Last reviewed by Editorial Team on August 27th, 2018.
What is Turmeric? What is curcumin?
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a plant of the ginger family. Its root has been used as a seasoning and natural remedy in the Indian and Chinese cuisine and medicine for more than 4,000 years. Turmeric is traditionally called “Indian saffron”, because of its deep yellow-orange color. It is known that turmeric is one of the main ingredients of curry, and it is curcumin that gives curry its color.
The most beneficial medical properties Turmeric comes from from its active ingredient called curcumin, which is the best to known due to its antioxidant properties. Other substances in this herb have also antioxidant properties as well. The roots, or rhizomes and bulbs, are used in medicine and food. They are boiled and then dried, turning into the familiar yellow powder.
Curcumin is available as a dietery supplement in the following forms: capsules powder, fluid extract and tincture – alcoholic extract of a herb. Despite its traditional use, medical properties of curcumin are uncertain, since there are no adequate studies conducted on humans that will confirm it benefits.
Curcumin anticancer acitivity
Curcuminc has been most widely investigated for its anticancer activity. In rodents, curcuminc has been shown to have protective and therapeutic properties against cancers of the blood, skin, oral cavity, lung, breast, pancreas, and intestinal tract, and to suppress angiogenesis (physiological process through which new blood vessels form from pre-existing vessels) and metastasis (spread of a cancer from one organ or part to another organ not directly connected with it).
Laboratory and animal research suggests that curcumin may also prevent cancer, make chemotherapy more effective and protect healthy cells from damage by radiation therapy. Several recent studies have found that curcumin can induce process that triggers the self-destruction and elimination of damaged (cancerous) cells. Researchers at UCLA have even found that curcumin is able to inhibit cancer growth.
Curcumin has been found to possess properties that reduce the expression of deadly molecules within cancer cells, and can potentially slow down the spreading of a breast cancer. A recent study shows that a combination of curucmin and piperine can limit the growth of stem cells for breast cancer.
A 2007 American study that combined curcumin with chemotherapy to treat bowel cancer cells in a laboratory showed that the combined treatment killed more cancer cells than chemotherapy alone. A recent study published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, for instance, found that a dose-dependent administration of curcumin effectively induces death of the liver cancer cells.
A study published in “Brain Research” in 2009 reported that curcumin prevents brain tumor formation and kills brain tumor cells. More research is needed to confirm these effects in live patients.
But, studies of curcumin in people are still in the early stages. Clinical trials are underway to investigate curcumin as a way to prevent cancer in people with precancerous conditions, as a cancer treatment, and as a remedy for signs and symptoms caused by cancer treatments.
In an open clinical trial a curcumin 0.5% was tested in 62 patients with skin and mucous membrane cancers. The ointment was applied three times daily for a minimum of four weeks. A total of 68% of the patients responded (reduction in exudates 70%, lesion smell 90%, and pain 50%).
Research is ongoing, and there isn’t enough evidence to recommend curcumin at this time. As always, talk with your doctor before using any herbal supplement. It’s unclear how curcumin may interact with medications.
However, it has to be known that in populations where turmeric is broadly used like India and the Middle East, cancer rates are lower. As you can see it in the picture below:
Curcumin for Alzheimer disease
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease. It is characterized by progressive cognitive deterioration together with declining activities of daily living and behavioral changes. It is the most common type of pre-senile and senile dementia. For now, there is no cure for Alzheimer‟s disease.
Various studies and research results indicate a lower incidence and prevalence of AD in India. The prevalence of AD among adults aged 70-79 years in India is 4.4 times less than that of adults aged 70-79 years in the United States. Researchers investigated the association between the curry consumption and cognitive level in 1010 Asians between 60 and 93 years of age.
The study found that those who occasionally ate curry (less than once a month) and often (more than once a month) performed better on a standard test (MMSE) of cognitive function than those who ate curry never or rarely.
Alzheimer patients’ brains contain some strange proteins, which are bad for brain functon. They are called beta-amyloid that forms amyloid plaques, and they are crucially involved in Alzheimer disease. Curcumin is able to inhibit aggregation of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain, and thus prevent neural inflammation which would normally be downstream from said aggregation.
