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You’ve probably heard the words ‘turmeric’ and ‘curcumin’ before. From turmeric lattes to curcumin supplements, it’s hard to go too many days without being reminded of their supposed anti-inflammatory properties. But do they live up to the hype? Do they actually help with inflammation? Can they offer up some much-needed joint support? Well, they just might!
But before diving into their health benefits, we need to hash out the differences between curcumin and turmeric.
Turmeric vs. curcumin: what’s the difference?
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is an herb native to Asia, and the spice is made by drying and grinding the underground stem of the plant (rhizomes) into a powder. It is the main spice in curries—providing a vivid golden hue and a pungent earthiness to the dish—and has a rich history of therapeutic uses in Ayurvedic medicine.
The purported health benefits of turmeric are thanks to a class of plant polyphenols called curcuminoids, one of which is curcumin. Curcumin’s claim to fame is that it’s the most active turmeric extract. Both the spice’s signature color and medicinal-like properties are attributed to this compound.
Curcumin’s wide and highly regarded traditional uses have sparked the attention of researchers, and—compared to other herbs and spices—there’s some promising research on the benefits of curcumin on human health (Hewlings, 2017; Stohs, 2020).
Health benefits of curcumin
Scientists attribute many of curcumin’s purported health benefits to its role in curbing inflammation and oxidative stress—two processes that can contribute to numerous health issues (more on that below) (Hewlings, 2017).
Let’s dive into each benefit a bit more and explore how curcumin can help an assortment of ailments.
1. Curcumin’s antioxidant effects may curb oxidative stress
Oxidative stress happens when there is an excess of harmful molecules called free radicals. Free radicals form from things that we do every day like digesting food, exercising, or breathing in smoke or pollutants. In the long term, they can lead to cell damage and trigger inflammation.
Antioxidants are substances that help fight these free radicals before they damage our cells. Our body has its own antioxidant defenses, but antioxidants can also come from certain dietary sources or compounds, including curcumin (Sharifi-Rad M, 2020-a).
Curcumin is thought to scavenge different forms of free radicals. A 2015 review found that an average curcumin supplementation of six weeks or more improved measures of oxidative stress in people. While more studies are needed, curcumin appears to lessen oxidative stress in the body (Sahebkar, 2015).
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2. Curcumin has anti-inflammatory properties
Thanks to its antioxidative properties, curcumin has also been shown to combat chronic inflammation.
While acute inflammation is beneficial and is your body’s way of protecting itself from further damage, when it becomes chronic, it can lead to a wide range of health complications. So, anything that combats (chronic) inflammation may potentially help prevent or treat inflammation-related conditions (Sharifi-Rad J, 2020-b).
3. Curcumin may support blood sugar management in diabetes
Curcumin supplements may help regulate blood sugar. A review of eight clinical trials found that curcumin supplementation led to lower blood glucose levels and improved how people with type II diabetes responded to insulin (Yang, 2019).
4. Curcumin may promote heart health
Inflammation and oxidative stress are risk factors for heart disease. Addressing underlying inflammation can help reduce your risk of having heart problems. Research suggests that curcumin supplementation decreases markers of inflammation more than a placebo in people at risk for heart disease (Hewlings, 2017).
Curcumin may also benefit other measures of heart health like cholesterol and blood triglyceride (fat) levels. A large 2017 study pooled together data from seven randomized controlled trials that included 649 people to assess the impact of turmeric and curcumin on those measures.
The researchers found that compared to a placebo pill, turmeric and curcumin supplementation reduced low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) and blood triglyceride levels. However, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol was not affected (Qin, 2017).
Some early research shows that curcumin targets the same pathway as statins, a class of medications commonly prescribed to lower high LDL cholesterol—which may explain its similar effects on LDL cholesterol—and can even be used in conjunction with this medication. But check with your healthcare practitioner before adding a curcumin supplement for a heart health boost (Qin, 2017).
