Is it "TOO-mer-ic" or "TER-mer-ic?” Regardless of how you say it, there’s no debate that curcumin, its main ingredient, has many beneficial health claims. Curcumin is a polyphenolic compound with anti- inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective properties that has also been linked to improved brain function, reduced risk of CVD, arthritis improvement, ease of depression, and reducing acne and improving complexion.1 Considering the hype, can it really deliver on its many claims?
Where’s it from?
Turmeric, however you choose to say it, has a long history that dates back 4,000 years in India, where it was used as a spice and for religious purposes.2 Turmeric is part of the ginger family, and the natural root looks much like that of the ginger root. Turmeric has been used in therapeutic preparations for centuries in different parts of the world. In Ayurvedic practices, turmeric is thought to have medicinal properties including strengthening the overall energy of the body, relieving gas, improving digestion, and relieving arthritis.2 Many Southeast Asian countries use it as an antiseptic for cuts, burns, and bruises and as an antibacterial agent. In Pakistan, it is used as an anti-inflammatory agent and a remedy for gastrointestinal discomfort. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is used to treat diseases associated with abdominal pain.2 Thousands of years of effective and safe use has modern medicine looking to reap the same benefits.
How does it work?
Research indicates that curcumin has the ability to influence the activation of T cells, B cells, macrophages, neutrophils, natural killer (NK) cells, and dendritic cells (DCs) as well as the secretion of immune cytokines3. NF-kB produces pro-inflammatory cytokines; curcumin suppresses NF-kB activation, thereby down regulating multiple enzymes and inhibiting the inflammatory process.4 Pro-inflammatory states in the body are linked to tumor production, type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis, and obesity.
Curcumin has shown to inhibit carcinogenesis in a number of cancer types including colorectal, pancreatic, prostate, breast, and leukemia.5 Many earlier in vitro animal studies found positive results; more recent research indicates an inverse relationship between diets rich in phytochemicals, like curcumin, and the incidence of cancer.6 Clinical trials indicate that curcumin is safe and may exhibit therapeutic effects against cancer.6
The anti-inflammatory properties combined with antioxidant abilities to combat oxidative stress have become synonymous with the benefits of curcumin. Oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidant systems; oxidative stress is associated with many chronic diseases.7 When the imbalance shifts too much in favor of the free radicals, cell damage occurs. Curcumin has free radical scavenging ability. By blocking the inflammatory process, curcumin has positive effects in many areas of health. Data support curcumin as protective against cardiovascular dysfunction with the potential of becoming a common food supplement like fish oil to prevent or treat CVD.8 Data on the benefits of curcumin in preventing or treating diabetes mellitus and cognitive decline are limited.9
How much is enough?
Many studies use dosages in excess of 1 gram per day. This amount is difficult to reach by just using turmeric as a spice for food. A supplement is required to reap the full benefits as many studies have indicated turmeric is considered safe at doses up to 8 grams per day10. Although considered safe, some may encounter adverse effects, including diarrhea, headache, rash, upset stomach; at high doses, it may contribute to kidney oxalate stones.11 Concern for toxicity levels are tempered due to curcumin’s poor bioavailability as a results of poor absorption, rapid metabolism, and rapid elimination.1 Piperine, which is found in black pepper, is known to enhance curcumin’s bioavailability by 2,000%, creating a curcumin complex.2
How to use it?
Curcumin is available in several forms including capsules, tablets, ointments, energy drinks, soaps, cosmetics and of course in your kitchen.1 Adding turmeric to food is an easy way to incorporate curcumin into your diet. Simply adding a couple of teaspoons to soups, stews, salad dressing, rice and quinoa are just a few options as well as adding it to homemade hummus, oven roasted veggies or simply sprinkled on scrambled eggs. Add a little black pepper to enhance the benefits! Always be mindful of possible side effects and consult a physician and a registered dietitian when supplementing current medications with any herbal alternatives.
Turmeric hasn’t been labeled the super spice to cure all ailments, but the research is promising. Natural supplementation to prevent, manage, and treat diseases is a hot topic with turmeric in the forefront.