Turmeric has moved to the top of the healthy food chain. The 4,000-year-old staple of Southeast Asian cooking is showing up everywhere, including ballpark snacks and Starbucks lattes. It’s easy to understand why; turmeric’s most active component, curcumin, is a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant that may help treat or prevent diseases ranging from arthritis to ulcerative colitis and cancer. But does adding turmeric to your latte or plate of chicken masala do these things?
Not likely, says Randy Horowitz, MD, medical director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson.
“Turmeric only contains about 2 to 6 percent curcumin, so you’re not getting much [of the anti-inflammatory effect],” he says.
Ground turmeric has other strikes against it. Ezra Bejar, PhD, a San Diego-based expert in botanical research, warns that with turmeric’s increasing popularity, unscrupulous manufacturers are adding synthetic turmeric to the real thing. Some additives, like vibrantly yellow lead chromate, are toxic. In the last few years, 13 brands of turmeric have been recalled for lead contamination.
How Curcumin Works
Curcumin seems to target specific molecules or pathways that control the cell cycle. It also blocks inflammatory cytokines and enzymes, including 5-LOX and cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), the target of the drug celecoxib. That’s why studies have shown that it can be helpful for people with osteoarthritis. For example, a 2016 review of eight randomized controlled trials found that 1000 mg a day of curcumin relieved OA pain as effectively as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen – minus the intestinal side effects. Other research suggests that low doses of curcumin may help restore a normal balance between T cells that cause inflammation (Th17 cells) and those that protect against it (regulatory T cells). The imbalance in these cells is believed to drive lupus and other autoimmune diseases. And a small study published in Molecular Medicine in 2016 suggests that curcumin may help to prevent bone erosion in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Stick with Supplements
Experts say to stick with curcumin supplements, preferably the high-quality extracts used in clinical trials, which contain up to 95 percent curcumin. Look for brands using black pepper (piperine), phospholipids (Meriva, BCM-95) antioxidants (CircuWin) or nanoparticles (Theracumin) for better bioavailability. Curcumin is hard for your body to absorb; only about 2 to 3 percent may end up in your bloodstream. To increase absorption even more, take curcumin with a meal where you consume some fat. Philip Barr, MD, head of Duke Integrative Medicine at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina recommends 500 mg of high-quality curcumin twice a day for both OA and RA. He suggests medical-grade products by Thorne or Pure Encapsulations.
“Only use supplements that have been independently tested by a third party [such as ConsumerLab],” he says.