Turmeric has gotten buzz for years now as a spice with major health properties. But a lot of the perks of turmeric are actually due to its main active ingredient: curcumin. The compound may help manage bodily inflammation, support a healthy heart, and even promote cognitive health.* "The benefits of curcumin have long been known, but it was recently that we discovered the mechanism in which it reacts with our bodies," says Scott Keatley, R.D. And there's actually quite a bit of research to back up the benefits of this active: As far as natural remedies go, it is one of the most widely backed and supported. Here's what you need to know.
Curcumin is a super compound, with more perks than most people realize:
It's an anti-inflammatory.*
Bodily inflammation can be caused by a slew of things, including oxidative stress, diets, UV damage, and chronic diseases. As part of the body's inflammatory response, free radicals are generated, which can ultimately damage your cells, explains Yufang Lin, M.D., an integrative medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic. Free radicals have an uneven number of electrons. So free radicals steal electrons from healthy molecules to stabilize themselves—and those turn into a free radical, and the chain reaction continues. You stop this process through antioxidants, which are able to neutralize those free radicals.
"Curcumin has been shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties," she says. Its anti-inflammatory properties are it's most definitive and well-understood. In fact, one study done on human cells even found that curcumin can manage inflammation better than anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen.* To understand why it's such a trusted anti-inflammatory agent, you must look at how it works in the body. Not only does it help neutralize free radicals, but curcumin goes a step further: The ingredient is thought to manage inflammation at the cellular level by blocking NF-kB, a molecule that can work its way into your cells and turn on genes that lead to inflammation.*
It can promote brain health.*
Your brain has nerve cells called neurons that can multiply within certain areas of your brain. A big factor behind this is a growth hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). "BDNF is a protein produced by brain cells that is very important to the function and survival of brain cells," Lin explains. "We used to believe that we are born with a specific number of nerve cells in the brain, and once they die, they don't grow back. We now know that is not true."
Instead, your brain has the ability to regenerate and repair itself, and BDNF is "critical" in the process, Lin says. "Studies show curcumin can increase BDNF levels, and thus support brain healing and regeneration from injury and trauma," she says.* Cognitive decline is a form of inflammation of the brain tissues, and, given that curcumin manages inflammation, it may help protect people from developing cognitive decline, Lin says.*
It may support heart health.*
There are many factors that can lead to declined heart health, including genetics and diet, but curcumin "has been shown to help manage cholesterol, which helps to prevent the hardening of arteries by plaque," says Keatley.*
Research has also found that curcumin can support the lining of your blood vessels, which is known as endothelium.* (When your endothelium isn't working as it should, you can end up with heart conditions.) One moderately sized, placebo-controlled, human study found that curcumin can support the function of your endothelium as well as moderate aerobic exercise. Another randomized, placebo-controlled, 8-week human study found that curcumin was as effective as the drug atorvastatin, which works to manage your blood level of cholesterol and fats.*
It might help manage age-related diseases.*
The reason behind this is simple: "Age-related diseases are often inflammation-based," says Lin. More specifically, curcumin activates the enzyme telomerase.* Telomerases have a very important job, which is to help lengthen and preserve telomeres. Telomeres are the caps on the end of DNA strands that help cells do their job and protect them from degradation, says Beth Warren, R.D. When telomeres can't do their job, it results in damaged DNA, which contributes to premature aging and all the issues that come with it. But by activating the telomerase, "this slows down the process of aging and prevents many aging-related conditions," she says. This benefit is more theory-based, however as researchers continue to look into curcumin they'll be better to understand the promising effects.*
Are there any side effects?
If you take too much curcumin, it can cause bleeding and bruising, Lin says. So stick to the typical dosing, which is usually around 500 milligrams max per day. "Allergic reaction and intolerance—such as stomach upset, diarrhea, and reflux—are possible," Lin adds, but this is extremely rare. Curcumin can also interfere with certain drugs, Keatley says, so it's important to consult your doctor before trying the supplement.
The bottom line:
Curcumin can be a great tool to help you fight bodily inflammation and conditions related to it. While taking one dose of curcumin won't work overnight, it can be an important step to improve your overall wellness.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, relationships, and lifestyle trends with a master’s degree from American University. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, Prevention, Self, Glamour, and more. She lives by the beach, and hopes to own a taco truck one day.