Curcumin is a major constituent of turmeric, a spice taken from the plant Curcuma longa Linn, which grows in Southeast Asia. It requires high temperatures and a high amount of rain to thrive. Turmeric is obtained by baking the plant’s rhizomes at high temperatures, and then grinding it into the distinctive orange powder that Indians have used in curry for centuries. It turns food yellow; it cuts the bitterness of homemade tomato sauce; in high doses, it adds a warm, peppery flavor.
Supplement manufacturers have learned how to extract turmeric further to make standardized formulas that have the optimal composition of curcuminoid, the active compounds that make curcumin beneficial. The biggest hurdle for manufacturers in the past has been bioavailability because it is by nature only fat soluble, not water soluble. However, different manufacturers have found creative ways to solve this problem. Some, for example, combine curcumin with piperine, which has been shown to increase curcumin’s bioavailability by 2000% (1). Curcumin is a popular ingredient, for good reason and there is a growing wealth of research demonstrating its efficacy in supporting our health, namely, inflammation.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is the immune system’s reaction to foreign stimuli (2). The immune system expands blood vessels around the affected site to allow more blood to reach the injured tissue and sends defense cells to speed the healing process. The physical signs of this response include swelling, redness, and heat (2). As the stimulus —whether a cold or a splinter — disappears, the immune system settles back down, and the symptoms of inflammation disappear. This process is most obvious around something like a cut, in which the symptoms are visible, and the heat can be felt with a touch, but they can also occur internally; inflammation is the source of a multitude of discomforts. During a cold, the mucous membranes in the nose react to foreign bacteria with an inflammatory response and swell, leading to the stuffy nose that so often accompanies a cold. For the same reason, an ear infection can result in temporary loss of hearing (2). These are all important discomforts: they mean the body is recognizing an invader that means it harm and is doing its best to rid itself of the danger.
Unfortunately, this response can turn against the body, creating painful and sometimes debilitating conditions, which are too often long-term. Around a cut, swelling helps to heal it; in the brain, swelling can cause irreversible, lifelong conditions. During an outbreak of the flu, the immune system might wall off bacteria. If that wall breaks, it can let the bacteria directly into the bloodstream. Inflammation affects every part of the body, often in a multitude of ways, and while all diagnoses must be made by a qualified doctor, it is useful to be aware of how it can impact an individual’s life.
Inflammation in the Body and Curcumin
Joint Inflammation. Joint inflammation can be caused by several things, and it is a symptom of various issues. It can be the result of an injury and the immune system will react, swelling up in an attempt to protect the bone. In osteoarthritis, inflammation is a side effect. Joint cartilage naturally deteriorates over time and the bones rub up against each other, resulting in the joints swelling (3). Symptoms include pain, decreased range of motion, and joint instability. For instance, if osteoarthritis occurs in the knees, the knees might give out (3). In more serious cases like Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the problem occurs when the immune system attacks the healthy lining of the joints, deploying inflammation in response to a nonexistent threat that therefore never ends. It is most commonly found in the hands, wrists, feet, and knees, but it can affect any joint (4).
While curcumin is not meant to treat or cure any of these conditions, it can be beneficial to those suffering from joint inflammation because of its ability to support the body’s inflammatory response. In a pilot study published in Phototherapy Research conducted in 2012, 15 of 45 patients with RA were randomized to receive curcumin, diclofenac sodium — a treatment of RA — or a combination of the two. Results showed a significant response in all groups, but the 15 who received 500 mg of curcumin showed the best improvement in overall Disease Activity Scores and managed to improve without adverse effects (5). While it was a small-scale trial that still requires additional research, this demonstrates curcumin’s ability to support inflammation.
Another study investigated two different curcumin supplement preparations — one with curcumin alone (333 mg curcuminoids) and the other in combination with Boswellic acid (350 mg curcuminoids and 150 mg Boswellic acid). Researchers randomly assigned 201 patients with osteoarthritis (OA) to the different curcumin products and placebos orally three times a day for 12 weeks. Results from this three-arm, parallel-group, randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial showed that those taking the curcumin preparation alone, compared to placebo, performed significantly better on OA physical function performance-based tests, but those taking curcumin in combination with Boswellic acid had significantly improved scores in physical function and WOMAC joint pain index. Therefore, combining curcumin with other complementary products may be beneficial (6).
