As the primary bioactive substance in turmeric, curcumin has been used far and wide for its many therapeutic benefits. See how curcumin may help manage a number of health conditions and the risks to watch for.
There is quite a bit of buzz these days around turmeric, a bright and earthy spice that turns any dish a golden-hued shade. While millions around the world regard it as a staple in the kitchen, turmeric has a long and storied history dating back 5,000 years in China and India for its many medicinal properties. Curcumin, the primary polyphenol compound found in the root of the turmeric plant, is especially prized for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that protect against health conditions associated with inflammation and oxidative stress.
With the popularity of curcumin-containing dietary supplements on the rise, the question remains: does curcumin’s reputation translate into real benefits for the body and mind? Read on to find out what the latest research says.
The importance of decreasing inflammation
Before we dive into the essentials of how curcumin may be effective at lowering inflammation, let’s first brush up on what inflammation is in the first place. Inflammation is a complex biological response of the body's immune system to harmful stimuli, such as disease-causing organisms, damaged cells, external injuries, or irritants. The primary purpose of inflammation is to eliminate the initial cause of cell injury, clear out the dead cells and tissues damaged from the original injury and the inflammatory process, and initiate tissue repair.
Inflammation can be acute or chronic. Acute inflammation is a short-term process, usually resolving within days or weeks. It is characterized by the redness, warmth, swelling, and pain you might experience when you scrape your knee, for example. Chronic inflammation is a longer-term process that can last for months or even years. It can cause damage to the surrounding tissues and organs and is associated with various diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis, depression, and autoimmune disorders.
How curcumin helps to curb inflammation
Curcumin has been shown to decrease inflammation in a variety of ways. One way it does this is by inhibiting the activity of inflammatory enzymes that are involved in the inflammatory response and play a vital role in the production of inflammation-promoting compounds. Inflammation-promoting compounds are molecules that can trigger inflammation and include viruses and bacteria, toxins, and pro-inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are small proteins produced by immune cells that affect cell interactions and functions. They can influence the immune system by either stimulating it or slowing it down and have either pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory effects. By inhibiting inflammatory enzymes’ activity from the start, curcumin can reduce the production of pro-inflammatory compounds.
Curcumin also helps to decrease inflammation by regulating the activity of transcription factors in the body. Transcription factors are proteins that bind to specific DNA sequences and regulate the expression of genes. Transcription factors such as NF-kB play a critical role in regulating the inflammatory response by controlling the expression of genes that initiate, maintain, and resolve inflammation. So, by inhibiting the activation of these transcription factors, curcumin can decrease the expression of pro-inflammatory genes.
Curcumin also has antioxidant properties that may help curb inflammation. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, which can contribute to inflammation. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that can be generated from external sources like industrial chemicals, air pollutants, cigarette smoking, or internally by metabolic processes in the human body. Free radicals can cause damage to cells and other molecules in the body, and when the production of free radicals exceeds the body’s ability to neutralize them, in a state called oxidative stress, inflammation can occur. Antioxidants, such as vitamin C and vitamin E, are molecules that can neutralize free radicals by donating an electron to the free radical, which then stabilizes it and prevents it from causing damage to cells and other molecules.
Despite these significant benefits, curcumin, on its own, is not always well-absorbed and effective for the body. This is because it does not dissolve well in the digestive tract, is metabolized rapidly, and is eliminated from the body quickly - leaving little left to reach the body’s tissues. To improve curcumin’s effectiveness, many curcumin products are formulated to contain other natural compounds like piperine, an alkaloid found in black pepper, which is shown to enhance curcumin’s effectiveness by as much as 2000%.
