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 to cooking. If you get the feeling people are jumping on the turmeric bandwagon, you’re right. Research shows that usage has seen a dramatic rise since 2004. So, what’s the big deal about this common pantry spice? 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: 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 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 its healing powers is relatively recent. This boom correlates with the increase in herbal supplementation.
In addition to treating the body, curcumin provdes unexpected uses. It frequently lends its color to dyes and cosmetics. (We dare you to name another herbal supplement doubles as eye shadow.) It also serves as a potent addition to food flavorings and coloring. Next time you buy yellow mustard, turn the bottle around. Turmeric supplies mustard’s signature yellow color.
The average consumer, however, is probably more interested in taking curcumin as a dietary supplement. 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 is still in its infancy. But with popular interest in natural healing, it’s certainly a hot topic. 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 misfiring 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 conducted on curcumin’s effects on numerous inflammatory conditions, like ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s, show cautious but hopeful results. If you suffer from a condition involving inflammation, consider curcumin supplementation.
Curcumin affects several types of cancer 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. In fact, 1972 marked the first time scientists observed any connection between this compound and health. 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.
Free- Radical Cleanup
Finally, even if you don’t suffer from a chronic condition, curcumin boosts 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?
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 not impressed, stating, “no double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trial of curcumin has been successful.” Critics also highlight the fact that many pro-curcumin studies receive funding from 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. Perhaps curcumin’s benefits have been over-inflated 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 reveals that it offers extremely low bioavailability. This means 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 nasally. 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 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 for supplementation under medical supervision. After all, it certainly won’t do any harm. (And it’ll add delicious, smoky depth to tons of recipes!) The only question remaining now:
- Pill form
- Extract form
Curcumin Supplements vs. Curcumin in Food
To experience curcumin’s full effect, “the more, the better” seems 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 totaling up to 1.8 grams. 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 even smaller amounts of curcumin,. These also vary widely brand to brand.
When choosing a curcumin supplement, it’s important to keep several factors in mind. Though the FDA recognizes turmeric and curcumin supplements as safe, they are not regulated by that authority. So, supplement producers often make health claims in their packaging without scientific validation. Always look for capsules that contain 95% or more curcumin with the bioavailability boosters black pepper or piperine. And finally, have patience. Benefits may take about eight weeks.
Curcumin Side Effects
Though an anti-inflammatory powerhouse, curcumin can cause side effects for some people. This appears rare, however, since side effects usually include 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 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. Like most supplementation, talk to your doctor before taking curcumin.
Including Curcumin in Your Diet
Regardless of whether you choose to take curcumin in supplement form, 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. Rising interest in curcumin’s benefits has led to a proliferation of other tasty options. When you do consume turmeric or curry, 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.
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