Digestive Health. Inflammation can also affect the digestive system. This is most apparent in conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and more seriously in Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, both forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD consists of the chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract as caused by a defective immune system– prolonged inflammation damages the tract.
A study from 2009 demonstrates how curcumin can support healthy inflammation throughout the body by inhibiting pro-inflammatory cytokines. In the study, patients were given 360 mg of curcumin three to four times per day for three months and showed a positive change in cytokine profiles; the pro-inflammatory cytokines decreased, and the anti-inflammatory cytokines increased, reducing symptoms in those with active IBD and reducing relapse in patients whose IBD was quiescent (7).
Cognitive Health. Inflammation can affect brain health in general ways: namely, in memory and mood. One 2018 study performed by Gary W. Small, et al. found that taking curcumin over a period of 18 months improved memory function 28% and improved scores on the Beck Depression Inventory (8). The study was performed on non-demented adults, so that scientists could study the effects of curcumin as a preventative instead of as a treatment. It was however, performed on 40 people, and is thus still needs further study with larger samples.
In the most severe cases inflammation has also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of neurodegenerative dementia, and while it has numerous causes, inflammation is an important one. When inflammatory molecules are not properly regulated, neuroinflammation can kickstart Alzheimer’s disease and help it progress (9). While not a treatment for Alzheimer’s, curcumin continues to be studied as a potential treatment and some findings are promising. For example, beside supporting healthy inflammation in the body, research shows that curcumin has an inhibitory effect on amyloid beta formation and aggregation (10). Amyloid beta-induced toxicity is considered a major factor in the development of Alzheimer’s. A big component of this can be diet. In an analysis of the incidence of Alzheimer’s, Indians who eat curry regularly vs. Americans who do not fared far better (11). WF
- Shoba, et al., “Influence of piperine on the pharmacokinetics of curcumin in animals and human volunteers,” Planta Medica, 64 (4), 353-6 (1998). www.pubmed.gov/pubmed/9619120
- “What Is an Inflammation?” PubMed Health Glossary. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. Web. Accessed 7/2/18. pubmed.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072482/
- Corey Whelan, David Heitz, and Valencia Higuera, “What is Osteoarthritis?” Healthline. Web. Accessed 7/16/18. https://www.healthline.com/health/osteoarthritis
- JM Davis, et al., “Curcumin effects on inflammation and performance recovery following eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage,” American Journal of Physiology. Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 292 (6), 2168-2173 (2007).
- Chandran and A. Goel, “A Randomized, Pilot Study to Assess the Efficacy and Safety of Curcumin in Patients with Active Rheumatoid Arthritis,” Phytotherapy Research, 26 (11), 1719-1725 (2012). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/ptr.4639
- Haroyan, et al. “Efficacy and safety of curcumin and its combination with boswellic acid in osteoarthritis: a comparative, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study.” BMC Complement Altern Med. 18: 7. 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5761198/
- Hanai and K. Sugimoto, “Curcumin has Bright Prospects for the Treatment of Inflammatory Bowel Disease,” Current Pharmaceutical Design, 15 (18), 2087-2094 (2009). www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ben/cpd/2009/00000015/00000018/art00005
- Gary W. Small, et al., “Memory and Brain Amyloid and Tau Effects of a Bioavailable Form of Curcumin in Non-Demented Adults: A Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled 18-Month Trial,” The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 26 (3), 266-277 (2018).
- Eva Bagyinszky, et al., “Role of inflammatory molecules in the Alzheimer’s disease progression and diagnosis,” Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 376, 242-254 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jns.2017.03.031
- Hemachandra Reddy, et al. “Protective Effects of Indian Spice Curcumin Against Amyloid Beta in Alzheimer’s Disease.” J Alzheimers Dis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5796761/
- Mishra and K. Palanivelu, “The effect of curcumin (turmeric) on Alzheimer’s disease: An overview,” Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology, 11 (1), 13-19 (2008). www.pubmed.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2781139/