By Awesome Supplements, Read time: 9 minutes
When you ask about the supplements people take, you can bet with some degree of certainty that you’ll hear all about multi-vitamins, omega 3, vitamin D, and a few other specific micronutrients, and this is good because these are all the research based supplements with good efficacy. But what about Turmeric, or more specifically, it’s active ingredient Curcumin?
(As you’ll see at the end of this blog this distinction is key, as most companies are trying to sell you Turmeric, but what you actually want to buy is Curcumin, otherwise you’re basically buying an ingredient for your curry, not a potent compound aimed to help you).
It’s important to watch the emerging research in the supplement world and see what starts to emerge as a rising star. Curcumin has been sold for many years, but the robustness of the research has been lacking. But not anymore, it's now time to seriously look at it.
What is Curcumin?
Turmeric, a member of the ginger family, is a bright yellow spice that is an important component of many Asian dishes such as curries, teas, and other drinks. But its use and reputation extend far beyond culinary applications. It has been regarded as medicinal for thousands of years, being used as an antiseptic in Malaysia, for example.
Of course any mechanistic understanding which substantiates this was only possible in far more recent times. Curcumin (also known as 1,7-bis(4-hydroxy-3-methoxyphenyl)-1,6-heptadiene-3,5-dione…but that’s a bit of a mouthful) is the main natural polyphenol in turmeric, and it is this substance that seems to underpin the traditional medicinal usage of the spice. In fact, as an isolated compound it shows great promise for a number of applications in clinical trials.
Curcumin is a polyphenol, meaning a nonessential micronutrient consumed via plant-based foods. It’s a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that has been shown to benefit inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, pain, inflammatory and degenerative eye conditions, kidney health, and even cancer (1, 15).
Its antioxidant action was demonstrated in a systematic review of randomised controlled trials which found that supplementation with curcumin led to a significant improvement in all investigated markers of oxidative stress, both by scavenging free radicals itself, and by modulating the activity of antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase (2). This action can potentially have a significant role in the reduction of disease risk.
As an anti-inflammatory, curcumin has two primary modes of action. First is in reducing the action of free radicals (as we’ve said above) which can initiate an inflammatory response, but second is a more direct route. NF-κB or Nuclear factor Kappa B is a transcription factor, meaning that it’s a protein which determines how much a given gene is expressed within a cell. Specifically, NF-κB regulates the expression of Tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) which is a major mediator of inflammation in most diseases. Curcumin has been shown to block the action of NF-κB through a number of different pathways. In other words:
Through its direct and indirect ability to scavenge and neutralise free radicals, and its influence over primary drivers of inflammation, curcumin can potentially have a huge influence on overall wellbeing – both in terms of reducing day to day inflammation and in terms of reducing disease risk. Impressive, huh?
How to take it
It’s well tolerated when taken as a supplement (meaning you don’t get any nasty side effects) and as you can see in more detail below it has a ton of potential benefits. One issue it does have however is bioavailability. Due to curcumin being absorbed into the body poorly and the fact that it’s metabolised and eliminated really quickly, taking all the curcumin in the world is unlikely to be of much use (that may be a slight exaggeration). Fortunately, there are several substances which can be taken alongside curcumin to remedy this, primarily by blocking the metabolic pathway responsible for removing curcumin from your system.
Piperine, the active component of black pepper, for example, has been associated with a 2000% increase in the bioavailability of curcumin (4), making this pairing all but essential when supplementing. (All studies noted in this blog as demonstrating benefits of curcumin use piperine or something else to overcome bioavailability issues, with black pepper extract being by far the most common inclusion).
Curcumin and Arthritis
Probably one of the most obvious examples of a condition associated with chronic and acute inflammation is osteoarthritis (OA). OA affects over 250 million people worldwide and is a major contributor to reduced quality of life, especially in older age. Despite being historically thought of as a degenerative, non-inflammatory condition, OA does appear to have inflammatory aspects and be related to systemic inflammation (6). So it should come as no surprise that a systematic review of randomised controlled trials found that 8-12 weeks of supplementation with curcumin can reduce symptoms of OA (primarily pain) to a similar degree to ibuprofen (7).
Research into joint pain associated with exercise is currently lacking, so it would be a mistake to determine conclusively that curcumin will help with this. However, given that the joint pain associated with overuse conditions like tennis elbow is at least partly related to inflammation (though this isn’t the only cause) and anti-inflammatory drugs are an effective treatment (16), it’s a reasonable assumption that curcumin will help quite a lot here too.
Curcumin and Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic syndrome, also known as syndrome X or MetS, is a condition that involves several related issues such as insulin resistance, hyperglycaemia, hypertension, low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C), elevated low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C), elevated triglyceride levels, and obesity, especially visceral obesity. Both overweight and obesity are associated with chronic low-grade inflammation (which can be a factor in the development of MetS). It is likely the regulation of this inflammation that results in curcumin appearing to be effective at:
- Improving insulin sensitivity in those with insulin resistance (8)
- Reducing blood pressure in those with hypertension (9)
- Reducing total blood triglycerides (10)
- Increasing HDL-C (11)
So, as curcumin is well tolerated and appears effective, it seems to be a really useful tool in combatting MetS. Interesting right? But what about in healthy people? If you’re generally healthy right now, will curcumin do anything for you?
Curcumin in healthy people
Studying generally healthy people is difficult if the goal is to look at health endpoints. You can’t look at the same person along two different timelines - one version of them with a supplement and one without – to see the difference. Nevertheless, we can make inferences from some existing research, especially when it comes to exercise.
In one study of 28 untrained people taking 400mg of curcumin for 2 days before and 4 days after a resistance training session, curcumin was seen to help mitigate increases in inflammatory markers. The researchers noted that this may help to improve recovery rate and therefore improve subsequent exercise performance (12). In another similar study, 200mg of curcumin was able to reduce subjective soreness in moderately active volunteers after a bout of downhill running (13) (which makes you REALLY sore, by the way, if you’ve never tried it). This reduction in soreness has also been reported in elite rugby players (14).
This, combined with strong evidence for a reduction in overall inflammation (something that contributes to joint pain in otherwise healthy people) creates a strong rationale for curcumin use in those exercising heavily.
A further study has been done on a small group of exercisers involving resistance exercise. The group was asked to stand up and down on a single leg 225 times to induce muscle damage and soreness. Oxidative stress, muscle damage and inflammation were recorded. Participants who had taken curcumin had lower creatine kinase levels, suggesting less muscle damage. Yet, according to their blood markers, there was no less inflammation.
But it’s worth remembering that inflammation is not always necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually a normal process of muscle repair. By blocking this natural response with a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, we could argue that recovery could be worsened. Taking curcumin to reduce muscle pain and damage is therefore not interfering with the natural healing process.
Finally, it’s worth looking at a meta-analysis comprising of 50 randomized controlled trials with people between the ages of 15 and 67 who had a BMI of above 25. These participants had various health conditions like obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). The dose of curcumin varied between trials and the length of trials ranged from 4 to 39 weeks. The primary outcome was BMI, with secondary outcomes of body weight and weight circumference. Bio-availability enhanced curcumin showed a positive effect on weight loss, leading to reduced BMI, bodyweight and waist circumference.
Although this research is recent, it’s a good starting point of what is likely to continue to emerge.(17)
In another trial, healthy participants with obesity who were randomised to get a 500mg curcumin supplement instead of placebo scored lower on the Beck Anxiety Inventory, indicating that curcumin may have anxiolytic effects, at least in this population.
Summary: So, should you take it?
So, now to the big question: is curcumin something you should be taking?
The answer? Probably. Curcumin appears to be a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, able to moderate both acute and chronic inflammation, including that involved with joint pain. This, combined with its ability to regulate processes involved in the development and progression of MetS, OA, and possibly even cancer (15), provides an extremely good argument for curcumin being a staple for those looking for pain reduction, disease risk mitigation, and general wellbeing.
Now to be clear, like any supplement, curcumin is not a silver bullet, and we don’t want anyone to leave this article thinking that supplementation with it makes you invulnerable to any of the conditions mentioned above – health outcomes are a result of complicated interactions between your genes, environment, and lifestyle.
But, what we WILL say is that nutrition can be a powerful weapon in your arsenal, and so whether you’re looking to avoid disease or simply help your muscles and joints recover faster from intense training, curcumin may be the spice missing in your life!
But as ever, buying the right supplement is key. Many companies sell Turmeric with ‘some’ active curcumin in it, but the research indicates that 1500mg daily of active curcumin is seen as optimal, so ensure you are buying a high quality, high dose supplement, with the aforementioned Piperine added – like Awesome Joints.
Just a quick search on google will bring up tonnes of turmeric supplements with various vitamins added to enhance the product. If you want to reap the benefits that we have painstakingly researched, remember the recommended dosage and the all important bio-availabilty. This is exactly how we developed and made our new Awesome Joints, which you can now get here.
We only create supplements when the research is there to support it, which you can read extensively in the references.