What are turmeric and curcumin?
Turmeric is the spice that gives curry its yellow color.
It has been used in India for thousands of years as both a spice and medicinal herb. Recently, science has started to back up traditional claims that turmeric contains compounds that may some health and wellness benefits.
These compounds are called curcuminoids. The most important one is curcumin.
Curcumin is the main active ingredient in turmeric. It has powerful anti-inflammatory effects and is a very strong antioxidant.
Here are the top 10 health benefits of turmeric and curcumin.
- Turmeric contains bioactive compounds with medicinal properties
However, the curcumin content of turmeric isn’t that high. It’s around 3%, by weight. Most of the studies on this herb use turmeric extracts that contain mostly curcumin itself, with dosages usually exceeding 1 gram per day.
It would be very difficult to reach these levels just using turmeric as a spice in your foods.
That’s why some people choose to use supplements.
However, curcumin is poorly absorbed into your bloodstream. In order to experience the full effects of curcumin, its bioavailability (the rate at which your body absorbs a substance) needs to improve.
It helps to consume it with black pepper, which contains piperine. Piperine is a natural substance that enhances the absorption of curcumin by 2,000%.
In fact, the best curcumin supplements contain piperine, and this makes them substantially more effective.
Curcumin is also fat soluble, which means it breaks down and dissolves in fat or oil. That’s why it may be a good idea to take curcumin supplements with a meal that’s high in fat.
- Curcumin is a natural anti-inflammatory compound
Inflammation is incredibly important. It helps fight foreign invaders and has a role in repairing damage in your body.
Although acute, short-term inflammation is beneficial, it can be a concern if it becomes chronic and attacks your body’s own tissues.
Scientists now believe that chronic low-level inflammation can play a role in some health conditions and diseases. These include:
- heart disease
- metabolic syndrome
- Alzheimer’s disease
- various degenerative conditions
That’s why anything that can help fight chronic inflammation is potentially important in preventing and helping treat these conditions.
While the topic of inflammation is multilayered and there’s likely no simple answer, the key takeaway regarding curcumin is that it is a bioactive substance that can fight inflammation. However, very high doses are required to produce medicinal results.
- Turmeric can increase the antioxidant capacity of the body
Oxidative damage is believed to be one of the mechanisms behind aging and many diseases.
It involves free radicals, highly reactive molecules with unpaired electrons. Free radicals tend to react with important organic substances, such as fatty acids, proteins, or DNA.
The main reason antioxidants are so beneficial is that they protect your body from free radicals.
Curcumin is a potent antioxidant that can neutralize free radicals due to its chemical structure.
In addition, animal and cellular studies suggest that curcumin may block the action of free radicals and may stimulate the action of other antioxidants. Further clinical studies are needed in humans to confirm these benefits.
- Curcumin can boost brain-derived neurotrophic factor
Before scientists had a better understanding of neurons, it was believed that they weren’t able to divide and multiply after early childhood. However, they now know that isn’t the case.
Neurons are capable of forming new connections, and in certain areas of the brain they can multiply and increase in number.
One of the main drivers of this process is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This is a gene that’s involved in making a protein responsible for promoting the life of neurons.
The BDNF protein plays a role in memory and learning, and it can be found in areas of the brain responsible for eating, drinking, and body weight.
Many common brain disorders have been linked to decreased levels of BDNF protein, including depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
Interestingly, animal studies have found that curcumin may increase brain levels of BDNF.
By doing this, it may be effective in delaying or even reversing many brain diseases and age-related decreases in brain function. Still, since these studies were performed in animals, it’s hard to say what the results mean for humans.
It may also help improve memory and attention, which seems logical given its effects on BDNF levels. However, more studies are needed to confirm this.
- Curcumin may lower your risk of heart disease
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the world. Researchers have studied it for many decades and learned a lot about why it happens. Unsurprisingly, heart disease is incredibly complicated and various things contribute to it.
