Turmeric: A Medical Review

Turmeric is a spice that has been utilized for its health properties for many years. What is Turmeric? Does it have proven medicinal benefits? How can we use turmeric to our advantage?

Turmeric/Curcumin

What is Turmeric?

The turmeric powder that we see commonly in asian cuisine is derived from the root of a turmeric plant. In medicine, it is often sold as Curcumin, a supplement containing its bioactive component (curcuminoids), for its proposed ability to reduce inflammation. If this is a true benefit of this compound, it could be extremely beneficial as inflammation is THE leading cause of chronic illness in the world, resulting in conditions affecting all parts of the body. At any given time, you can encounter an article highlighting the numerous benefits of this substance, but many of these are NOT verified by scientific research. Let’s explore the potential role in a few common chronic illnesses as an alternative therapy of this popular spice from peer reviewed medical journals.

Osteoarthritis

In a recent 2019 study1, researchers enrolled 139 people with moderate-severe knee osteoarthritis. For 28 days, they were given the NSAID diclofenac (50 mg, twice daily) or curcumin (500 mg, three times daily). There were 3 findings that really stood out. 

  1.  94% of those taking curcumin and 97% of those taking diclofenac reported at least 50% symptomatic improvement. 
  2. Those taking curcumin lost, on average, nearly 2% of their body weight in just four weeks. 
  3. Adverse effects were significantly less in the curcumin group (13%) than in the diclofenac group (38%). 
Osteoarthritis is the leading cause of lower extremity disability in older adults

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we all need to ditch our medication and buy curcumin supplements. This study was small, unblinded and short in duration. However, this study does validate that there are legitimate possible benefits that need to be assessed further.

Anxiety and Depression

As stated previously, there is a lot of buzz surrounding the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric. Naturally, inflammation is caused by free radicals in our bodies that lead to oxidative stress and damage. We can limit the amount of oxidative damage with the introduction of antioxidants in our diets. Along with ginger, turmeric was designated by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) as a spice that is “high in antioxidants”.

How does this relate to anxiety and depression? In a study2 published by Current Neuropharmacology, researchers determined that oxidative stress is a key contributor to neuroinflammation which is prevalent in anxiety and depression. With this link, it makes sense that turmeric consumption would benefit these patients. 

A 2017 meta-analysis review3 of six clinical trials showed that when comparing the use of curcumin to a placebo, depression scores “support the significant clinical efficacy of curcumin in ameliorating depressive symptoms.” 

It is also worth noting that if curcumin can diminish the popularity of these conditions via reduction in neuroinflammation, that the onset of common neurocognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s may be delayed.      

Globally, an estimated 463 million adults are living with diabetes.

Diabetes Mellitus

In a systematic review4 published by Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers determined that, “Curcumin could favorably affect most of the leading aspects of diabetes, including insulin resistance, hyperglycemia, hyperlipidemia, and islet apoptosis and necrosis”. They also highlighted its role in diabetic neuropathy (the leading cause of amputation in the USA), diabetic nephropathy (the leading cause of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) in the USA), and diabetes related vascular diseases (the leading causes of cardiomyopathy, retinopathy, erectile dysfunction and poor wound healing).

This research is promising. There are also claims backed with studies that curcumin is favorable for acne, psoriasis, hypertension (HTN), liver function, digestion (including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)), symptoms related to PMS (premenstrual syndrome), cancer and more. Again, the reason for its wide range of benefits is because inflammation affects ALL parts of our body’s biological processes.

Does Turmeric Hold Any Potential Risks?

While there are a host of advantages of taking curcumin, as with most things, there are potential side effects. 

  • Upset stomach: Turmeric seems to increase gastric acid in the stomach. This can help some people, while it may negatively affect others.
  • Blood thinning: Again, one of its beneficial properties can result in a negative consequence if the stars align. We don’t recommend large doses of curcumin if you are on blood thinning medications like warfarin (coumadin). Also for this reason, we don’t suggest supplementation while pregnant.

In ANY case, please consult your physician before taking high doses of this supplement. 

What are Ways to Use Turmeric?

As far as supplementation goes, the arthritis foundation suggests taking turmeric capsules of 400 to 600 milligrams (mg) up to three times per day for inflammation.

The Arthritis Foundation suggests taking 400-600 mg 3 times per day for inflammation.

Besides adding tumeric to your food, smoothies and salad dressings, there are other unique ways to utilize the “healing spice”. Including turmeric tea, turmeric milk and turmeric creams (which can be applied directly. This is particularly useful in osteoarthritis and those with digestive issues)

Curcumin is difficult for your body to absorb through the intestinal tract. Bromelain, an enzyme found in pineapple, as well as black pepper increases the absorption, therefore is often combined with turmeric products.

It is unclear that these products will provide as much of a benefit as the aforementioned studies, as the dosages will be wildly different.

Conclusion

Based on the research, it seems that Curcumin has a VERY wide range of benefits, is safe and natural. To reap the benefits, one must know which products are effective, how much to use and how to use it. Regardless, due to its anti-inflammatory properties (ans its, I would recommend adding turmeric to your diet. High doses, however should be exercised with more caution.

Here at Preventive Medicine, our philosophy is to put the body into the best position to heal. If turmeric can help us to do that safely, then it is something that we recommend. We will continue to explore common supplements and medicines so that we can provide our patient base with the most efficacious and safe products available. This is important as there are many supplements on the market which are not properly regulated by a national governing body making it nearly impossible to find the most pure product. Take a look at our medical grade clinically tested supplements HERE

References

1 Shep, D., Khanwelkar, C., Gade, P. et al.” Safety and efficacy of curcumin versus diclofenac in knee osteoarthritis: a randomized open-label parallel-arm study”. Trials 20, 214 (2019).

2 Ying Xu, Chuang Wang, Jonathan J Klabnik, James M O’Donnell, “Curcumin reverses impaired cognition and neuronal plasticity induced by chronic stress”. Curr Neuropharmacology. 2014 Mar; 12(2): 108–119.

3 “Clinical Use of Curcumin in Depression: A Meta-Analysis”. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2017 Jun 1;18(6):503-508. doi: 10.1016/j.jamda.2016.12.071. Epub 2017 Feb 22.

4 “Curcumin and Diabetes: A Systematic Review”. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013; 2013: 636053. Published online 2013 Nov 24.

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Zach Zarzour, MD

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