Studies in animal models indicate a direct effect in decreasing the amyloid pathology of AD. The bad things are, that the limited clinical trials conducted do not support the findings of the lab-based studies, and that curucmin is not easily absorbed in the human body, and also there is no real evidence that supports curcumin being used as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
But, the specific effects by curcumin on amyloid-beta plaques could be a useful target for future investigations into potential treatments.
Curcumin and cardiovascular health
High cholesterol levels can cause various health problems like atherosclerosis, cardiovascular diseases, peripheral heart disease, strokes and so on.
According to studies, turmeric helps in maintaining heart and blood vessels health by – reducing bad LDL-cholesterol (It is good to know that there is also a good type of cholesterol called HDL-cholesterol), reducing cholesterol oxidation (oxidized form of cholesterol is the main cardiovascular risk factor for atherosclerosis), reducing plaque build-up, clot formation, and by reducing pro-inflammatory response which are also risks factors for atherosclerosis and strokes. The study, published in the journal Atherosclerosis in 2004, found turmerics cardio-protective properties are most beneficial at a lower rather than a higher dose.
Studies have found that turmeric could reduce the adhesive abilities of blood platelets, thereby preventing them from forming clots. It can also relax blood vessels and minimize heart damage after suffering a heart attack.
The endothelium is the thin layer that lines the interior surface of blood vessels and lymphatic vessels, forming an interface between circulating blood or lymph in the lumen and the rest of the vessel wall.
It is well known that endothelial dysfunction is a major driver of heart disease and involves an inability of the endothelium to regulate blood pressure, blood clotting and various other factors. Several studies suggest that curcumin leads to improvements in endothelial function. One study shows that is as effective as exercise, another shows that it works as well as the drug Atorvastatin.
A new research suggests that turmeric may help in protection against heart attacks in patients who‟ve had recent bypass surgery. For this research, Dr. Wanwarang Wongcharoen and his team from Thailand studied 121 patients who had non-emergency bypass surgery at their hospital from 2009 to 2011. Half of the patients were given pills containing curcumin and the other half was given curcumin-free placebo-inactive pills.
Just 13% of the group taking curcumin had a heart attack during the course of their post-surgery hospital stay, compared with 30% of the placebo-control group. the team calculated that the patients who took curcumin had a 65% lower chance of a heart attack, compared with those who did not.
The scientists at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre of the Toronto General Hospital tested the effects of curcumin in mice with enlarged hearts (hypertrophy) and found it could prevent and reverse the condition, restore heart function, and reduce scar formation. You should know that whether you are young or old, male or female, the larger your heart is, the higher your risk is for developing heart attacks or heart failure in the future.
So, If human clinical trials support these findings, curcumin-based treatments may provide a safe and inexpensive new option for patients with heart enlargement. Anti-oxidant properties of curcumin may also help prevent cardiovascular
complications among diabetics.
Curcumin for the prevention of type 2 diabetes
Diabetes is better known as a group metabolic disease, which disturbs the sugar or glucose levels in the blood. The main cause is insufficient production of insulin in the beta cells of pancreas or the body‟s irresponsiveness toward insulin.
Several animal studies have shown that curcumin may delay the development of diabetes in animals, improve the function of the pancreas‟ insulin-producing beta cells and reduce insulin resistance, the precursor to diabetes.
In one the study, in Thailand, more than 200 prediabetic patients were randomly assigned to receive either curcumin extract (750 mg twice a day) or placebo-inactive pills for a nine-month period. At the end of the trial, not one of the curcumin extract takers had developed clear-cut diabetes, however, 16% of the placebo group did.
The curcumin extract group, moreover, had improved beta cell function, which the researchers attributed to the anti-inflammatory activity of curcumin. In the other study, the 100 patients were given either 300 mg per day of curcumin or placebo for three months.
At the end, the patients in the curcumin group, experienced a significant decline in blood glucose levels, insulin resistance, free fatty acids, and Hemoglobin A1c (as a person’s blood sugar becomes higher, more of the person’s hemoglobin becomes glycosylated, and it is a bad prognostic parameter for diabetics).
Type 2 diabetes melitus patients can develop foot ulcers if their blood glucose has not been controlled for a long term. H.M. Maier from the Florida State University in Tallahassee, and colleagues, reviewed studies and found evidence from animal studies, indicating that curcumin, amino acid L-arginine and vitamin E as dietery supplements can help wound healing in people with type 2 diabetes.
