression in skin cancer. Researchers have seen promising results for stomach cancer, too, as curcumin appears to reduce gastric secretions, reducing the growth of stomach tumors. These are only a few of the cancers under the microscope (literally) of current research. Studies conducted on prostate, lung, bladder, and breast cancers have shown varying levels of curcumin’s effectiveness at busting tumors and slowing the roll of funky cells. A word of caution, however: turmeric or curcumin supplements may interfere with some chemotherapy drugs.
Yet another of curcumin’s potential benefits—its effect on blood sugar— dates back to the seventies, and in fact marked the first time scientists observed any connection between this compound and health. In 1972, Indian researchers noticed that people who consumed turmeric regularly had lower levels of blood glucose, since curcumin seems to help the body prevent insulin resistance. More recently, one fascinating study took a group of people with pre-diabetes and separated them into two groups: one who received a curcumin supplement, and another who got a placebo. After nine months, 16% of the placebo group had developed full-blown diabetes, while none of those treated with curcumin did. This discovery may have major implications for diabetics and pre-diabetics.
Finally, even if you don’t suffer from a chronic condition, curcumin can be a boon to general well-being because of its helpful antioxidants. What do antioxidants actually do, again? The quick-and-dirty explanation is that they remove cell waste products called free radicals, leaving cells “cleaner” and better able to perform their intended functions. With free radicals out of the way, the body is less susceptible to disease and the aging process. You’re cool with getting sick less often and spotting fewer gray hairs, right?
…And Its Drawbacks
Even with this sizable body of research, the jury is still out on whether curcumin actually deserves its reputation as a wonder-spice. A 2017 review published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry looked at scientific literature on curcumin to date. The authors were none too impressed with its overall impact, stating that “no double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trial of curcumin has been successful.” Critics also highlight the fact that many pro-curcumin studies have been funded by sources with a special interest in the compound’s effectiveness (like herbal supplement companies). And, as has happened with many a product before, once word gets out about a supplement’s potential benefits, the media won’t hesitate to wax rhapsodic about it–despite dubious proof of its effects. (*Cough* Fen-Phen *cough*.) It’s possible curcumin’s benefits have been overinflated by a public eager for a quick fix–and a news media happy to tell them what they want to hear.
Even curcumin’s most avid fans have to admit that it comes with one other notable drawback. Study after study has revealed that it offers extremely low bioavailability—meaning that the body has a difficult time absorbing it for use. In the search for a method of delivery that might help the body absorb it better, researchers have experimented with administering it orally, intravenously, subcutaneously, topically, and even…wait for it…nasally. (We hope those study participants were paid very well—especially since the study authors concluded that “more research is needed.”) The agreed-upon solution for boosting curcumin absorption is to pair it with black pepper or piperine, a compound contained in black pepper. Consuming black pepper with turmeric increases bioavailability of curcumin by 2,000%—not a bad margin for such a small addition.
Clearly, more research is needed to determine all that curcumin has to offer. For now, however, it seems to have enough potential to be used as a supplement under medical supervision, and as an antioxidant-rich flavoring in food through turmeric and curry. After all, it certainly won’t do any harm. (And it’ll add delicious, smoky depth to tons of recipes!) The only question now is whether you’re better off taking it in pill or extract form as a supplement, or eating it in food.
Curcumin Supplements vs. Curcumin in Food
To experience curcumin’s full effect, “the more, the better” appears to be the guiding principle (up to a point—we’ll talk side effects from too much in a moment). Since the average American isn’t ready to dive in to an all-turmeric-and-curry diet, supplementation of curcumin in pill or extract form emerges as the better choice for health benefits.
“Whole turmeric extracts are the way to go,” says holistic health expert Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D. Weil recommends taking 400-600 milligrams of turmeric or curcumin extract three times a day for a total of up to 1.8 grams daily. This amount of would be extremely difficult to get via diet alone, since one half-teaspoon turmeric equals two grams, and curcumin makes up only about 3% of turmeric by weight. (Side note: evaluations of commercially sold curry powder, on the other hand, revealed that they contain smaller amounts of curcumin, with wide variability by brand and type of curry.)
When choosing a curcumin supplement, it’s important to keep several factors in mind. First, though turmeric and curcumin supplements are recognized as safe by the FDA, they are not regulated by that authority, so supplement producers may make health claims in their packaging that have not been scientifically validated. Always look for capsules that contain 95% or more curcumin and include the bioavailability boosters black pepper or piperine. And finally, have patience, as you may not begin to see benefits for about eight weeks.
Curcumin Side Effects
Though it may be an anti-inflammatory powerhouse, curcumin can cause side effects for some people. This appears rare, however, since side effects have mainly been observed when subjects ingest copious amounts of the supplement (6 or more grams daily has been associated with flatulence and yellowing of the stool). For more moderate doses of supplementation, side effects can include upset stomach, acid reflux, headache, skin rash, nausea, diarrhea, or dizziness. People with certain health conditions should also be careful consuming curcumin. It may cause complications in people with diabetes, gallbladder problems, GERD, bleeding disorders, and hormone-related conditions like breast cancer or ovarian cysts. As with any other supplementation, talk to your doctor before taking curcumin.
Including Curcumin in Your Diet
Regardless of whether you choose to take curcumin in supplement form, it’s always a good idea to include turmeric and curry in your diet, too. Besides their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, these spices flavor food without adding fat, calories, sugar, or sodium. While most of us probably associate these earthy seasonings with Indian dishes, you don’t have to eat your weight in chicken tikka masala to up your intake (though, depending on your tastes, that might sound like an appealing prospect). Rising interest in curcumin’s benefits has led to a proliferation of other tasty options. When you do consume turmeric or curry, just be sure to choose recipes that include black pepper in your recipe to boost absorption. Sweet-and-savory smoothies, lentil side dishes, spice-rubbed meats, and fragrant soups all make excellent choices for including curcumin’s healing properties in your diet.