Turmeric (curcuma longa) has been making an appearance in health food magazines and in the hot beverages of the Fairfield and Northcote hipsters. So what is all the hype about? Are there real benefits in replacing our lattes or in a more substantial dose in a therapeutic sense? Is there any evidence that it’s effective?
Resident naturopath, Vicki van der Meer, and osteopath, Catherine Burns looked to the science for information.
Turmeric has been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, and it’s eaten in abundance in many Asian cuisines. In Western households a (probably outdated) packet of turmeric was often kept to throw in the occasional curry, but in the past few years the benefits of turmeric have been investigated by both mainstream and complementary medicine.
What does it do in our body?
Turmeric contains compounds called curcuminoids, the most important of which is curcumin. Most of the studies on turmeric are based on extracts that contain a high level of curcumin, and it’s thought that many of its actions are due to curcumin.
Turmeric’s benefits are purportedly widespread and many, but most of the research suggests it is has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and immune-modulating properties (1). There is emerging evidence that turmeric can help in cancer prevention and can be used as adjuvant in cancer treatment (2). Epidemiological data suggests a correlation between turmeric and lower rates of colorectal cancer in Asian countries. (15)
Oxidative stress can lead to tissue damage and contribute to chronic disease development. It plays a role in arthritis and inflammatory diseases. As an antioxidant, turmeric can protect against the potentially harmful effects of oxidation. (16)
As an anti-inflammatory, turmeric inhibits the production of inflammatory chemicals, such as leukotriene and prostaglandins. It has shown promising results in the treatment of multiple chronic inflammatory diseases (3) including:
- Osteoarthritis (4,5,6,7)
- Rheumatoid Arthritis (8,9)
- Cardiovascular disease (10)
- Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (11)
- Inflammatory bowel disease - Crohn’s Disease & Ulcerative Collitis (1)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (1)
- Anxiety & Depression (14)
A number of studies support the use of turmeric for osteoarthritis. Turmeric has been shown to decrease pain levels, improve morning stiffness and joint movement, increase walking distance and decrease inflammatory proteins on blood testing. (4,5,6,7) The participants in these studies used less over the counter anti-inflammatories and experienced fewer medication side effects.
The research indicates that turmeric may have similar efficacy as over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen and voltaren (5) for osteoarthritis.
Turmeric was found to be effective in improving morning stiffness, walking time and joint swelling, either similar to or to a lesser extent than other over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs (8,9). Whilst the results for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) aren’t incredible, turmeric was well tolerated by all participants, in contrast to the side effects of other anti-inflammatory medications. It’s important to note that RA is a multi-system autoimmune inflammatory condition, so to get real improvements a multi-system approach is needed.
How does it compare to Non-steroidal anti inflammatories (NSAIDS)?
NSAIDs, such as Diclofenac (e.g Voltaren) or Nurofen (e.g. ibuprofen), which are often used for pain relief and to decrease inflammation, can cause gastric ulceration. Turmeric has the benefit of not causing ulceration at therapeutic doses.
The research suggests that turmeric is effective in chronic inflammatory conditions, rather than for use with an acute headache or injury.
How to take Turmeric
Most of the studies on turmeric are based on extracts that contain a high level of curcumin. Therefore, although consuming turmeric in beverages and everyday cooking has many benefits, if you have an inflammatory condition, and are using turmeric therapeutically, you need a turmeric supplement that has high levels of curcumin to get real anti-inflammatory effects.
There are many different products available, and as is the case with many herbal supplements, they vary in terms of quality. Turmeric is poorly absorbed through the gut wall, so good quality products have been formulated to optimise absorption. Don’t choose a turmeric based product without it being recommended by a health professional.
As a spice
Consuming turmeric in home cooking or as a beverage in the form of a latte, provides many health benefits, as you are having a warming, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory food. You can certainly do this as well as taking a more concentrated supplement. When consuming turmeric at home there are some things you can do to help the curcumin become more available. It should be consumed with black pepper, and as it’s fat soluble, having it with a meal helps its absorption
Turmeric is considered very safe at normal dietary or therapeutic dosages (2). Trials have demonstrated doses up to 8000mg/day are non-toxic to humans (12) which is well above the recommended therapeutic dosages.
