by Maddie Drallmeier
You may know of turmeric from its vibrant yellow hue or as the main spice that makes up curry. If you haven’t heard of turmeric, it is a spice native to South/Southeast Asia that has been used for thousands of years, both for culinary and medicinal purposes. However, within the last 20 years, research has exploded and several studies point to the many health benefits of turmeric. Read more below about some of the more prominent results from these studies.
What is curcumin?
The primary compound in turmeric responsible for its health benefits is curcumin. This compound is highly biologically active and has been found to interact with many molecular targets and pathways. As a result, curcumin has been shown to have beneficial effects in neurological disorders, chronic heart diseases, inflammatory diseases, and certain cancers.
Benefits in Neurological Disorders:
Curcumin is classified as a polyphenol, a plant-derived compound, that has demonstrated abilities such as improving neural plasticity and cognitive function, battling oxidative stress, and exhibiting neuroprotective properties1. Several studies support a diet rich in polyphenols (colorful fruits, vegetables, and spices) to help protect the brain from oxidative-stress related damage and degeneration. Additionally, picking polyphenols that can cross the blood brain barrier, like curcumin, are especially neuroprotective1. Curcumin has also been studied in connection with neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder, and depression. For example, in a study using a rat model of depression, the administration of curcumin significantly suppressed depression-like behavior and prevented further deterioration of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF; responsible for normal maintenance, survival, growth, and differentiation of neurons) levels in the brain1.
Benefits in Inflammatory Diseases:
Research behind the molecular mechanisms of curcumin have demonstrated its ability to downregulate inflammatory cytokines, enzymes, and transcription factors. Knowing this, studies have been performed to explore its effects in inflammatory diseases such as bronchial asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. One study found that curcumin was effective in improving the function of arthritic knee joints and reducing pain (comparable to ibuprofen)2.
Benefits in Cardiovascular Disease:
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the number one cause for mortality worldwide. Many people take pharmaceuticals to cope with CVD, however they come with a myriad of side effects. Therefore, curcumin has been studied as a way to mediate CVD. Cholesterol imbalances are often associated with CVD. In one study, curcumin administration revealed to effectively lower total cholesterol levels, particularly by lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL-bad cholesterol)3. Another study demonstrated that after 12 weeks of curcumin intake, high-density lipoprotein (HDL-good cholesterol) levels were elevated while LDL levels were decreased3.
Cancer Prevention and Pain Alleviation:
The effects of curcumin have been investigated in several different types of cancer, such as colorectal, stomach, breast, pancreatic, and cervical cancers. These studies often demonstrated curcumin’s anti-inflammatory effects, as well as some chemopreventative properties (ability to inhibit tumor growth). In one such study designed to determine the effect of curcumin therapy, patients with solid tumors (i.e. colorectal, breast, sarcoma, etc.) exhibited a significant decrease of systemic inflammation and improved quality of life4.
If you are currently taking medications such as:
- Blood thinners (Coumadin, Plavix, or Asprin)
- Drugs that reduce stomach acid (Tagamet, Pepcid, Zantac, Nexium, Prevacid)
- Drugs for (type-2) diabetes that lower blood sugar
Then medicinal turmeric or curcumin (not including turmeric ingested from food) should be avoided as it may interfere with the action of drugs listed above5.
As always, consult your physician before taking any supplement!
1Gomez-Pinilla, Fernando, and Trang T J Nguyen. “Natural Mood Foods: The Actions of Polyphenols against Psychiatric and Cognitive Disorders.” Nutritional Neuroscience, U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3355196/.
2Kuptniratsaikul, V, et al. “Efficacy and Safety of Curcuma Domestica Extracts Compared with Ibuprofen in Patients with Knee Osteoarthritis: a Multicenter Study.” Clinical Interventions in Aging., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 20 Mar. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24672232.
3Kunnumakkara, A B, et al. “Curcumin, the Golden Nutraceutical: Multitargeting for Multiple Chronic Diseases.” British Journal of Pharmacology., U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27638428.
4Panahi, Y, et al. “Adjuvant Therapy with Bioavailability-Boosted Curcuminoids Suppresses Systemic Inflammation and Improves Quality of Life in Patients with Solid Tumors: a Randomized Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trial.” Phytotherapy Research : PTR., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24648302.
5Ehrlich, Steven D. “Possible Interactions with: Turmeric.” Penn State Hershey Health Information Library, 5 Jan. 2015, pennstatehershey.adam.com/content.aspx?productId=107&pid=33&gid=000932.