The Many Benefits of Turmeric and Curcumin
By Dr. Jyoti Mistry, ND and Dr. Lucas MacMillan, ND
Turmeric, also known as Curcuma longa, is a medicinal plant from the same family as ginger root. East Indians have used the vivid orange roots of turmeric for thousands of years to add colour and flavour to their food. The Chinese and Indian (Ayurvedic) systems of medicine use turmeric extensively for it’s medicinal properties to prevent and treat a variety of conditions. Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric has become world renowned for its diverse therapeutic effects including its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal benefits…to name a few. While many people are aware of some of the health benefits of turmeric, science and medicine continue to uncover its therapeutic properties, which makes turmeric one of the most fascinating medicinal herbs today. This article provides an overview of curcumin’s therapeutic usages, and the research supporting it.
Curcumin appears to have a number of positive effects relating to the heart and blood vessels. For example, HDL (the “good” kind of cholesterol) appears to improve in both quantity and quality with curcumin intake. (Ganjali et al., 2017).
Further to this, curcumin works to improve antioxidant levels in blood, appears to significantly improve cardiac tissue health with ischemia-reperfusion injuries (common after significant blood clots or heart attacks), and was shown to protect cardiac cells from excessive apoptosis (cell death). Finally, via numerous mechanisms it appears to have great potential for use in treating irregular heart rhythms (Jiang et al., 2017). Overall, it seems to provide a significant benefit to the cardiovascular system.
Analgesic and Anti-Inflammatory Effects
Inflammation and pain are rampant in our society, as are pain medications, which generally have a number of associated side effects and risks. One potential option is simple curcumin. In a study from 2010, curcumin intake led to a significant decrease in pain, improvements in function, and a decrease in pain medication usage in those with osteoarthritis. Interestingly, it also led to a decrease in a number of inflammatory markers in the body, and a decrease in markers of oxidative damage (Appendino et al). While there is still a need for more research, the potential benefits of pain relief and improvement in function with a simultaneous decrease in overall inflammation and oxidative damage suggests that curcumin has great potential in the realm of pain control, both as an adjunct and as a primary treatment option. An interesting addition to this is the apparent decrease in pain and fatigue following surgical removal of the gallbladder, when treating with curcumin (Agarwal, Tripathi, Agarwal & Saluja, 2011). This highlights the potential power and diversity of curcumin use especially with pain and trauma, even including post-surgery.
Effects on the Liver
Historically, curcumin has been used to treat various types of liver disorders. However, the majority of studies assessing the hepatoprotective effects of curcumin have largely been conducted in experimental animal models. Should these results translate to humans, curcumin may be a promising liver therapeutic agent. Studies to date have shown that curcumin can provide a protective effect on the liver, by supporting the mitochondria and preventing cell death, in such conditions as non-alcoholic fatty hepatitis (Wang et al., 2015). Curcumin has also been shown to increase bile production and to increase biliary excretion of bile salts, cholesterol and bilirubin (Aggarwal & Harikumar, 2009). This suggests that curcumin may provide a benefit in the prevention and treatment of kidney stones.
Curcumin has been shown to exhibit a number of beneficial effects on the gastrointestinal system. These effects include reduced gas production, inhibiting intestinal spasm, and increasing the secretion of secretin, gastrin, bicarbonate and pancreatic enzymes (Aggarwal & Harikumar, 2009). It also has gastroprotective effects against ulcer formation (Aggarwal & Harikumar, 2009). Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory activity has also proven to be beneficial in the treatment of ulcerative colitis. In a double-blind trial, patients who were given 3 g of curcumin per day, in addition to mesalamine therapy, showed clinical and endoscopic remission of mild to moderate ulcerative colitis (Lang et al., 2015). This is a significant result, given the fact that ulcerative colitis is a difficult condition to treat.
Curcumin has also been shown to exert some antimicrobial effects. In one study, alcohol extracts and essential oil of Curcuma longa was shown to inhibit the growth of most organisms that typically cause gallbladder inflammation, also known as cholecystitis (Aggarwal & Harikumar, 2009).
The marvel of curcumin continues as there is considerable evidence showing that curcumin has neuroprotective effects. It may be able to protect against age-related brain damage in conditions including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Based on current evidence, curcumin can scavenge excess free radicals generated in oxidative processes in nerve cells of the brain (Wasik & Antkiewicz-Michaluk, 2017).
Health Maintenance and Disease Prevention
Another very interesting study examined the effects of curcumin at low doses after one month of use. While most researchers have studied curcumin for treatment of specific diseases, these authors chose to target healthy middle aged adults, which exposes the potential maintenance and prevention roles that curcumin may have. In this study the authors found an increase in natural antioxidant production in both saliva and blood, which suggests systemic effects throughout the entire body. Other benefits included potential liver protective effects, decreased systemic inflammation markers, and even potential protection against some neurodegenerative conditions (DiSilvestro et al., 2012).
Many people use turmeric in their cooking, smoothies and “Golden milk” decoctions thinking that they are deriving all the health benefits that turmeric has to offer. Unfortunately, turmeric is poorly absorbed by the body. Turmeric ingested in this way is not likely going to have a significant effect in the body. One study shows that by consuming turmeric with black pepper, which contains piperine, the absorption of curcumin is enhanced (Shoba et al., 1998). While this is good news, concentrations of curcumin are likely not going to reach therapeutic levels with simple turmeric ingestion. One of the best ways to take advantage of the health benefits of turmeric is to select a high quality curcumin supplement that has been developed to enhance bioavailability in the body. Ask your naturopathic doctor to recommend a curcumin supplement and dose that is right for you. Lastly, keep in mind that if you are taking turmeric to help with digestive issues, the poor absorption is certainly to your benefit as the entire amount traverses and contacts the majority of your digestive tract. In this case, cheers to “Golden milk.” A dose of 2-4g of turmeric daily can be beneficial in supporting your digestive system.
Safety and Drug Interactions
Overall, turmeric is a very safe natural supplement. At very high doses however, turmeric may damage the gastrointestinal system, as it may lead to ulcer formation. One thing to keep in mind is that turmeric has several possible drug interactions. It is best to take curcumin away from any other medications. Specifically, curcumin may interfere with beta-blockers, antibiotics such as norfloxacin, ciprofloxacin and cotrimoxazole, and some chemotherapeutic agents (Murray, 2013). Curcumin may increase the risk of bleeding from anticoagulant drugs since it can decrease platelet aggregation (Murray, 2013).
Curcumin is a natural herb that can be used to help treat a wide range of conditions, especially when used as part of a personalized treatment plan. Given the potential of interactions or side effects, use of curcumin beyond simple food forms (such as supplements or tinctures, for example) is best if overseen by a Naturopathic Physician or other qualified health professional.
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Agarwal, K., Tripathi, C., Agarwal, B., & Saluja, S. (2011). Efficacy of turmeric (curcumin) in pain and postoperative fatigue after laparoscopic cholecystectomy: a double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled study. Surgical Endoscopy, 25(12), 3805-3810.
Appendino G, Belcaro G, Cesarone MR, Dugall M, Grossi MG, Ledda A, Pellegrini L, Togni S. (2010). Efficacy and safety of Meriva®, a curcumin-phosphatidylcholine complex, during extended administration in osteoarthritis patients. Alternative Medicine Review 2010;15(4):337-344.
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