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5. Curcumin can help with muscle soreness
Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory effects aren’t just beneficial for chronic inflammation. Curcumin supplements may also reduce feelings of pain and soreness after intense bouts of exercise.
A 2020 review of 11 clinical studies found that curcumin reduced people’s perception of muscle pain after exercise and decreased blood markers of muscle damage and inflammation—indicating an improved recovery process—compared to a placebo (Fernández-Lázaro, 2020).
Be sure to confirm with your healthcare provider whether supplementing with curcumin is an appropriate choice to help you reach your exercise and recovery goals.
6. Curcumin may help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression
More and more research is looking at curcumin’s role in helping to treat anxiety and depression. One possible explanation for this is curcumin’s ability to increase transmitters in the brain responsible for feelings and emotions (like dopamine and serotonin). One study found that if added to the standard treatment, curcumin may help people with depression.
But this research is preliminary, and more extensive studies are needed to uncover the full impact of curcumin on mental health (Matias, 2021; Fusar-Poli, 2020). Most importantly, curcumin alone is not enough to tackle mental health issues.
7. Curcumin may help osteoarthritis
Wear and tear on the cartilage that cushions the end of your bones from your joints results in osteoarthritis. These inflamed joints hurt when you move. But curcumin supplements may help quell this inflammation. A review of 16 clinical trials found 14 of them reported improvements in inflammatory markers, markers of oxidative stress, and increased walking distance (Yang, 2019).
While curcumin’s effects on osteoarthritis seem promising, research on rheumatoid arthritis—an autoimmune condition that causes joint pain—is more scarce and less conclusive (Yang, 2019). So, curcumin may not benefit all types of arthritis equally.
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8. Curcumin may protect against cognitive decline
Lab-based in vitro studies and animal studies have shown that curcumin may target pathways involved in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, but human studies are lacking (Mishra, 2008).
Researchers have found a link between curry consumption and cognition in older adults in Asia. Those who ate curry around once a month or more performed better on a cognitive test compared to those who reported rarely or never eating curry (Ng, 2006).
More research is needed on curcumin’s role in cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Where can you get curcumin?
Turmeric spice naturally contains curcumin and can be used in cooking or found in beverages like golden milk or teas.
There are also supplements (pills, capsules, powders, and energy drinks) for both whole turmeric and curcumin extracts. Turmeric supplements contain more compounds than just curcumin, so a higher overall dose of the supplement may be needed compared to a pure curcumin supplement.
How much curcumin should you take?
Studies indicate that curcumin supplements ranging from 500 to 2,000 mg a day may effectively achieve some of these health benefits. And high doses of 4,000 to 8,000 mg a day are also considered safe and won’t lead to toxicity (Hewlings, 2017).
However, the thing about curcumin is that it’s not very bioavailable, meaning it’s poorly absorbed into the bloodstream. So, to reap curcumin’s full effects, it needs to be paired with an ingredient like piperine (the active ingredient in black pepper). Piperine can increase the absorption of curcumin by up to 2,000%.
Many of the curcumin supplement studies investigate the impact of curcumin plus piperine because it’s well-established curcumin isn’t well absorbed—and therefore can’t be utilized (Hewlings, 2017).
Turmeric and curcumin are also best absorbed when paired with a source of fat (Stohs, 2020). So, consider supplementing with curcumin right before you have a meal and check the ingredient list before buying a turmeric or curcumin product to see if black pepper has already been added.
Curcumin is well tolerated by most people. However, some people may experience adverse effects like diarrhea, intestinal pain, headaches, rashes, or yellow stools (Hewlings, 2017; Qin, 2017).
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What you should know before consuming curcumin
Compared to other supplemental herbs or spices, there’s a good amount of research pointing towards anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that may benefit an array of conditions. However, larger and longer studies are needed to elicit even more information about curcumin’s role in health and the best dose to supplement with for certain conditions.
Including turmeric in your diet is a safe and delicious way of getting curcumin. But if you’re interested in adding a concentrated curcumin extract supplement into your regimen, it’s best to consult with your healthcare practitioner first.
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Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.