Curcumin as a supporting treatment of IBD, arthritis, and depression
Research is ongoing to determine the full scope of curcumin’s effectiveness in helping promote health, but there are promising findings regarding curcumin’s potentially powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that may be used as a potential complementary treatment for a variety of inflammatory conditions. Let’s take a look at what the latest research shows about curcumin’s possible effectiveness for some of the most common conditions.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
A recurrent, chronic condition that affects the gastrointestinal tract, which includes both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, IBD is characterized by inflammation in the colon, which can lead to abdominal pain and cramping, diarrhea, and fatigue. One gram of daily curcumin along with piperine has been shown to effectively inhibit the production of the pro-inflammatory cytokines IL-1, IL-6, IL-8, and TNF-α, leading to a decrease in intestinal inflammation, symptom relief, and a better quality of life. In addition, it is suggested that people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a more common bowel disorder causing abdominal pain, bloating, and constipation or diarrhea, may also benefit from curcumin’s anti-inflammatory effects.
Arthritis is a general term used to describe inflammation of the joints that can cause pain, stiffness, and limited mobility in the affected joints. The most common types are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that cushions the joints wears down over time, whereas rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in the lining of the joints. While there is no cure for arthritis, treatment can include medication, physical therapy, and exercise, but some research indicates that consuming curcumin may reduce joint inflammation and alleviate pain symptoms as well.
One 2021 study conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of six randomized clinical trials that assessed the effects of curcumin supplementation on erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and c-reactive protein (CRP), two inflammatory markers among 438 adult subjects with rheumatoid arthritis. One group was given between 40 to 1500 mg of curcumin within a supplement daily, and a second group was given a placebo. The trials lasted between 8 and 12 weeks. After 12 weeks, decreases were seen in both CRP (0.26mg/l) and ESR markers(18.17 mm/h) when 250 to 1500 mg of curcumin were taken each day.
Affecting around 16 million American adults every year, depression is a mood disorder that affects daily functioning and includes symptoms like feeling sad and anxious, not wanting to do activities that you used to enjoy, having trouble with sleep and concentrating, and eating more or less than usual. While most experts agree that psychological and social stress can help contribute to depression, researchers have recently discovered that inflammation may also play a role.
The brain holds special immune cells called microglia that regulate brain development and secrete cytokines to help repair tissue, manage various central nervous system functions, and maintain neuroplasticity, or the ability of the central nervous system to change in response to the environment. But when microglia functionality is impaired, such as during prolonged stress - when there is an excess or sustained presence of pro-inflammatory cytokines - an impairment of neurotransmitter signaling may also occur. That is, the chemical signals, or messages, that are carried out from one brain cell to another may be compromised, which can lead to mood changes.
So, might consuming curcumin help alleviate symptoms of depression? One review examined the effects of curcumin for the treatment of depression among adults with depression within seven trials that lasted five to 12 weeks and included daily curcumin dosages that ranged between 500 mg to 1500 mg. Of the seven trials, six reported antidepressant effects. Experts believe that this effect may be due to curcumin’s ability to lower pro-inflammatory cytokines like CRP and IL-6.
What are the risks associated with curcumin?
The US Food and Drug Administration has approved curcumin as generally safe for consumption, and several food safety organizations around the world suggest a daily allowable intake of 0 to 3 mg per kilogram of body weight for most people. This amounts to around 204 mg of curcumin a day for a person who weighs 150 lbs.
While curcumin has been established as safe, there are a number of potential side effects to look out for. In high doses, curcumin may cause gastrointestinal discomforts such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, and nausea, especially when taken without a meal. Curcumin can also interact with certain medications by intensifying their action. For example, curcumin can naturally have a blood-thinning effect, so caution must be taken when it is consumed with antiplatelet and anticoagulant drugs like aspirin, warfarin, and heparin, as it may cause hemorrhages.
The bottom line
Curcumin has long been hailed for its use as a spice in the kitchen, as well as for its multiple health benefits due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. While curcumin consumption is regarded as generally safe, and recent research suggests that curcumin may help to manage a number of inflammatory conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, and depression, it is important to note that more research is needed to understand the effectiveness in treating inflammation-related diseases.