Every day delivers a new headline about the health benefits of turmeric – but getting these benefits isn’t as straightforward as sprinkling it into a curry. Editor Anna Magee takes a closer look
Anti-ageing. Anti-inflammatory. Immuno-protective. Cognitive enhancing. Even anti-cancer.
Unless you have been sitting under a rock for the last 12 months, you’ve probably read about the health claims for a humble yellow spice eaten widely in the subcontinent.
While turmeric is a simple spice like any other, its health benefits have been widely studied by scientists over the last decade with some 15,000 published manuscripts about the spice, according to the US National Institutes for Health.
‘Turmeric has been used for years in Indian cuisine and population studies show its use can have health benefits,’ says Rick Hay, a nutritionist and lecturer at the College Of Naturopathic Medicine.
turmeric’s health benefits have been widely studied by scientists over the last decade with some 15,000 published manuscripts about the spice
But if you want the proven therapeutic benefits of turmeric, how much do you have to eat? Is a supplement better? And if yes, how do you choose one?
‘But when you drill into the research, turmeric is one of those so-called super spices that often creates more questions than it answers,’ says Hay.
‘One of the reasons for this is because what gives turmeric its benefits is a compound – or group of compounds – called curcuminoids.’
What is turmeric anyway?
Also known as ‘Indian saffron’ this spice is used widely across South East Asia and Central America in sauces and curries and has a distinctly dusty, dry flavour that adds aroma and real punch to dishes. Not to mention a bright yellow colour (that is incidentally, very staining to clothes and even teeth – dentists tell us).
Turmeric dates back 4000 years to the Vedic (ancient Indian) culture where it was used as a culinary spice and had some religious significance.
For many years since, it was – and still is – used widely in traditional Indian and Chinese medicine.
In Ayurvedic (ancient Indian) traditional medicine for example, turmeric is used to treat epilepsy, bleeding disorders, skin diseases, rheumatic disorders, sprains, sinusitis and more.
In the last century, modern science has followed and substantiated some of these traditional uses of turmeric – and more besides – by identifying the active ingredients in the turmeric root that give it its therapeutic benefits.
‘The major active ingredients in turmeric are curcuminoids which normally vary from around 1-6 per cent in the dried root,’ says Hay.
And while curcumin is often referred to in relation to turmeric’s power, there are actually three curcuminoid compounds at work when turmeric does its thing, Hay points out. ‘Curcuminoids comprose curcumin, dimethoxy and bisdemethoxy curcumin’.
‘The exceptional activity of curcumin may arise, partly, from it being simultaneously an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory agent,’ says Hay.
This is important because oxidative stress and inflammation are intimately connected, one inducing the other and the two co-exist in all chronic disease conditions.
How much do I need to eat for therapeutic benefits?
Most studies on turmeric have been done on subjects receiving around 400mg of curcumin. ‘But in order to extract 400 grams curcumin from a turmeric root, you would need to consume around 100 kilos of it,’ Hay points out.
Likewise, to get the optimum therapeutic curcumin dose from dried turmeric powder, you would need to add 10kg to your food.
So taking a supplement must be the answer, right?
Maybe. Until recently, the problem with curcumin supplements has been that the body has not efficiently absorbed it, metabolising and eliminating it quickly, so it couldn’t hang around the body long enough to get into the bloodstream and do its thing.
Indeed, in earlier clinical trials investigating its benefits, curcumin required large doses of around 12 grams a day in order to supply sufficient levels to the bloodstream.
As a result, the improvement of curcumin’s bioavailability has become a major focus of researchers in recent years – and some have made progress.
curcumin is simultaneously an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory agent
With this in mind, here are three things to ask yourself if you’re choosing a curcumin supplement:
1. Are you getting bioactive/free curcumin?
Only bioactive or free curcumin is active within the human body and provides the best benefits. ‘Many companies include curcumin metabolites when measuring the bioavailability of their supplement,’ says Hay. ‘If you’re not sure, write to the manufacturer about the form of curcumin they are measuring – the measurement of free or bioactive curcumin in the blood stream is what you are looking for.’
2. What’s the active life of the extract?
Most high-dose curcumin extracts offer a short active life of about 4-5 hours (meaning they are usually extracted from the body after this amount of time).
This can result in users needing multiple doses a day – by understanding the active life of your supplement, you can plan the dosage schedule you need.
3. What clinical evidence backs up the form of curcumin you’re choosing?
Is there a body of reputable scientific evidence that substantiates the form of curcumin you’re thinking about taking?
This should be published in peer-reviewed scientific papers done on the form of curcumin you are taking and not only curcumin itself, and not be only in the company’s own literature.
For example, different forms of curcumin include names such as, cucurbituril, theracumin and BCM-95 (also known in the UK as Bio-Curcumin) and each will have a body of research that focuses on different areas. So make sure you search these when reviewingthe literature.
4. Is this the most bioavailable form of curcumin?
‘BCM-95 is one of the most extensively researched curcumin extracts on the market, and the curcumin has been shown to stay active in the blood stream for over eight hours,’ says Hay.
For example, one study looking at its biovailability when taken orally gave a curcumin 95% form to one group of volunteers and to another, administered BCM-95 and then tested the participants’ blood.