High doses are generally not recommended during pregnancy or for those wanting to conceive (4).
Little research has been performed on interactions between turmeric and other medications. Theoretical and speculative data suggests turmeric should not be used in combination with antiplatelet drugs, anticoagulant therapy or cyclophosphamide (a chemotherapy drug). It is best to stop taking turmeric within 1 week of major surgery (2).
A Final Word
It’s exciting to see a humble spice garner so much scientific and medical attention. As more people seek alternatives for pain relief, turmeric is proving to be a safe and effective option. Check with your health professional if turmeric would be of benefit of you. Our naturopath, Vicki, is able to guide you on the most appropriate dosage and type of turmeric for your complaint.
(1) Dulbecco P. & Savarino V. (2013). Therapeutic potential of curcumin in digestive diseases. World J Gastroenterol, 19(48):9256-70
(2) Braun, Lesley, and Marc Cohen. Herbs and Natural Supplements, Volume 2, Elsevier Health Sciences, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central
(3) Henrotin Y, Priem F., Mobasheri A. (2013). Curcumin: a new paradigm and therapeutic opportunity for the treatment of osteoarthritis: curcumin for osteoarthritis management. Springerplus, 2(56)
(4) Pergolizzi, J.V., Eke-Okoro, UJ., Breve, F., Taylor, R., Raffa, R.B. Postgraduate Medicine. Conference: 2016 Pain Week Conference. US. Turmeric: Its potential role in analgesia.
(5) Daily, J.W., Yang, M., & Park, S. (2016). Efficacy of turmeric extracts and curcumin for alleviating the symptoms of joint arthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Journal of Medicinal Food, 19(8): 717-729
(6) Belcaro G., Cesarone MR., Dugall M., Pellegrini L., Ledda A., Grossi MG., Togni S., Appendio G. (2010). Product-evaulation registry of Meriva, a curcumin-phosphatidylcholine complex, for the complementary management of osteoarthritis. Panminevera Med, 52(2 Suppl 1):55-62
(7) Belcaro G., Cesarone MR., Dugall M., Pellegrini L., Ledda A., Grossi MG., Togni S., Appendio G. (2010). Efficacy and safety of Meriva, a curcumin-phosphatidylcholine complex, during extended administration in osteoarthritis patients. Altern Med Rev, 15(4):337-44
(8) Deodhar SD, Sethi R, Srimal RC. (1980). Preliminary study on antirheumatic activity of curcumin (diferuloyl methane). Indian J Med Res, 71: 632-4
(9) Chandran B & Goel A. (2012). A randomized, pilot study to assess the efficacy and safety of curcumin in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis. Phytother Res 26.11: 1719– 1725
(10) Jiang S et al. (2017). Curcumin as a potential protective compound against cardiac disease. Pharmacol Res, 119:373-383
(11) Zhang DW et al. (2013). Curcumin and Diabetes: A Systematic Review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 636053.
(12) Cheng AL et al. (2001). Phase I clinical trial of curcumin, a chemoproventative agent, in patients with high-risk or pre-malignant lesions. Anticancer Res 21.4B: 2895-900
(13) Prasad S, Aggarwal BB. Turmeric, the Golden Spice: From Traditional Medicine to Modern Medicine. In: Benzie IFF, Wachtel-Galor S, editors. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2011. Chapter 13.Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92752/
(14) Ng QX, Koh SSH, Chan HW, Ho CYX. (2017). Clinical use of curcumin in depression: a meta-analysis. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 18(6):503-508
(15) Plummer SM (2001) Clinical development of leukocyte cycloxygenase 2 activity as a systemic biomarker for cancer chemopreventative agents. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 10,12:1295-1299
(16) Menon VP, Sudheer AR (2007) Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin. Adv Exp Med Biol 595:105-125