turmericLately, you may have seen or read news articles about the use of curcumin to treat inflammation and pain.  Is curcumin the latest fad supplement to hit the scene, or does this herb actually have any therapeutic benefits?

Curcumin comes from the root stalk (rhizome) of the curcuma longa, better known as turmeric, a perennial plant from the ginger family.  Turmeric is native to India, and also occurs in Australia.  It has been used for centuries as a spice in South Asian cuisine (curry) and as a food dye.  The root stalk is heated in an oven, then ground into a fine powder.

In folk medicine, curcumin is believed to have a wide range of biological effects including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-tumor, antibacterial, and antiviral activities.  However, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, “there is little reliable evidence to support the use of turmeric for any health condition because few clinical trials have been conducted.”

This is a common disclaimer for herbs, vitamins and other natural supplements.  In order to say with certainty that a supplement achieves its claimed therapeutic benefit, a “double-blind, controlled” study involving a large number of people with the same health issue that the supplement targets is required.   The study group is divided into two groups, the test group and the control group.   The test group is given the nutrient being tested, while the control group is given a placebo supplement (fake).   In a double-blind study, which carries the most weight as far as credibility of results is concerned, none of the test subjects are aware of what they are getting (the nutrient or the placebo), and neither do the scientists administering them.

The study goes on for many months; sometimes years, and various metrics are taken of both groups.  If there is a statistically significant, positive difference in the test group for a given metric (for example, much lower pain rating), then it’s fair to assume that the nutrient was responsible for it.  If there are none, then the supplement is basically bogus.

So, how does curcumin stack up to the challenge?

Here are some research studies on curcumin worth mentioning:

A 64-person study testing curcumin for mastitis, a painful condition involving inflammation of the breast, showed that a topical solution containing curcumin successfully decreased pain, breast tension and erythema (redness due to pain) within 72 hours of administration, without side effects.

A Japanese study of 50 patients with knee osteoarthritis found that at 8 weeks after treatment initiation, knee pain scores were significantly lower in the curcumin group than in the placebo group, except in the patients who had the lowest pain score to start, with no major side effects.  The study concluded that curcumin shows modest potential for the treatment of human knee osteoarthritis.

A 17-person study was done to determine the effects of curcumin on muscle damage, inflammation and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in humans.   Participants did “unaccustomed, heavy” leg exercises to point of pain and enough to generate blood markers for muscle damage.  The conclusion was that oral curcumin likely reduces pain associated with DOMS with some evidence for enhanced recovery of muscle performance, and that further study is required.

A study involving 30 breast cancer patients receiving radiation therapy found that orally taking 6.0 g of curcumin daily during radiotherapy significantly reduced the severity of radiation dermatitis.

A preliminary intervention trial that compared curcumin with a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) in 18 rheumatoid arthritis patients found that improvements in morning stiffness, walking time, and joint swelling after two weeks of curcumin supplementation (1,200 mg/day) were comparable to those experienced after two weeks of phenylbutazone (NSAID) therapy.  Since NSAIDs are associated with stomach, renal and liver damage, this is a very promising finding.

A placebo-controlled trial involving 40 male test subjects who had surgery to repair an inguinal hernia or hydrocele found that oral curcumin supplementation (1,200 mg/day) for five days was more effective than placebo in reducing post-surgical edema, tenderness and pain, and was comparable to phenylbutazone therapy (300 mg/day).

As of this writing, this is the extent of human studies that test curcumin’s effects on inflammatory processes.  It isn’t much, but the positive effects and demonstrated potential of curcumin to improve inflammatory conditions is unmistakable.

It should also be noted that there are many rat and mice studies in the medical literature that suggest curcumin can reduce pain and inflammation by suppressing oxidative stress and “down regulating” factors (cytokines) that create the inflammatory response.  This means that curcumin may tone down gene expression of genes involved in generating and sustaining the inflammatory process.

A number of other studies on curcumin’s potential therapeutic effects on colorectal cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis, asthma and other disorders have been completed with no published results at the moment, or are still in progress.

My Advice on Curcumin:

So, should you try curcumin supplements if you have an inflammatory condition?  Based on this small sample of studies, my opinion is that it wouldn’t hurt to include curcumin regularly in your diet if you have arthritis, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, an inflammatory dermatological disorder, fibromyalgia or other, chronic inflammatory disease.  You don’t have to buy supplements, although they are convenient; just get the curcumin powder sold in grocery stores and sprinkle it on your food as you would salt.  Studies suggest that this herb is generally safe in large doses (6 mg) with minimal side effects; but just don’t over do it.  Be careful of the source,  as unscrupulous manufacturers may be mixing curcumin powder with the much cheaper lead oxide, which looks very similar to curcumin powder, although more reddish in color.   Lead oxide mixes with hydrochloric acid in the stomach, bioaccumulates and can cause lead toxicity.

By the way, I recommend you do not keep spices for more than a year or two, as they can not only lose their taste but can also form mold.


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