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Turmeric: Helpful or Hyped?

Is turmeric the golden spice that helps so many health conditions? In this blog, we summarize the research done on turmeric’s healing properties and contraindications. What is the evidence that curcumin boosts cardiovascular health, helps diabetes, arthritis anxiety, depression, and improves brain health? Keep reading to see if turmeric’s most active phytochemical, curcumin, could help you or if you need to avoid it!

Impressive Activity

Curcumin is an orange-yellow component of turmeric (Curcuma longa) and ginger. There has been increasing evidence that this phytochemical present in turmeric has a broad spectrum of therapeutic properties. It possesses a remarkable range of protective effects in various diseases: inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, certain eye degenerative diseases, and hyperlipidemia (elevated cholesterol and triglycerides).1 Curcumin, in many studies, has exhibited antioxidant, anti-cancer, antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal activities.2

Amazing Anti-Inflammatory Agent

Curcumin helps fight inflammation. For one, its antioxidant activity destroys the free radicals that inflammation produces. Additionally, curcumin is a powerful immunomodulatory agent that can balance the activities of several types of white blood cells involved in allergic reactions. For example, it inhibits histamine release from mast cells and is a natural Cox-2 inhibitor.3 This golden spice also decreases the activity of more than a dozen other pro-inflammatory agents within the body.4

Evidence continues to mount that curcumin may exert beneficial effects in diseases that have a significant inflammatory component to them (arthritis, allergy, asthma, atherosclerosis, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, depression, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome). Curcumin also decreases inflammation in the lungs, joints, colon, and brain.5 Studies show that curcumin is especially useful for gastric inflammation caused by H. Pylori bacteria (Santos) and for chronic pancreatitis.6 (Rajasekaran SA. Therapeutic potential of curcumin in gastrointestinal diseases. World J Gastrointest Pathophysiol. 2011;2(1):1-14. doi:10.4291/wjgp.v2.i1.1))

Detoxifying Boost

The liver performs over 500 activities that are essential for life. For this reason, many liver diseases significantly reduce the liver’s ability to function effectively and consequentially lead to an increase in morbidity and mortality. For example, the liver purifies all of the blood from the digestive organs. The liver breaks down potentially cancer-causing agents. Curcumin also improves the detoxifying ability of the liver.7 Moreover, curcumin decreases the free radical damage in the liver and increases important antioxidants in the liver.

Pain Relief from Arthritis

A systematic review and meta-analysis provided evidence “that 8–12 weeks of using standardized turmeric extracts (typically 1000 mg/day of curcumin) treatment reduce pain and inflammation from osteoarthritis and result in similar improvements in symptoms as ibuprofen and diclofenac sodium.”8 More recently, a review of 15 randomized clinical studies involving 1621 participants found that Curcuma longa extract and curcumin have similar effects on joint pain, function, and stiffness for osteoarthritis.”9 There is early evidence the curcumin can also help to alleviate the tenderness and swelling in rheumatoid arthritis.10 Individuals with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) should not use turmeric for longer than a month or six weeks because curcumin for longer periods may decrease iron absorption. Anemia is a common symptom in RA.

Promotes Wound Healing

Curcumin speeds wound healing. Studies indicate that the topical applications of curcumin enhance granulation, tissue formation, collagen deposition, tissue remodeling, and wound contraction. Additionally, topical applications of curcumin reduce inflammation, exert antimicrobial activities, and stimulate the production of growth factors needed for wound repair.11

Boosts Cardiovascular Health

Curcumin nitric oxide increases (NO) availability.12 In moderation, this molecule improves the ability of the blood vessels to dilate, discourages unwanted clots, and helps protect from atherosclerosis. 13 14 15

Curcumin decreases elevated cholesterol and triglycerides levels. One study found that supplementing with one gram a day of a curcumin-bioperine formulation resulted in significant reductions in LDL and total cholesterol, reductions in triglycerides, and significant increases in HDL cholesterol.16. Curcumin may be useful in reducing small dense LDL, which is the most atherogenic LDL because small dense LDL penetrate faster and stay longer inside the arteries. 17 A more recent meta-analysis found that turmeric and curcumin reduce elevated cholesterol and triglycerides but did not increase HDL.18

Can Curcumin Help Diabetes?

Curcumin for Prediabetes?

The beta cells in the pancreas produce insulin, a hormone that facilitates the entry of glucose into the cells. In animal models, curcumin extract delays diabetes development, improves β-cell functions, prevents β-cell death, and decreases insulin resistance.19 These studies suggest that curcumin may be helpful in type 1 and 2 diabetes. In a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial involving prediabetes patients, 9-month curcumin treatment significantly reduced the number of prediabetic individuals who eventually developed type 2 diabetes. (The dosage in this study was curcuminoid content of 250 mg. twice a day. In addition, the curcumin treatment appeared to improve the function of β-cells with very minor adverse effects.20

Curcumin’s Potential to Help Type 2 Diabetes

What about type 2 diabetes? A randomized control study assessed the effect of nutritional education in combination with curcumin (curcumin 500 mg/day in association with piperine 5 mg/day) or placebo in T2DM patients. A total of 100 T2DM patients aged between 18–65 years were enrolled, and blood sugar levels, liver function, and inflammatory markers were recorded at baseline and after three months. The main results reported a significant reduction in serum levels of C-peptide, HbA1c, and glucose in the curcumin-treated group versus the placebo group.21

Mitigates the Risk of Diabetic Complications

Curcumin itself exerts a number of beneficial biological effects that help diabetes. Inflammation fuels the long-term complications of diabetes. Because of its antioxidant, blood sugar-lowering, and anti-inflammatory activities, curcumin can help to protect from the consequences of diabetes, atherosclerosis, kidney disease, liver disease, and increased risk for cancer. In addition to its ability to lower elevated blood sugar in prediabetes and diabetes, studies show that curcumin helps to protect the blood vessels, the liver, and the kidneys.22 Diabetes increases the risk for atherosclerosis, liver and kidney damage, and dementia.

Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are harmful compounds that are formed when protein or fat combine with sugar in the bloodstream and contribute to diabetic complications and kidney diseases. Curcumin helps to protect the tissues and organs from AGEs. Overall scientific evidence indicates that curcumin improves diabetes and reduces the risk of diabetic complications.23

Help for Anxiety & Depression

A meta-analysis found an overall significant effect of curcumin on depressive and anxiety symptoms. The participants in these studies tolerated curcumin well.24 Major depressive disorder (MDD) is the most common psychiatric disorder. There are multiple contributing factors to this disorder. A decrease in the neurotransmitters: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine– decreases utilization of glucose in the brain, free radical, and inflammatory assaults inside the brain, to name a few. Curcumin fights depression by seven known mechanisms.25 We will share two here.

Animal studies show that curcumin reversed the depressive-like behavior induced by chronic stress on mice and acted as an antidepressant MAO inhibitor. An enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO) is involved in removing the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine from the brain cells. Curcumin increased the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the front brain and hypothalamus by inhibiting MAO.26

Brain inflammation plays a significant role in many cases of depression. Curcumin decreases three known pro-inflammatory agents in the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex.27 Human studies also show that curcumin can reduce inflammation in the brain.28

Brain Protection

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a gene involved in making a protein responsible for promoting the life of neurons. The BDNF protein plays a role in memory and learning. Decreased levels of BDNF are present in several common brain diseases and mental conditions such as Alzheimer’s and major depression. Animal studies have found that curcumin improves BDNF activity but decreases inflammation in chronically stressed rodents. It also increases brain levels of BDNF in the hippocampi (areas in the temporal lobes important for memory and mood. 29 30

In Alzheimer’s, deposits of amyloid-ß (Aß) plaques accumulate. Several studies suggest that curcumin can reduce AD symptoms by nine mechanisms including inhibition of the Aß peptide production.3132 33 34

Animal studies suggest that curcumin can help to reduce the inflammation that occurs in Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injury. In both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s there is decreased capacity for the brain cells to utilize glucose. Curcumin improves glucose utilization in the brain.35 Rodent studies suggest curcumin may also be helpful for Parkinson’s.36

Curcumin & Autoimmune Conditions

Curcumin helps to modulate the immune system and reduces inflammation by multiple mechanisms. Recent studies have shown that curcumin mitigates multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease in human or animal models. More studies are warranted to determine a precise understanding of the effective dose, safe regiment, and mechanism of action for the use of curcumin in the treatment of different human autoimmune diseases.37

How to Improve Curcumin’s Absorption:

Ingesting curcumin by itself does not necessarily lead to the associated health benefits due to its poor bioavailability which appears to be primarily due to poor absorption, rapid metabolism, and rapid elimination. Several components can increase its absorption and bioavailability. Piperine from black pepper increases curcumin’s bioavailability substantially. Curcumin is fat-soluble, so taking it at meals with nuts, seeds, avocadoes, olives, or cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil will approve its absorption too.38 Formulated curcumin in micellas, nanoparticles, liposomes, and phospholipid complexes also improves its absorption. Nano formulations of curcumin also increase its absorption.

Cautions and Contraindications:

Turmeric is generally safe. Pregnant or lactating women should not take any medicinal amounts of any herb without the approval of their health care provider. Individuals taking blood thinners or who have a low platelet count should not use turmeric. Prolonged use of curcumin for more than six weeks may cause iron deficiency.39 In high doses above 1.5 grams a day, turmeric may cause GI disorders, such as abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea. Taking curcumin at mealtime will improve its absorption and minimize any gastrointestinal side effects. Store curcumin and turmeric in the dark because it is sensitive to light. If you are using turmeric or curcumin, be sure it does not contain yellow dye.

Anyone taking prescribed or over-the-counter medications should consult with a pharmacist before using medicinal amounts of turmeric to avoid any possible herb-drug interaction. Curcumin powder in one of the the above mentioned formulations with a standardized amount of curcumin and other curcuminoids is much more preferable than just sprinkling it over one’s food for inflammatory conditions. Curcumin works in synergy with these other phytochemicals: resveratrol from grapes and blueberries, catechins from black grapes, apricots and strawberries, and quercetin 40 In other words, these phytochemicals enhance curcumin’s effectiveness. The converse is also true. Curcumin improves the effectiveness of resveratrol, quercetin, and genistein.

Conclusions:

Curcumin from turmeric offers many potential health-giving benefits. We have not covered them all! However, since it is poorly absorbed, unique formulations of curcumin supplementations are needed. Consult a medical provider who understands your medical history, current health status, and natural remedies before using curcumin for medicinal purposes for long periods.

© 2021, Wildwood Sanitarium. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is educational and general in nature. Neither Wildwood Lifestyle Center, its entities, nor author intend this article as a substitute for medical diagnosis, counsel, or treatment by a qualified health professional.

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