Curcumin for liver health and obesity
The liver is a vital organ that has a wide range of functions, including detoxification of various metabolites, protein synthesis, and the production of biochemicals necessary for digestion. A recent study published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, highlights turmerics protective effect on the liver. The participants liver enzyme, alanine aminotransferase (ALT) was mildly to moderately high before study.
This study showed that turmeric not only lowered levels of ALT, but also reduced levels of two other liver enzymes. Fetuin-A is protein, synthesized in the liver and is secreted into the bloodstream. Clinical studies suggest involvement of fetuin-A in metabolic disorders such as visceral obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, and fatty liver. One study found that curcumin appeared to be effective in reducing liver triglycerides and serum fetuin-A levels.
These findings suggest that the reduction of fetuin-A may contribute to the beneficial effects of curcumin in the pathogenesis of obesity. New science shows that curcumin is yet another nutrient that helps regulate the formation of fat cells within white adipose tissue, helping lower their activity, and thereby helping lower the production of leptin- a hormone made by fat cells that helps to regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger.
Furthermore, excessive leptin also activates genes within your liver that promote the improper accumulation of fat within liver cells, leading to fatty liver a consequent liver malfunction (including type 2 diabetes). Curcumin has been shown to help protect your liver from such leptin induced problems.
Curcumin and pain relief
Curcumin is a rich source of salicylic acid, found in aspirin, but the Rowett Research Institute, found the constituent in turmeric doesn‟t cause ulcers or bleeding like acetylsalicilic acid in aspirin does. Eating curry spice foods that include cumin, turmeric and paprika, such as vindaloo, with a high level of spices, might help cure a headache.
Curcumin at 400mg in persons with acute algesic episodes appears to have a potency comparable to 1,000mg acetominophen and 100mg nimesulide (trending to be more potent than acetominophen yet less potent than nimesulide). It appeared to start working within two hours (slower than nimesulide) with maximal efficacy at 3-4 hours and a loss of efficacy but not yet normalized within 12 hours.
Traditionally, turmeric is specifically recommended as an herbal pain reliever for chest, abdominal, and menstrual cramps. It is reported to relieve pain associated with eye inflammation and scorpion bites as well. Turmeric compounds may also be able to reduce chronic nerve pain associated with some diseases (a condition called neuropathy).
Curcumin anti-inflammatory benefits
A number of studies support the use of curcumin in relieving associated with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The Journal of Clinical Immunology recently reported on a study that curcumin has the ability to suppress production of a specific B cell-activating factor involved in rheumatoid arthritis and to relieve RA symptoms.
One study showed that curcumin is more effective and safer than the common anti-inflammatory medication diclofenac for the pain associated with mild, active RA. In the study, RA patients taking curcumin for eight weeks had a 44 percent reduction in pain symptoms, while those taking diclofenac had a 42 percent reduction.
Interestingly, the curcumin group also had a greater reduction in overall inflammation compared to the diclofenac group. There also were no adverse events with curcumin. This was an initial study, but was well controlled and randomized. It is a good study and the results cannot be dismissed. Larger clinical trials are needed to confirm these results.
The results of a recently concluded study indicated that the use of a compound containing extracts of turmeric was beneficial to patients affected by osteoarthritis.
The study was conducted by researchers in Italy, and it found that the use of a particular turmeric formulation, known as Meriva, resulted in a significant decrease in pain, joint stiffness and inflammation in patients, who were able to reduce their dependence on pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs as a direct result of the use of Meriva.
Curcumin for skin care
There is a long list of skin care benefits associated with turmeric, including the treatment of acne blemishes, blackheads, dark spots and hyperpigmentation. Turmeric, with its anti-inflammatory and redness reducing properties, can be used to treat a variety of skin conditions including eczema, allergic hives, and even chicken pox!
The juice of fresh turmeric is prized as a cure/soother for many skin conditions, including eczema, chicken pox, shingles, poison oak/ivy, and scabies. Turmeric paste makes quite a satisfactory substitute! You can apply the paste directly to the affected area, cover lightly with gauze or loose cotton clothing (that will likely be ruined with stain). This is known to help dry the blisters up and accelerate the healing process.
It also helps heal and prevent dry skin, and to slow the skin aging process, and is used to diminish wrinkles, keep skin supple and improve skins elasticity. This sunny bright spice is also being used as an ingredient in sunscreens. It is used daily by East Indian women as a facial cleanser and exfoliant.
However, there are two potential problems with topical-skin approach. First, optimal use of topical curcumin has not been researched. A few skin creams with various forms of curcumin are available on the market, but optimal concentrations, remain unclear. Second, sufficiently concentrated curcumin may give your skin a yellowish tint that you may not like.
The tint can be avoided by using a colorless curcumin that is called tetrahydrocucumin, instead of curcumin itself. Notably, tetrahydrocucumin has been found to inhibit the synthesis of the skin pigment melanin and, therefore, may have skin-lightening effect. Unfortunately, good skin care products with tetrahydrocucumin are at least as hard to find as those with curcumin.
Curcumin for kidney protection
The renoprotective effect of curcumin has been evaluated in several experimental models including diabetic nephropathy, chronic renal failure, ischemia and reperfusion and toxicity induced by many nephrotoxic compounds. It has been shown recently in a model of chronic renal failure that curcumin also exerts a nephro-therapeutic effect.
This common Indian spice has also been used to lessen the chance of rejection after kidney transplant surgery. Researchers are continuing to determine its value and effectiveness in kidney disorders including kidney stones and inflammation of the kidneys. Its anti-inflammatory characteristics make it a natural pain reliever as well as reducing swelling.
Curcumin has been shown in clinical tests to help reduce cyst formation in the kidneys or elsewhere in the body. Researchers at Peking University conducted studies on curcumin’s effect on the development of kidney cysts and concluded that curcumin slowed the growth of kidney cysts by 62%. The herb also showed promising results in the treatment of polycystic kidney disease (enlarged fluidfilled cysts) that could cause kidney failure.
Curcumin for Inflammatory bowel disease
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the principal types of inflammatory bowel disease. Crohn’s disease illness that causes the intestines, or other parts of the digestive tract (the parts of the body food goes through), to become swollen, and sometimes develop ulcers (holes). People with Crohn’s disease often have pain in the gut, diarrhea, vomiting, and weight loss.
Crohn’s can also cause skin rashes, arthritis, and swollen eyes. Ulcerative colitis is a form of colitis, a disease of the colon (the largest portion of the large intestine), that includes characteristic ulcers, or open sores. The main symptom of active disease is usually constant diarrhea mixed with blood. Turmeric shows anti-inflammatory properties that can benefit those with Crohn‟s and Colitis.
But as with most herbal / natural remedies further research is required to prove it with scientific rigor. A pilot study conducted in 2005. showed participants in the investigation taking turmeric capsules had fewer symptoms including improved stool formation, decreased muscle soreness after exercise, less abdominal pain and cramping and fewer bowel movements.
Lab testing also showed decreased inflammation related to several blood biomarkers. Studies have found that curcumin‟s anti-inflammatory benefits are on par with corticosteroids and phenylbutazone and other anti-inflammatory drugs. Since it does not produce side effects like reduced blood count, ulcers or intestinal bleeding like these drugs, it could be used as a safe alternative in treating inflammatory bowel disease.
In research carried out on mice, scientists found that mice fed on a diet rich in curcumin experienced less intestinal inflammation when exposed to irritants. A problem with understanding how it works, what dose is most effective and other details is that more human studies are needed.
Curcumin and cataract prevention
A cataract is when the lens of the eye gets cloudy. Cataracts can cause short-sightedness (myopia), which means you cannot see things in the distance but can see things up close. If left untreated, some types of cataracts will cause blindness. Curcumin‟s antioxidant powers appear to help reduce oxidative stress in the eye, which could prevent cataract development, according to researchers from the University of Madras.
The team examined whether curcumin at a dose of 75 mg/kg body weight could affect cataractogenesis induced by selenite. Treatment with curcumin, whether before, during or after selenite administration, significantly decreased levels of lipid peroxidation (chemical reaction that can cause cataract) and cataract formation. The team concluded natural consumption of curcumin in food could help protect against the onset of cataract.
Curcumin use for depression
Curcumin inhibits the production of monoamine oxidase, an enzyme that at high levels is linked to depression. In a recent study published in Phytotherapy Research, 1,000 mg daily of curcumin proved to be just as effective at treating depression as fluoxetine, the antidepressant better known as Prozac.
