If you enjoy Indian, South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines, chances are you’ve consumed turmeric. This bright yellow-orange coloured spice is a staple ingredient in savoury and sweet dishes such as curries, dahls, rice dishes, tagines, cakes and rice puddings.
Beyond its culinary application, turmeric has a 4,000-year history of being used for medicinal purposes, dating back to ancient Indian Ayurverdic practices.
Today, turmeric and its active ingredients are the focus of much research for their potential to prevent and treat a wide range of health conditions including arthritis, fatty liver disease, high cholesterol, depression, cognitive decline, ulcerative colitis and certain cancers among others.
Here’s what’s known so far about turmeric’s possible health benefits.
What is curcumin, turmeric’s secret weapon
Turmeric powder is derived from the rhizomes, or roots, of the Curcuma longa plant, a member of the ginger family. It’s a perennial herb that’s cultivated in India and parts of Southeast Asia.
While turmeric contains many different plant compounds, curcumin is considered its most potent ingredient. It’s also the most widely studied.
Curcumin is one of three curcuminoid compounds in turmeric and represents about 75 per cent of its curcuminoid content. Curcuminoids give turmeric its distinct colour.
It’s curcumin that’s responsible for turmeric’s strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties which are credited for many of its potential health benefits. Animal and lab studies also suggest that curcumin may protect brain cells and have anticancer activity.
Can turmeric and curcumin ease joint pain?
Several large reviews of clinical trials have concluded that turmeric and curcumin extracts help treat knee osteoarthritis by reducing knee pain and stiffness, improving physical function and reducing the need for medication.
A 2021 review of 11 randomized controlled trials, for example, found that both low-dose (less than 1000 mg daily) and high-dose (more than 1000 mg daily) curcumin extracts significantly reduced pain scores for knee osteoarthritis. Curcumin supplements were associated with better pain relief than non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs and also had fewer side effects.
Curcumin might benefit other types of arthritis too.
A review of 29 trials involving 2,396 participants, published in 2022, concluded that curcumin extracts, in doses ranging from 120 to 1500 mg per day, reduced the severity of inflammation and pain levels among people with ankylosing spondylitis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis and gout.
Curcumin has been shown to reduce markers of inflammation associated with arthritis as well as suppress the production of enzymes involved in cartilage degradation.
What are the other potential health benefits
Clinical studies using varying doses have shown that taking curcumin supplements daily can reduce the severity of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Curcumin and turmeric extracts have also been shown to reduce elevated blood triglyceride (fat) levels, but not LDL (bad) cholesterol.
As well, numerous studies have found that taking 1 g of curcumin daily, along with antidepressant medication, improves depression symptoms.
Curcumin’s antidepressant effect is related to lower levels of inflammatory immune cells and increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that plays a role in mood and emotions.
About turmeric, curcumin supplements?
The daily dose of curcuminoids used in studies ranges from 500 to 2,000 mg, most of it as curcumin. Turmeric spice powder, meanwhile, contains only 2 to 9 per cent of curcuminoids.
Curcumin and turmeric supplements are usually a mixture of turmeric’s curcuminoids; many are standardized to contain 95 per cent curcumin.
But some turmeric supplements are simply capsules of turmeric spice powder and, therefore, have considerably lower amounts of curcumin than concentrated turmeric extracts.
Turmeric and curcumin are poorly absorbed and rapidly broken down in the body. This makes it difficult to reach blood levels of curcumin sufficient for its biological activity.
To address this, supplement manufacturers have added ingredients to improve the body’s absorption and use of curcumin. Such ingredients include black pepper extract (piperine), Meriva, BCM-95, Theracurmin, CurcuWIN and Longvida.
To increase curcumin’s absorption even more, take supplements with a meal that contains a little fat.
Turmeric and curcumin supplements are generally well tolerated. However, taking high doses may cause digestive upset.
People with gallbladder disease or calcium oxalate kidney stones and those trying to conceive should use turmeric/curcumin supplements with caution. So should people taking blood-thinning or blood-sugar-lowering medications.
Turmeric and curcumin supplements should not be used during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
As always, consult your health care provider or pharmacist for advice on supplementing safely.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD