Curcumin: A Colorful Spice for a Vibrant Life
Reviewed and Updated by: Emily Parsell, RDN
Curcumin, the active compound of turmeric that provides its characteristically bright yellow hue, has been used as both a cooking spice and a therapeutic agent for millennia. In Ayurveda, the traditional healing practice of India, turmeric is considered a remedy for just about every ailment, ranging from skin rashes to stomach aches.
In recent years, researchers have discovered that curcumin can be isolated and taken in supplemental form to get more of the benefits. However, curcumin on its own has limited bioavailability. In this article, we’ll detail the leading health benefits of curcumin, as well as the most bioavailable forms of the supplement to take.
What is Curcumin?
Curcumin is a phytochemical in the curcuminoid family found in turmeric, a rhizome plant with the botanical name Curcuma longa. Typically consumed in powdered form, turmeric is also available in its root form, which looks similar to ginger root.
Although spicing up your meals with turmeric powder is a great way to add flavor and golden color, the level of curcumin you receive from a few dashes is not very high; turmeric contains about 3% curcumin. Therefore, curcumin is commonly taken as a supplement.
The majority of curcumin’s benefits stem from its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s been widely researched for its effects on brain, heart and metabolic conditions, pain relief and anti-aging.
Top 5 Health Benefits of Curcumin
Inflammation encompasses a wide range of symptoms and diseases. While acute inflammation is necessary to heal properly from cuts and wounds, ongoing internal inflammation is a root cause of almost all chronic diseases.
One of curcumin’s most well-known benefits is its ability to fight inflammation. It has even been shown to have comparable effects in relieving pain to ibuprofen — minus the adverse effects associated with that class of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
Curcumin reduces inflammation through several mechanisms, as discussed in a May 2015 review published in Molecules. First, curcumin’s antioxidant properties scavenge for free radicals and reactive oxygen species, which are pro-inflammatory compounds that create oxidative damage.
In addition, curcumin downregulates or blocks inflammatory cytokines, such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), interleukins 1 and 12 (IL-1 and IL-12), and nuclear factor kappa-B (NF-kB). Increased NF-kB expression is a leading cause of inflammation, as it activates several of the aforementioned compounds.
2. Brain Protective
This reduction in inflammatory molecules and oxidative stress plays a large role in how curcumin benefits brain health and may reduce the risk of brain-related health conditions.
A study published in Nutrients in October 2019 detailed another mechanism behind curcumin’s brain-protective abilities, which is related to the gut-brain axis — the bidirectional relationship between the two organs.
Curcumin directly impacts the gut microbiome by increasing the growth of healthy bacteria and pushing out harmful pathogens. As dysbiosis is considered a risk factor for developing brain-related health conditions, curcumin benefits brain health through its actions on the gut microbiome.
Other research on curcumin has discovered that the compound crosses the blood-brain barrier and prevents or reduces the buildup of harmful amyloid-beta and tau proteins, hallmarks of brain decline. Curcumin may also increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is a protein that promotes the survival and growth of neurons.
In a meta-analysis published in Phytotherapy Research in March 2019, pooled data from six trials found that curcumin supplementation significantly improved scores of memory and cognitive function in adults without memory impairments. Although there is not yet an ample amount of human clinical trials testing curcumin’s effectiveness on brain health, many animal studies have reported beneficial effects on brain and memory-decline conditions.
3. Pain Relieving
Supplementation with curcumin is beneficial for reducing joint pain, especially in people who have hallmark signs of joint conditions.
A meta-analysis of eight randomized controlled trials found that approximately 1000 mg per day of curcumin supplementation significantly reduced scores on pain scales in patients with bone and joint conditions. Curcumin supplementation may be a simple and safe way to relieve pain compared to over-the-counter or prescription pain medications.
4. Heart Protective
Various disorders that impact heart health, including heart health conditions, unhealthy heart health blood markers, carrying excess body fat and poor blood sugar control, are major causes of disability and mortality worldwide. In addition to reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, curcumin benefits heart health through its ability to improve blood sugar metabolism and sensitivity, while reducing unhealthy heart health blood markers.
In a study of overweight or obese individuals with blood sugar irregularities, curcumin supplementation at 300 mg per day significantly reduced fasting blood glucose and improved blood sugar levels after three months.
Similarly, a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials published in Nutrition Journal in October 2017 found that curcumin supplementation reduced certain heart health blood markers, with a greater effect seen in those with pre-existing health conditions.
Lastly, curcumin may slow down some of the effects of aging, which is partially mediated through inflammation. The aptly-named “inflamm-aging” is marked by increases in pro-inflammatory compounds and oxidative damage to cells and DNA. As mentioned previously, curcumin inhibits or downregulates these processes.
As described in a review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in March 2019, other mechanisms behind curcumin’s anti-aging properties include its effects on increasing sirtuin expression and autophagy, while slowing down cellular senescence. Briefly, sirtuins are proteins that are linked to increased lifespan, autophagy is an internal recycling process that removes damaged or toxic compounds, and senescence is when cells stop dividing and lose function. Dysfunction in these three pathways is associated with accelerated aging; curcumin may mitigate these dysfunctional processes.
Forms and Bioavailability of Curcumin
Although the benefits of curcumin are wide-reaching, the compound is not very bioavailable on its own. This is due to several factors, including poor absorption, rapid conversion and elimination and low solubility in water.
However, there are several ways to make curcumin more readily available for cells and tissues to utilize it. One method is using liposomal curcumin. Liposomes are bilayer carriers that shield the hydrophobic curcumin in its core and use its outer layers to interact with aqueous environments, improving curcumin’s problem with low water solubility.
Other methods to increase bioavailability include formulating curcumin into nanoparticles or phospholipid complexes and using adjuvants. The most commonly used adjuvant is piperine (the active component in black pepper). Research suggests it may increase curcumin’s bioavailability by up to 2000%.
With this in mind, look for curcumin supplements — in either capsule or powdered form — that use one of these methods to increase its bioavailability, ensuring your body can absorb and utilize all of curcumin’s benefits.
- Curcumin is the active compound in turmeric that provides several health benefits, primarily through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
- The most-studied benefits of curcumin are its ability to protect the brain, relieve pain, improve heart health and slow down certain aspects of aging.
- Curcumin is not very bioavailable on its own. Common ways to increase its bioavailability include formulating it in a liposome, as a nanoparticle or adding adjuvants like piperine from black pepper.
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