After six weeks, curcumin relieved symptoms of depression as effectively as Prozac. It’s possible it may help alleviate short-term mood issues, too. The big difference is that Prozac often comes with possible negative side effects, ranging from suicidal thoughts to digestive problems.
So far, no similar side effects of curcumin have been discovered. The researchers used a very specific form of curcumin called BCM95, which has been shown to be more absorptive than generic forms of the compound. People can experience the benefits of curcumin by eating turmeric, but a person would have to eat it several times a day to get the antidepressive effects.
All treatments worked equally well as the figure above shows. The results actually seem too good to be true. Anti-depressants usually require a few weeks for effects to start showing, and if they work they tend only to slightly reduce feelings of depression. Anti-depressants enable patients to start functioning again so that they can embark on recovery.
To actually cure severe depression in scores of people within six weeks, as seems to be the case in the figure above, is virtually impossible. In addition, given the efficacy of curcumin treatment by itself, this study highlights the need for future large-scale clinical trials evaluating the use of this safe and natural dietary botanical as a possible mono-therapy in patients with depressive disorders.
Curcumin for Parkinson’s disease
Parkinson’s disease is a slow damaging disease of the central nervous system in which a substance in the brain called dopamine is lost. It hurts the patient’s movement skills and their speech, but the former is much more specific. Sometimes it can also affect their mood, behavior, and thinking. Curcumin showed neuroprotective properties in an animal model of Parkinson‟s disease.
The beneficial effect was thought to be related to its antioxidant capabilities and the ability to easily penetrate the brain. Curcumin prevents dopaminergic neuronal death through inhibition of the one neural pathway, and thereby offers a neuroprotective effect that may be beneficial for Parkinson‟s.
At Michigan State University, a group of researchers discovered that curcumin can help prevent proteins called alpha synuclein from clumping. The process of clumping is the first step in Parkinsons and other debilitating diseases.
Curcumins usefulness as an actual drug may be pretty limited since it doesn‟t go into the brain easily where this misfolding is taking place. These discoveries about curcumin and alpha-synuclein may lead scientists to identify drugs that can treat Parkinson‟s and other diseases.
Curucmin as a natural antibioitc
A new study published in the journal Molecule indicates that the ancient Indian spice turmeric may help to countermand the growing threat of bacteria that have become completely resistant to conventional antibiotics (MRSA – Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).
Electronic microscope images of MRSA showed damage of the cell wall, disruption of the cytoplasmic contents, broken cell membrane and cell lysis after the treatment of curcumin. These data indicate a remarkable antibacterial effect of curcumin.
Briefly, curcumin (and related turmeric compounds) has been found to kill and/or inhibit the following bacteria: Bacillus Subtilis (bacteria is only known to cause disease in severely immunocompromised patients, and can conversely be used as a probiotic in healthy individuals), Escherichia Coli (Some strains of E. coli can cause sickness in people), Helicobacter Pylori (bacteria that causes more than 90 percent of ulcers, which are sores in the lining of the stomach or the the first part of the small intestine), Vibrio Vulnificus (Infection with V. vulnificus leads to rapidly expanding cellulitis or septicemia)
Curcumin benefits for dyspepsia and gastroesophageal reflux disease
Dyspepsia is a condition of impaired digestion. It is a medical condition characterized by chronic or recurrent pain in the upper abdomen, upper abdominal fullness and feeling full earlier than expected when eating. One study in Thailand compared the effects of 500 mg curcumin 4 times daily against inactive placebo, as well as against a locally popular over-the-counter treatment.
A total of 116 people were enrolled in the study. After 7 days, 87% percent of the curcumin group experienced full or partial symptom relief from dyspepsia as compared to 53% of the placebo group, and this difference was statistically significant.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease – GERD, occurs when stomach acid or bile flows back up into the esophagus, irritating the lining and causing a burning sensation in the chest, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, sore throat, a lump in the throat, regurgitation and even a dry cough.
Curcumin, may help the occasional bout of indigestion by stimulating the gallbladder to produce bile, which some think aids digestion. However, studies have shown that curcumin and turmeric interfere with acid-reducing medications such as omeprazole, cimetidine, ranitidine, lansoprazole and famotidine, increasing stomach acid production and potentially making the condition worse, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. So, you should always discuss turmeric with your physician before use for GERD or any other condition.