Scientific research is now supporting the claims of Ayurvedic medicine and how the powerful compound can have a positive impact on the treatment and prevention of many inflammatory diseases. The benefits of curcumin are one of the many reasons this powerful herb should be on your list of natural supplements.
Curcumin is the key active ingredient in turmeric and has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It belongs to a family of active compounds within turmeric known as curcuminoids. It is responsible for providing a bright yellow colour to the authentic spice. It has been traditionally used in Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine and foods for thousands of years for the treatment of inflammatory diseases (1).
The amount of curcumin in turmeric is relatively low, only around 3% per gram. Research investigating the health benefits of turmeric are mostly based on high doses of curcumin extract. It is often hard to consume enough curcumin in the diet therefore a supplement may be needed for therapeutic effects.
Unfortunately, this powerful compound is poorly absorbed by the body. To maximise absorption, it is beneficial to consume black pepper alongside it. This contains a powerful substance known as piperine, which can increase absorption by 2000% (3).
Curcumin is also fat-soluble. Meaning that you can increase its absorption by consuming it alongside fatty foods. This includes foods such as olive oil, nuts, avocado or ghee, a butter used in traditional Indian cooking.
Curcumin benefits are now shown to benefit individuals with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and arthritis (2).
Curcumin is a potent antioxidant that can help protect against damage from free radicals. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules with unpaired electrons. These dangerous atoms go around and cause damage within the body.
They do this by generating oxidative stress and reacting to substances such as proteins, fatty acids and DNA. Over time, this damage can lead to ageing and diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cancers. Curcumin has the power to neutralise free radicals.
In addition to this, it can also boost the activity of the body’s own antioxidant enzymes (4,5,6). This helps to protect the body against cell damage and improves the body’s defence mechanisms.
Inflammation is essential for human survival. It helps the body fight against foreign invaders and helps repair tissue. Short-term inflammation is beneficial. However long-term, chronic inflammation can have a negative effect.
Curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. Some studies even suggest it may even be just as effective as some anti-inflammatory drugs (7). One study investigated the effects of supplementation in patients with osteoarthritis. It found that supplementation with 1000mg daily significantly reduced inflammation markers Interleukin-1-Beta and Interleukin-6 by 27% and 65% retrospectively (8).
Research now suggests that chronic, low-level inflammation may play a role in almost all chronic diseases. This includes Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, cancer and other metabolic conditions (9, 10, 11). Therefore, keeping inflammation at bay and reducing it where possible is essential for good health.
Osteoarthritis is one of the most common forms of arthritis. It causes the breakdown of cartilage between joints, causing bones to rub against each other. This causes stiffness, pain and loss of joint movement.
Supplementation consistently shows a reduction of osteoarthritis symptoms. It appears to be most beneficial for improving pain and physical function. One double-blinded trial investigating the benefits of osteoarthritis provided 50 patients with a curcumin blend daily for three months. It found that supplementation improved mobility and decreased inflammatory status scores by 58%.
It also extended walking distance from 76 to 332 meters and considerably reduced the inflammation marker C-reactive protein (CRP) (12). Curcumin’s potent anti-inflammatory properties are shown to be of great benefit to those who experience chronic joint pain.
Emerging research indicates that curcumin may play a role in the prevention and treatment of liver diseases. Oxidative stress is an imbalance of free radicals (damaging cells) and antioxidants in the body. This can lead to cell and tissue damage.
Oxidative stress is considered a key causing factor of liver damage (13). Emerging animal studies show that supplementation may be beneficial in the prevention of oxidative stress in the liver (14, 15, 16).
Other studies have investigated the effect of curcumin on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). One placebo-controlled trial found curcumin supplementation led to a reduction in liver fat content and improved liver function tests (17). Research in animal studies looks promising, however, more human trials are needed (18).
Heart disease has the largest cause of death worldwide. It is an incredibly complicated condition with many risk factors. One of the most common risk factors includes high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Over time, this can lead to a build-up of plaque in the arteries known as atherosclerosis.
Research has found positive effects of supplementation on atherosclerosis. This is a condition where plaque begins to build up and block the arteries. In a six month, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial, participants were instructed to take three capsules of 250mg of curcuminoid or placebo twice per day. The results found that those taking curcumin significantly reduced markers of atherosclerosis (19).
Because of this, it is important to maintain the strength of the heart and surrounding blood vessels. One of curcumin’s main benefits to heart health is its ability to improve the integrity of the walls of blood vessels (20).
Having high blood pressure increases strain and weakens blood vessel walls. Over time, this can lead to vessel damage and increase the risk of stroke. One study in postmenopausal women supplemented with curcumin 150mg daily for 8 weeks showed a reduction in blood pressure (21).
Other studies have found supplementation to significantly lower levels of plasma fibrinogen. Fibrinogen is an inflammation marker in the body that predicts coronary heart disease events (22).
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella term used to describe disorders that involve the chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. IBD primarily includes Crohn's disease and Ulcerative Colitis.
These conditions are often debilitating and can cause poor quality of life. Symptoms commonly seen in IBD include severe abdominal cramping, mucus or blood in the stools and diarrhoea. Emerging research has investigated the benefits that curcumin may play in mitigating some of these symptoms.
One placebo-controlled trial investigated the effects of curcumin in addition to standard medication for IBS symptoms. The study randomized participants into placebo or receiving 1g twice daily for six months. It found that curcumin significantly suppressed the illnesses associated with active IBD and reduced the relapse rate (23,24).
Several studies are continuing to investigate the benefits this powerful compound may play as a monotherapy and adjunct to standard medication treatment.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a common condition characterised by bloating, abdominal pain and intermittent diarrhoea and constipation. The cause of IBS is unknown and there is no cure. Current treatment options recommend dietary and stress management.
With curcumin’s unique anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory activities and ability to modulate the gut microbiota, it has been shown to have therapeutic benefits to assist with IBS.
Three studies investigating the impact of curcumin on IBS found curcumin to have a small but beneficial impact on IBS (25). However, more studies are needed to further investigate this link.
Curcumin has been shown to have no serious adverse effects in humans with doses up to 8 grams. However, more comprehensive, long-term studies are needed to understand their full effect.
High doses may cause nausea and gastrointestinal upset. Use alongside black pepper may also cause drug interactions. Ensure to speak to your health professional to seek appropriate medical advice before commencing supplementation.
The active constituent of turmeric, curcumin has a variety of proven health benefits. From acting as an anti-inflammatory agent, boosting the body’s antioxidant defence mechanisms and improving symptoms of arthritis for pain management. Adding turmeric to your meals can help boost flavour and taste. You can use fresh or powdered turmeric in tea, soups, curries and smoothies.
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Find out more about other areas that the above supplements can help you with:
*Always read the label. Follow the directions for use. If symptoms persist, talk to your health professional. Vitamin and/or mineral supplements should not replace a balanced diet.