Turmeric is a yellow seedless plant with roots that have been used for culinary and medicinal purposes for thousands of years. In recent times, there's been a lot of buzz around the spice and its potential anti-inflammatory benefits. Most of the latest research surrounds curcumin, an active compound within the turmeric root. Read on to learn the truth about curcumin (you won't find any rodent or test-tube studies here!) and why it just might be the big supplement of the future.
So what's in turmeric?
Curcuma longa, which is what you know as turmeric, belongs to the ginger family of plant species—of which there are more than 100 different kinds! Turmeric roots can be eaten raw or ground into powder. Turmeric contains three main polyphenols (micronutrients): curcumin, demethoxycurcumin, and bisdemethoxycurcumin, which together are referred to as curcuminoids. Curcumin is the most abundant. Many studies estimate turmeric contains about 2 to 6 percent curcuminoids. Within that 2 to 6 percent, curcumin is the most abundant, taking up about 70 to 75 percent of the curcuminoid space.
The trouble with curcumin is that it has low bioavailability. That means it's not easily absorbed and metabolized by your body, so you can't really hang on to all of its good stuff. (And boy does it have some good stuff.) Science has found ways to increase bioavailability like pairing it with piperine, a component of black pepper. Let's take a closer look at what curcumin can do.
What can curcumin do for you?
Is curcumin the cure for cancer? No, not yet at least. A PLOS ONE study did find, however, that a combination of curcumin and tomatine, an antifungal and anticancer compound in tomatoes, inhibited cell growth of prostate cancer. The effect was more profound when curcumin and tomatine were combined compared to either being used solo.
In another study published in Nutrition Journal, healthy adults consumed either 400mg of curcumin or a placebo every day for four weeks. The results showed decreased triglycerides, a marker of metabolic syndrome if too high, and an increase in nitric oxide, which widens blood vessels, allowing for better blood flow.
Curcumin has also been studied as an osteoarthritis medication, and the science is promising. A group of Thai researchers designed an experiment where people with knee arthritis were divided into two groups: one group took 2,000mg per day of curcuma domestica and the other took 800mg of ibuprofen. Both groups scored similarly when they were asked to complete a questionnaire on pain, showing that curcumin works just as well as ibuprofen for pain.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is something you know far too well if fitness is a part of your everyday life. Tired of just waiting for it to pass? One study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that taking 200mg of curcumin before and after a workout could limit DOMS symptoms. (Turmeric isn't the only spice with superpowers. Check out these 8 Spices with Health Benefits.)
An eight-week study from the Journal of Affective Disorders looked at people with major depressive disorder and found that curcumin significantly improved mood and depression test scores compared to a placebo starting at week four, suggesting a month of curcumin supplements may have a positive effect. The participants took two 500mg pills of BCM-95, a branded curcumin supplement. Study author Adrian Lopresti, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and senior research administrator at Murdoch University, said he was interested in this form of curcumin because it's a pure extract of turmeric and is combined with essential turmeric oils, too. "Research shows that people with depression have lower levels of serotonin, increased inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones," says Lopresti. "Curcumin has been shown to normalize all of these, which is probably why it improves mood."
What are the different forms of turmeric and curcumin?
It's easy to jump on the curcumin supplement bandwagon, but remember that ground turmeric serves as a healthy, colorful addition to smoothies, curries, and stir-fries. Inside the fresh turmeric root, you'll also find 6g of carbs, 2g of fiber, and 196mg of potassium in just 1 tablespoon. Eating fresh turmeric allows you to retain the essential oils and other nutrients that are often lost in extraction procedures.
"BCM-95 is the only bioavailable curcumin extract that contains the essential oils of turmeric, which have many powerful properties on their own and in synergy with curcuminoids," says Lauren Goldberg, R.D., who is also, fair disclosure, a sales employee at DolCas Biotech, which distributes BCM-95. "This combination of curcuminoids and essential oils was developed to mimic what's found in nature." (Read even more on The Health Benefits of Turmeric.)
What is the future of curcumin?
Arjuna Naturals, based in India, the manufacturer of BCM-95, recently invested $1.5 million towards curcumin research that will begin in 2016. In 2014, North America was the largest regional market for curcumin, with more than $20 million in revenue. What's more, according to a Grand View Research analysis, the global curcumin market is expected to exceed $94 million by 2022!
"I'm continuing to investigate the effects of curcumin in people with depression and I'm also looking at the effects of a curcumin and saffron combination to see it works better than curcumin alone," says Lopresti. "I'm also completing another study looking at the effects of curcumin in children with ADHD."
People are riding the curcumin hype trains and their conductors are speeding.
So what should you be doing?
When it comes to supplements, the answer is never one size fits all. Consult your doctor before starting any regimen, but know that whichever brand you were to choose, one thing seems certain: The powers of curcumin alone are stronger than turmeric collectively. (Hey, Should You Be Taking a Probiotic Supplement?)
Lopresti says that consuming turmeric throughout your life may, in fact, help prevent disease, but "as a treatment for existing disease, it's probably not that effective or potent," she says. "Curcumin [on the other hand] is the natural agent that can be used to treat disease."