Western Medicine confirms turmeric, and it's active ingredient curcumin, are powerful anti-inflammatories.

The Science Behind Turmeric's Anti-Inflammatory Effects

Estimated Read Time: 9 minutes

Article Summary

Turmeric, a golden-hued spice, contains a powerful compound called curcumin that has potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. It has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Inflammation is a natural immune response, but chronic inflammation can lead to various diseases like heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, and arthritis. Curcumin can help manage chronic inflammation.

The Science Behind Turmeric

Imagine a spice so powerful it could potentially soothe chronic inflammation with a mere sprinkle. Turmeric, the golden-hued staple of East Asian cuisine, has been a cornerstone of traditional medicine for centuries and now the science behind turmeric's anti-inflammatory effects are validating its long-held value for health.

In the intricate balancing act of the immune system, inflammation has an important role as a defender against foreign invaders. But when it becomes chronic inflammation, it is a catalyst for a myriad of diseases. The distinction between acute, protective inflammation and the chronic, harmful kind is a critical piece of your health and longevity puzzle.

We're going to take a deep dive into the compound curcumin (Curcuma longa) in turmeric and look at its anti-inflammatory superpowers. There are exciting, science-backed health benefits you'll be excited to see, and we'll review how you can use turmeric and its derivative, curcumin, for your well-being.

What Is Turmeric and How Does It Affect Inflammation?

Turmeric is a spice made from the root of Curcuma longa. It contains a chemical compound called curcumin. You've probably encountered turmeric eating out; it's also found in some surprising foods you probably have in your pantry right now (hello, mustard and dill pickles.)

Turmeric lends a warm, bitter taste to cooking; it is frequently used to flavor or color curry powders, sauces, butter, and cheeses. Turmeric is a member of the ginger family, and just like when we use ginger in cooking, we use its underground stems/rhizomes. Turmeric stems have a distinctive orange-yellow color. Be careful with it; it will stain! The curcuma longa plant thrives in warm climates across the globe. I've even grown it in my own garden because it is quite beautiful.

Curcumin, the special, active component of turmeric, has potent anti-inflammatory and powerful antioxidant effects. Because of its health benefits, turmeric has been popular not only in the kitchen but also in traditional medicinal practices for over four thousand years, including Ayurvedic medicine from India along with Traditional Chinese Medicine and food therapy. We've known about its anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, and antioxidant effects for centuries.

The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin

Just as ancient practitioners knew, we are starting to understand that foods like turmeric, with a high antioxidant capacity, often have a vibrant, rich color - we're realizing that's usually a sign that something has powerful health benefits. The activity of curcumin we're documenting in the research labs today is yet more proof those old ways can complement Western Medicine today.

Revealing Turmeric's Anti-Inflammatory Effects

Inflammation is like a fire ignited by our immune system in response to injury or infection. It's an essential biological mechanism that signals the body's healing operations and defense activities when a crisis has occurred.

Fundamentally, inflammation is the body's attempt to protect itself by removing or encapsulating things that can harm it, like damaged cells, irritants, or pathogens. Turmeric and its compound curcumin support the body's inflammatory response and also modulate/balance the presence of other inflammation-promoting chemicals in our bodies.

Turmeric has been used in indigenous medicines for centuries as a natural anti-inflammatory agent to treat digestive and heart problems, skin diseases, and healing wounds or injuries.

Curcumin is a concentrated antioxidant that is turmeric's superpower. Because of its antioxidant capabilities, it can neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals, support improved brain functions, and fortify our immune systems. Exciting new clinical research has demonstrated that thanks to those anti-inflammatory effects, curcumin also helps with conditions like indigestion/dyspepsia and even ulcerative colitis. Curcumin may even support the healing process of colorectal cancer and the inflammation it causes.

Curcuma longa is the botanical name for turmeric, part of the ginger family

Inflammation Is Natural...Until It Isn't

Inflammation is your body’s innate defense mechanism. When we experience an injury or infection, which is often marked by redness, swelling, pain, or heat in the affected area, these are the immune system's signals it has been activated. Inflammation is created to cook out possible infections or invaders with fever or heat or wash them out with mucous, pus, or other liquids. Our bodies respond with a complex biological process involving immune cells, blood vessels, and molecular mediators.

