Turmeric is the root of a plant called Curcuma Longa and part of the ginger family. It has a history for its use in traditional medicine, with a long list of speculated benefits.
It is now predominantly used as a very popular spice throughout Asia and has become a staple ingredient within many curries. Turmeric is also used in tea, drinks, cosmetics, and has other uses as a colorant, preservative, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory.
However, despite its long use in many cultures, only recently have the bioactive components and their mechanisms of action been discovered.
Although the names are often used interchangeably, the benefits from turmeric are almost exclusively due to curcumin – a curcuminoid and polyphenol contained within turmeric. For this reason, this review will discuss the advantages of consuming curcumin, as this is where the majority of scientific literature is focused.
Curcumin makes up ~5% of most turmeric products and is known to give turmeric its unique flavor and color.
It’s A Powerful Anti-Oxidant
Curcumin has been shown to improve markers of oxidative stress by elevating the activities of antioxidants such as superoxide dismutase.
Curcumin supplementation is also seen to increase the concentrations of catalase, glutathione peroxidase, and lipid peroxides, which have similar antioxidant effects .
Curcumin’s effect on free radicals and preventing cellular damage is thought to be via two main mechanisms.
The main mechanism is by scavenging different forms of free radicals, such as reactive oxygen and nitrogen species that would usually cause damage to DNA, RNA and various proteins.
It can also modulate the activity of certain enzymes that not only neutralize free radicals, but simultaneously inhibit the production of reactive oxygen species .
The combination of reduced production and activity of free radicals is likely to have a synergistic effect on decreasing cell damage and increasing longevity.
It’s An Anti-Inflammatory
Systematic reviews conclude that curcumin can exert anti-inflammatory effects in humans by inhibiting the activity of a number of different pro-inflammatory molecules such as nitric oxide, phospholipase, and prostaglandins .
Curcumin may also decrease the concentration levels of signaling molecules from the immune system that promote inflammation, known as pro-inflammatory cytokines.
It seems curcumin blocks the protein complexes that control the DNA creation of these pro-inflammatory cytokines, which could demonstrate a significant role in encouraging cell survival.
It May be Helpful at Alleviating Arthritic Symptoms
As arthritis is now closely recognized to be associated with systemic inflammation, it is no surprise that the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin can also help alleviate arthritic conditions.
After 6 weeks of curcumin supplementation, pain and physical functioning scores can be significantly improved in patients with osteoarthritis . This is suggested to be due to local anti-inflammatory effects as opposed to systemic effects.
In addition, new evidence suggests that curcumin can suppress the destruction of cells within cartilage connective tissue and promote their regeneration .
However, at this time it is not conclusive to whether curcumin intake can replace the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
It May Contain Anti-Viral Properties
Viruses are obligatory parasites and are responsible for a range of minor to major diseases.
Most notably, curcumin might be effective at preventing the flu, one of the more common viral respiratory disorders.
It is suggested that curcumin could prevent the entry of the flu genome (genetic material) into the host cell by interfering with the proteins essential for their interaction.
Cell culture studies report that curcumin can also reduce the initial production of the flu virus, with 30mcg reducing the production of the flu virus by ~90%.
A potential role may also be present in regard to hepatitis B and C viruses by preventing the replication and gene expression of these viral genomes in the host.
Curcumin has also demonstrated to protect against the entry of hepatitis into liver cells by inhibiting its interaction with the cell surface.
Is Turmeric Effective For Otherwise-Healthy People?
Despite the many benefits of turmeric, most of these studies have been carried out in those with pre-existing health conditions, and do not necessarily apply to healthy populations.
However, in healthy populations, curcumin has positive, yet limited, evidence for its ability to lower triglyceride levels, reduce markers of oxidative stress , improve attention and indicators of mood , and decrease exercise-induced muscle soreness after intense exercise .
For these reasons, curcumin may potentially have certain benefits in healthy populations, although more research is needed for clarification.
In addition, curcumins effects on healthy populations are probably not as dramatic compared to those with pre-existing health conditions.
Bioavailability of Curcumin
A very important aspect to consider with curcumin, the active component of turmeric, is that it has very poor absorption and bioavailability.
It is for these reasons that the majority of research studies analyzing curcumin use specific methods in which to reduce the resistance to its metabolism and thus improve the circulation, permeability, and bioavailability of the substance.
The most well-known and convenient method to successfully achieve this is by consuming piperine, a component of black pepper, alongside turmeric.
Piperine can effectively inhibit the intestinal and liver disposal of curcumin and significantly increase its bioavailability.
Safety and Side Effects
Turmeric has a great safety record, and human studies with healthy subjects support its safety and efficacy when taken by mouth or applied to the skin.
However, there is a set allowable daily intake of curcumin – ~7mg/lb bodyweight.
As curcumin accounts for ~5% of turmeric in food, this equates to a turmeric limit of 140mg/lb bodyweight.
However, turmeric supplements usually have significantly higher concentrations of curcumin, and users should always follow the instructions provided on the label.
It is noted that susceptible individuals may experience some minor negative side effects from turmeric such as diarrhea, headache, rash, and yellow stool.
The likelihood of side effects presents themselves in a dose-response manner, with an increased likelihood as the dosage increases.
How Much Turmeric Should You Take?
As curcumin is the active component of turmeric, the amount of turmeric needed to experience the benefits are dependent on the concentration level of curcumin within a given product.
Obviously, this is going to vary on the type of turmeric product, or supplement, that is being consumed.
Current recommendations are to consume ~500-1500mg of turmeric in the form of food (spice).
However, if turmeric extract is being consumed in the form of a supplement then curcumin concentrations rise from 5% to >90%. Therefore, it is essential to stick to the directions provided on the label of the given supplement to avoid excess intakes.
Remember, even if the recommended dosage is being taken, it needs to be active when it reaches the gut, or the full spectrum of benefits will not be achieved.
It is therefore essential to consume some black pepper alongside turmeric, or curcumin, to increase the bioavailability and effectiveness.
No, it is not necessary to start weighing black pepper to ensure optimal dosages. A few turns of a pepper grinder is enough to reap the benefits.
Turmeric is the root of a plant in the ginger family and is commonly used as a spice in food or taken as a dietary supplement.
The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, and the vast majority of scientific research is directed at curcumin as opposed to turmeric consumption.
Turmeric has shown to possess strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-viral effects. It also may have unique benefits for preventing or treating arthritis.
However, most of the studies on turmeric, or curcumin, are conducted on animals and the benefits in humans have not been fully established.
Also, curcumin has very poor absorption and bioavailability, and piperine intake from black pepper is essential in order to improve this.
Consume ~500-1500mg of turmeric per day in the form of spice, or stick to label recommendations on supplements.
Although turmeric is generally safe, do not consume over 140mg/lb bodyweight, or 7mg/lb of curcumin.