The results, published in the Indian Journal of Pharmacological Sciences in 2008 found that BCM-95 was nearly seven times more bioavailable.
‘If you’re looking for a high potency curcumonoid with good bioavailability, I would recommend BCM-95,’ says Hay.
For an interesting comparison between the bioavailability of two of the most researched forms of curcumin on the market, click here.
As for published evidence on curcumin showing its potential to help certain ailments, BCM-95 now has over 40 scientific papers showing its efficacy, Hay points out.
Here are three of the conditions curcumin BCM-95 has been shown to help:
Traditionally, curcumin has been used in Chinese and Indian medicine to treat arthritis because it’s believed to block the release of inflammatory proteins and enzymes from the immune system that are associated with the condition.
Now modern medicine is reinforcing this potential. In a small 2012 pilot study published in the journal Phytother Research, curcumin BCM-95 was found to reduce joint pain and swelling in patients with active Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) better than diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) used to treat it.
Just this year, a randomised, double-blind study on 201 patients with osteoarthritis of gave half a placebo and half a 500mg capsules of curcumin which contained BCM-95 and boswellic acid (also used in Ayurvedic medicine for its anti-inflammatory effects) taken twice daily.
After 12 weeks, the patients taking the curcumin had significant reductions in their pain, compared to those taking placebo.
‘In terms of solid evidence for curcumin’s effects, some of the most exciting is showing that curcumin supplements can help reduce inflammation and pain, as long as the dosage is correct, which seems to be taking it twice daily,’ says Hay.
You may have heard of St John’s Wort as an alternative to antidepressants for mild depression but curcumin is being increasingly studied for its antidepressant effects too – with promising results.
One study published 2014 in The Journal of Affective Disorders took 56 individuals with major depressive disorder and treated half with 500mg of curcumin (specifically the BCM-95 compound) twice daily and the other half with placebo.
While after four weeks, both curcumin and placebo were associated with mood improvements, after eight weeks those taking curcumin showed significantly improved mood and depressive symptoms than those on placebo.
‘Though this study was small, it adds to previous studies on the antidepressant effects of BCM-95 curcumin that have shown similiarly favourable results,’ Hay asserts.
Curcumin has proven anti-inflammatory effects and now, as an increasing number of experts assert that those with depression have more inflammation in their brains than those that don’t, there may be an explanation for curcumin’s potential to help the condition.
Indeed, last year a meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Director’s Association examined six clinical trials done on nearly 400 patients.
The researchers concluded that, ‘Curcumin appears to be safe, well-tolerated, and efficacious among depressed patients,’ and that more research on even larger groups may further prove its benefits.
According to metrics released this year in June by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) India’s cancer rates are among the lowest in the world.
Of course, it’s too easy (and wouldn’t be accurate anyway as it’s possible there is an issue of under-diagnosis in India, compared to developed countries) to assume all this is down to their high turmeric diet. But it does provide food for thought…
On a more scientific note, there have been some small studies looking closely at curcumin’s ability to help prevent or slow the development of cancer.
Indeed, we’re always extremely wary of publishing anything that claims it can cure or prevent cancer at Healthista.com.
So please note, we are not claiming that the following research shows that curcumin works better than medical treatments prescribed by a doctor for cancer – or any other condition, for that matter.
But it is worth considering the research.
In 2014 for example, researchers used a 3D tumour culture to replicate colon cancer cells in a petri dish.
The culture was treated with either 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU), which is a common chemotherapeutic agent used for colorectal cancer, BCM-95 Curcumin or a combination of all three.
The best results for inhibiting cancer growth occurred when the curcumin was used as a pretreatment before chemotherapy.
there have been some small studies looking closely at curcumin’s ability to help prevent or slow the development of cancer
The research, published in the journal PLOS One found the addition of curcumin reduced the amount of 5-FU needed to inhibit cancer cell growth substantially and sensitised the cancer cells to chemotherapy.
‘In this study, treatment with curcumin impeded cancer growth and proliferation by inhibiting signalling proteins and blocking tumour cell promotion,’ said Dr Ajay Goel, director of epigenetics and cancer prevention at Baylor University Medical Centre in the US.
‘I’m particularly excited about curcumin’s potential as a prophylactic to cancer therapy and we have great hope that using curcumin will extend survival and improve the quality of life of cancer patients,’ said Dr Goel.
Indeed two previous studies have also found a similar anti-tumour activity, alongside the 5-FU chemotherapy drug.
‘It’s still too early to measure the ability of curcumin to help fight the growth or spread of cancer – even in conjunction with chemotherapy – because this research has been done in animals or cultures but what it does show is curcumin’s potential as a treatment alongside conventional medicine,’ says Rick Hay.
For high dose, bioavailable BCM-95, try Bio-Curcumin (400mg) which contains a patented form of standardised curcumin with an essential oil of Turmeric. £21.99 for 30 capsules
Those using anti-platelet medication such as Warfarin should consult with their doctors and be monitored by them if they opt for treatment with curcumin. Curcumin stimulates the gall bladder so those with gallstones might experience pain and discomfort as a result of taking it. And avoid it if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
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