Acute inflammation is the body's immediate and localized protective response to heal and restore normal tissue function. Curcumin plays a supportive role in the acute inflammatory response because it prevents an overreaction while encouraging an appropriate response.

Our bodies can also experience systemic inflammation. This is when a large system of the body like the circulatory system is experiencing an inflammatory response from the immune system. Stress, chronic diseases, and infections can trigger swelling and other inflammatory responses throughout your body's tissues. Curcumin can help reduce this inflammation across an entire body system.

Furthermore, curcumin has been found to protect endothelial function in the circulatory system. Endothelial cells line the inner surfaces of blood vessels and play a vital role in maintaining vascular health. Curcumin helps prevent the adhesion of problematic molecules to endothelial linings, preventing inflammation and promoting optimal blood flow throughout the body. The effects of curcumin help neutralize reactive oxygen because it's an antioxidant.

In addition to its role in systemic inflammation, turmeric is also a potent astringent and antibacterial agent. This makes it beneficial for topical use. It can be applied to wounds, skin irritations, or areas of localized inflammation to promote healing and relieve discomfort. (Fun factoid: in many countries, you can buy Band-Aids with turmeric embedded in the gauze pad.)

Research has shown that curcumin's anti-inflammatory effects extend beyond acute inflammation and can also have a positive impact on chronic inflammatory conditions and autoimmune challenges. Conditions such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and inflammatory bowel disease have all been studied to determine if turmeric offers potential support to the healing process.

When inflammation becomes chronic, it poses a risk to your health. The same response intended to protect can, over time, actually create breakdown, dysfunction, and even necrosis in chronic conditions. Curcumin, with its strong anti-inflammatory properties, can block the molecules that promote inflammation to counteract the lingering risks. It can also work as a great preventative if you take it daily.

Why Chronic Inflammation Is So Dangerous

Chronic inflammation is an underlying condition in a myriad of chronic conditions, including heart disease, the proliferation of cancerous cells, depression, Alzheimer’s dementia, and joint degeneration from arthritis. One key doctors recognize about how inflammation is involved in these diseases is oxidative stress, which destroys our cells, makes us age quickly (it's like we are rusting from the inside out), and damages our organs and tissues.

Cardiovascular disease is intricately tied to chronic inflammation. The immune system's never-ending trigger creates systemic inflammation in all your veins and arteries. If your body looks puffy, red, or heavy, you may have a systemic inflammation condition.

Chronic and systemic inflammation are harmful to the body

Incorporating turmeric, either as a spice or in supplement form, into your diet or supplement regimen can "turn down the alarms" to provide preventative, supportive, anti-inflammatory effects for your overall health.

Many forward-thinking physicians are now turning to turmeric and its beneficial effects for their patients in order to prevent and manage chronic diseases. They are also recommending curcumin in patients who are active people or generally healthy people as a proactive way to care for their health.

Curcumin Emerges As A Star In The Lab

Exciting advances in natural health are being built upon decades of clinical research showing curcumin's impressive anti-inflammatory effects on numerous health conditions.

Let's look at the science of how it works! Studies show that curcumin targets enzymes like cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), which are part of the inflammatory response. For those with osteoarthritis joint pain or arthritis pain, curcumin has proven extraordinarily helpful for reducing daily chronic discomfort and is a good substitute for NSAID pain relievers, which can have nasty side effects. Even elite athletes use curcumin for pain relief, it's a safe substance for competition that reliably delivers results.

As part of the body's immune response, the balance between various T cells is crucial. T cells, sometimes called killer T-cells, are a type of white blood cell called lymphocytes. They help your immune system fight germs and protect you from disease. Curcumin helps fine-tune and modulate the delicate equilibrium of T-cells. This is especially important for people with autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, their T-cells can overreact and create bigger problems if they are unmodulated.

Another benefit of curcumin is that it helps protect your body's collagen. As you know, collagen is the "glue" that holds us together. Collagen keeps our hair illustrious, our nails strong, our skin supple and youthful, and keeps all of our interior connective tissues in good health. Collagen keeps us looking good inside and out!

But our bodies have enzymes called MMPs (Matrix Metalloprotease) that destroy collagen. In some respects, this is the body keeping itself in good form. In a process called remodeling, our body breaks down tissues and bones and then rebuilds them in an ongoing, hopefully balanced process. But with age, that balance can go wonky and we can end up with too much MMP activity.