Curcumin may help reverse many steps in the heart disease process.
Perhaps the main benefit of curcumin when it comes to heart disease is improving the function of the endothelium, the lining of your blood vessels.
The endothelial dysfunction is a major driver of heart disease. This is when your endothelium is unable to regulate blood pressure, blood clotting, and various other factors.
Several studies suggest that curcumin can lead to improvements in heart health. Additionally, one study found that it’s as effective as exercise in post-menopausal women.
In addition, curcumin can help reduce inflammation and oxidation (as discussed above), which can play a role in heart disease.
In one study of 121 people undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery, researchers assigned them either a placebo or 4 grams of curcumin per day a few days before and after the surgery.
The curcumin group had a 65% decreased risk of experiencing a heart attack in the hospital.
- Turmeric may help prevent cancer
Cancer is a disease, characterized by uncontrolled cell growth. There are many different forms of cancer that appear to be affected by curcumin supplements.
Curcumin has been studied as a beneficial herb in cancer treatment and been found to affect cancer growth and development.
Studies have shown that it can:
- contribute to the death of cancerous cells
- reduce angiogenesis (growth of new blood vessels in tumors)
- reduce metastasis (spread of cancer)
- Whether high-dose curcumin — preferably with an absorption enhancer like piperine — can help treat cancer in humans has yet to be studied properly.
However, there is evidence that it may prevent cancer from occurring in the first place, especially cancers of the digestive system like colorectal cancer.
In a 30-day study in 44 men with lesions in the colon that sometimes turn cancerous, 4 grams of curcumin per day reduced the number of lesions by 40%.
- Curcumin may be useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and may contribute to up 70% of dementia cases.
While treatment exits for some of its symptoms, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s yet. That’s why preventing it from occurring in the first place is so important.
There may be good news on the horizon because curcumin has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier.
It’s known that inflammation and oxidative damage play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, and curcumin has beneficial effects on both.
In addition, a key feature of Alzheimer’s disease is a buildup of protein tangles called amyloid plaques. Studies show that curcumin can help clear these plaques.
Whether curcumin can slow or even reverse the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in people is currently unknown and needs to be studied.
- Arthritis patients respond well to curcumin supplements
Arthritis is a common problem in Western countries. There are several different types of arthritis, most of which involve inflammation in the joints.
Given that curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory compound, it makes sense that it may help with arthritis. In fact, several studies show that there is an association.
In a study in people with rheumatoid arthritis, curcumin was even more effective than an anti-inflammatory drug.
May other studies have looked at the effects of curcumin on arthritis and noted improvements in various symptoms.
- Curcumin has benefits against depression
Curcumin has shown some promise in treating depression.
In a controlled trial, 60 people with depression were randomized into three groups. One group took Prozac, another group took 1 gram of curcumin, and the third group took both Prozac and curcumin.
After 6 weeks, curcumin had led to improvements similar to those of Prozac. The group that took both Prozac and curcumin fared best.
According to this small study, curcumin is as effective as an antidepressant.
Depression is also linked to reduced levels of BDNF and a shrinking hippocampus, a brain area with a role in learning and memory. Curcumin can help boost BDNF levels, potentially reversing some of these changes.
There’s also some evidence that curcumin can boost the brain neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
- Curcumin may help delay aging and fight age-related chronic diseases
If curcumin can really help prevent heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s, it may have benefits for longevity as well.
This suggests that curcumin may have potential as an anti-aging supplement.
Given that oxidation and inflammation are believed to play a role in aging, curcumin may have effects that go way beyond just preventing disease.
The data adds up …
Turmeric — and especially its most active compound, curcumin — have many scientifically proven health benefits, such as the potential to improve heart health and prevent against Alzheimer’s and cancer.
It’s a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. It may also help improve symptoms of depression and arthritis.
While these benefits are possible, they are limited at this time because of curcumin’s scarce bioavailability, and more research is needed.