Can The Curcumin In Turmeric Really Help With Everything?

Photo by Nataša Mandić

If you've been guzzling golden milk, whipping up curry, or adding this spice to your daily apple cider vinegar shot, you likely know that turmeric is a delicious and vibrant addition to any meal. The bright yellow spice, which can be purchased powdered or in its whole-root form, has been a mainstay of Indian cuisine and ayurveda for centuries and has recently become a darling of the wellness world. Credited for curing everything from sore throats and skin burns to cancer, turmeric has a secret weapon: curcumin.

Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric that gives it its yellow hue and disease-fighting power. This potent phytonutrient is just 3 percent of turmeric by weight, but it has been shown to have major antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. So, will dusting everything in this magical golden spice really ward off disease and keep you healthy? Here's your guide on everything you need to know about turmeric's powerhouse active ingredient curcumin.

The basics: Curcumin as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.

Curcumin's status as a health hero and potential panacea likely stems from its strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It has become increasingly clear that inflammation plays a role in most chronic disease, including Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and cancer. Curcumin may help prevent and potentially even reverse these diseases by fighting inflammation. Curcumin works by interfering with the inflammation pathways and inhibiting the inflammatory response. Specifically, it prevents the production of pro-inflammatory genes at the source by blocking the DNA transcription.

According to Will Cole, D.C., IFMCPfunctional medicine expert, author of Ketotarian, and mbg Collective member, "Curcumin, the compound in your favorite spice turmeric, is one of the earth's most powerful anti-inflammatory resources and one of my favorite natural tools for reducing inflammation for my functional medicine patients. While more studies need to be done to fully understand how exactly it works to drive down inflammation, research upon research has shown that it is extremely effective."

In addition to inflammation, oxidative stress is often cited as a proponent of chronic disease. Molecules in the body called free radicals cause oxidative stress by damaging cell walls and DNA. Over time, this damage can lead to wrinkled skin, cognitive decline, and chronic diseases. Curcumin can act as an antioxidant in the body to neutralize free radicals and prevent oxidative stress. It also boosts the body's natural free-radical-fighting capabilities by increasing the production of antioxidants. Disrupting the inflammatory response and fighting oxidative stress may be the key to curcumin's myriad health benefits.

Curcumin for brain health.

Did you know that, by the year 2050, 14 million people are expected to be in need of full-time care for Alzheimer's disease? We are in desperate need of an effective treatment and prevention strategy. That's where curcumin comes in. Studies have found that curcumin has the potential to prevent neurodegeneration and Alzheimer's disease. While research is still underway, studies in vitro and in animal models have had promising results. Curcumin is an especially appealing treatment method because it may inhibit the development of Alzheimer's in multiple ways and has limited side effects.

For starters, curcumin's anti-inflammatory properties may help prevent cognitive decline. Chronic inflammation of nerve cells has been cited as one of the underlying causes of neurodegenerative conditions. This inflammation has been associated with the formation of amyloid plaques, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease. Curcumin's ability to quell inflammation may inhibit the buildup of plaque and potentially prevent the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

In addition to its anti-inflammatory benefits, curcumin has been found to block the formation of these plaques by binding with the amyloids themselves. In fact, mice given low doses of curcumin saw a 40 percent reduction in beta-amyloid. Curcumin may even boost the immune system's ability to clear away amyloid buildups. In a small study of Alzheimer's patients, those treated with curcumin saw a significant increase in activity and efficiency of the macrophages, the cells that clear away amyloid buildup. Although a lot more research is needed to understand exactly how to harness the powers of curcumin for brain health, it presents an exciting opportunity for natural, side-effect-free care.

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Curcumin to fight cancer.

Similar to how it may help fight neurodegenerative diseases, curcumin appears to target cancer in multiple ways. Curcumin's antioxidant properties protect cells from the damage that can lead to cancer in the first place. In addition, animal and in vitro studies have found that curcumin suppresses the growth and development of tumors. Cancerous tumors develop from the unregulated reproduction of mutated cells. Curcumin, on the other hand, can regulate cell signaling pathways that determine the cell life cycle, inhibiting the replication of cancerous cells and even initiating programmed cell death in them. In addition, curcumin can distinguish between healthy cells and cancerous cells to specifically target and attack the unhealthy cells.

Not only could curcumin fight cancer on its own, though—it may even help conventional therapies work better. Curcumin has been shown to make tumors more sensitive to the effects of chemotherapy drugs while protecting healthy cells. A study of colorectal cancer found that a combination treatment of curcumin and chemotherapy was significantly more effective than chemotherapy alone. By boosting the cancer-fighting power of chemotherapy, curcumin may allow doctors to use less of the toxic chemo medications, thereby preserving other healthy cells. In addition, curcumin may protect healthy cells from the toxic effects of chemotherapy by boosting the production of damage-fighting antioxidants. Also, patients who supplemented chemotherapy with curcumin experienced fewer side effects and reported a better quality of life.

Want to start taking a turmeric supplement? Here's exactly what you need to know.

Curcumin for joint pain.

Much of the pain associated with arthritis and chronic joint pain stems from inflammation. The swelling of joint tissue creates discomfort, stiffness, and tenderness. Curcumin's anti-inflammatory properties make it a great option for those suffering from arthritis or chronic joint pain. In fact, one study, comparing the effectiveness of a prescription pain medication and curcumin supplements, found patients saw significantly greater improvements in rheumatoid arthritis symptoms when taking curcumin. Further research suggests that pairing curcumin with conventional treatment therapies may provide the greatest pain-relieving benefits.

Curcumin for heart health.

As we age, plaque can build up in our arteries, leading to atherosclerosis and eventually cardiovascular disease. This is, in part, due to a natural process called endothelial dysfunction. Basically, the cells that line the walls of our arteries stop being able to function properly and begin to attract plaque. It turns out, curcumin may be able to prevent and even reverse endothelial dysfunction. In a 12-week study of healthy adults, curcumin supplementation was shown to improve endothelial function by 1.3 percent—that translates to a 13 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease risk. Although more research is needed, curcumin is a promising preventive strategy for cardiovascular disease.

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Curcumin: Safety, dosing, and bioavailability.

Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that may help combat a wide array of ailments. The amount of curcumin available in turmeric is relatively small, though, and the amount your body can absorb from that is even smaller. Fortunately, pairing turmeric with piperine (pepper) can increase the bioavailability by up to 2,000 percent.

In addition to dietary curcumin via turmeric, curcumin can be purchased in pill form. Curcumin supplements are a much more concentrated way to consume curcumin and are typically mixed with piperine to increase absorption. Since research is still ongoing, there is no standard dosing. But 10 grams a day has been shown to be a safe and effective amount to consume. Taz Bhatia, M.D., integrative medicine physician and mbg Collective member, says, "From joint pain, acne, to even hormone imbalances, curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory that packs a punch. I usually 'prescribe' it in a dose of 2 to 3 grams per day."

Although turmeric is generally a safe spice, taking concentrated high doses of curcumin may be dangerous for certain people. Curcumin is a natural anticoagulant, so those on blood thinners should avoid supplementing with it. And of course, always check in with your doctor before trying a new supplement.

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