Another activity of curcumin is that it helps modulate and inhibit oxidative stress and inflammation. These both trigger MMP expression and activate these destructive enzymes.

Curcumin Gets Extra-Credit Points

Beyond the anti-inflammatory abilities we've discussed and how curcumin targets COX2, clinical research is also showing that curcumin can reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels and help modulate blood lipid levels in healthy people. This added metabolic process is why curcumin helps improve blood pressure-related health challenges.

A growing body of evidence from clinical trials shows that turmeric's curcumin significantly lowers inflammatory biomarkers like C-reactive protein (CRP) and malondialdehyde, especially in people with metabolic syndrome (more on that in a minute.)

In multiple studies, curcumin has also been shown to elevate Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) levels. BDNF is a protein intrinsic to memory formation and learning along with general cognitive functions like recall and reactions. Increasing BDNF levels appears to delay or reverse conditions associated with brain degeneration and age-related cognitive deficits. In a clinical setting, 90 milligrams of curcumin twice daily for 18 months demonstrated improved memory performance in adults without dementia.

Turmeric is good for brain health and neuroinflammation

BDNF also helps regulate glucose levels. Curcumin in patients studied for an extended period of time also resulted in pronounced improvements in insulin sensitivity, lipid profiles, blood pressure regulation, and post-workout muscle soreness and joint pain - all of which seem to be tied to the interplay between curcumin, its antioxidant properties, its ability to increase BDNF levels, and its anti-inflammatory properties.

In the world of oncology, curcumin has recently been shown to lessen the adverse effects of chemotherapy across several cancer types. Its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier has sparked interest in its role in protecting against neurodegenerative diseases and reducing amyloid plaque buildup.

Curcumin is also being studied in the mental health disciplines because of its positive effects on neuroinflammation. Studies show people using curcumin have a decrease in symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as other mood disorders.

Metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions including increased blood pressure, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels, is also positively influenced by curcumin. Enhanced insulin sensitivity reduces the risk of developing diabetes, and decreases the creation of adipose tissue - that brown fat around our middles we all love to hate.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a growing condition in the United States. Curcumin has been shown to be effective in decreasing high liver enzymes ALT and AST by reducing inflammation, improving liver function, and lowering serum triglyceride levels. Dietary curcumin may become a go-to support for those with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Clinically documented results have been seen by taking 2,000 mg of turmeric daily for eight weeks.

The potential health benefits of turmeric also extend to the digestive system. It helps stimulate bile production by the gallbladder, which in turn helps digestion, bloating, and gas. This can be a godsend for those with ulcerative colitis (UC.) For people with UC, turmeric can also help lower relapse rates and possibly sustain remission from the literally gut-wrenching effects of inflammation in the bowel. It may also be helpful for symptoms related to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and Crohn's disease.

The effectiveness of curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, hinges on its bioavailability -- that's the rate and absorption of curcumin by your body. Since curcumin doesn't break down in water very well, it's difficult to absorb. Luckily, there are ways to improve curcumin's bioavailability and effectiveness.

Turbocharging Turmeric

As I mentioned, the active compound that has such great benefits in turmeric is the chemical compound curcumin. Turmeric has a very strong cell wall, making it hard for your body to completely digest it. But that breakdown must happen in order to release the powerful curcuminoids that make up the compound curcumin.

The positive effects we see from turmeric in supplements are due to the fact that they extract and concentrate curcumin to about 95%. This high concentration is why ongoing research is finding that turmeric extracts are comparable to and sometimes even better than common pharmaceuticals such as ibuprofen and diclofenac sodium for inflammatory and pain relief.

You may have noticed many formulas that include curcumin also include bioperine or piperine, from black pepper. When you combine turmeric with black pepper you amplify curcumin's absorption by up to 2000%. The combination dramatically improves curcumin's ability to alleviate inflammation. Combining turmeric with black pepper is especially beneficial for heart disease, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune disorders, systemic inflammation, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Consuming curcumin with fats can also boost its absorption. Curcumin is lipophilic, which means it dissolves better in fats, making it more easily absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract.

How Much Curcumin Supplementation Do You Need and How Long Does It Take To Work?

Because turmeric is a spice, it is considered Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) with an Allowable Daily Intake (ADI) value of 0–3 mg/kg of body weight. Study after study has shown the safety of curcumin. Some clinical studies have shown negative side effects, such as diarrhea, headache, and rash at higher intake levels, but these reactions are uncommon.

Just 1 teaspoon of turmeric equals 500 mg of curcumin

So far, the research on the safety of curcumin suggests that 1,000 mg per day for 8-12 weeks can noticeably reduce symptoms of osteoarthritis. For managing pain, 2,000 mg a day was shown to be as effective as 500 milligrams of acetaminophen. But even at low doses, curcumin can help alleviate post-exercise muscle pain and improve exercise recovery time.

Not that you probably want or need to, but you can take up to 8 grams of curcumin per day, depending on your digestion system's health. For some people, more than 1,200 milligrams can cause gastrointestinal discomfort or allergic reactions. But for most people, the safety of curcumin makes it an optimal addition for proactive self-care.

How Curcumin Interacts with Medications

Pregnant or breastfeeding women, people with an iron deficiency, and those on specific medications like sulfasalazine (used for ulcerative colitis), anticoagulants (blood thinners), blood clotting medications for bleeding disorders, or diabetes drugs need to be careful when using a curcumin supplement.

If you want to take a curcumin supplement and you are taking any of these medications or you have one of these health conditions, you should discuss it with your healthcare provider first.

Curcumin can interfere with these drugs and make them work counter to why you are using them. Do not use turmeric in any form with:

  • Cimetidine (Tagamet)
  • Famotidine (Pepcid)
  • Ranitidine (Zantac)
  • Esomeprazole (Nexium)
  • Omeprazole (Prilosec)
  • Lansoprazole (Prevacid)

Further, you must be sure to notify your healthcare team if you are taking medications for cancer treatment and you want to add a curcumin supplement or even if you want to include turmeric root in your daily smoothie.

Side Effects of Curcumin: What To Look Out For

Turmeric may amplify the effects of blood thinners, such as warfarin, clopidogrel, and aspirin, which may put you at risk for increased bleeding. Curcumin interferes with medications that reduce stomach acid. When taken with diabetes drugs, curcumin may lead to problems with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar.) Those with gallbladder or kidney complications should limit or avoid turmeric because it can trigger your organs to become more active than their current capability.

I want to state again: Please, be mindful if you are taking blood thinners or other medications. Curcumin is effective, but it may be too efficient and could counteract the reasons you are taking your medications.

Ready to Include Dietary Curcumin in Your Daily Supplements?

Turmeric and its chemical extract, curcumin, provide benefits for healthy, active people or those dealing with health challenges. It truly is great for everyone.

Curcumin and turmeric have long been used to address:

  • Acute and chronic inflammation
  • Inflammatory disorders, both internally and externally
  • Bleeding issues (not bleeding disorders)
  • Digestive issues
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Sugar regulation

How quickly those health benefits kick in depends on the amounts of turmeric or dietary curcumin in patients' daily supplements. Whatever form of curcumin or turmeric supplements you decide to use, you're choosing a time-tested and now clinically proven way to support your health!

I'm sure that you're eager to quickly get started and enjoy the benefits of turmeric and the effects of curcumin supplementation. While many dietary supplements include just a dash of turmeric (often listed as Curcuma longa or Curcuma domestica on the label) in their formulas, I've found that most of my coaching clients have been able to use the high-potency turmeric concentrates in Health Direct's liquid multivitamin, Nature's Optimal Nutrition Energize, with no digestive upset. For those who have digestive sensitivities, we opt for Health Direct's BeActive Collagen Shield to get most of the same benefits as turmeric but from New Zealand Green-lipped Mussel, which is often called the "turmeric of the sea."

I hope you've gained greater insights into the science behind turmeric. It has roots in age-old traditional medicine and is now bridging the gap to modern science. Because of its powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and modulating effects throughout the body, turmeric has been a foundation of health for centuries.

It's exciting to see Western Medicine validating what the Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors have known for so long. Whether you have an acute problem, you're looking to address a chronic challenge, or you just want to put some good health grace in your body's "bank account," turmeric really is golden...just don't get it on your favorite white shirt.

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About the Author

Lisa Moretti is a certified health coach from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN), the largest nutrition school in the world. She was at the top of her cohort in 2015. She's been involved in the natural health and supplement world professionally since 1981.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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