Curcumin and its Effect on Inflammation

You may have heard of a supplement called curcumin if you've had chronic inflammation. One of the most commonly known facts about curcumin is its ability to help quell inflammation. While its anti-inflammatory properties are what people mainly use it for, there's also evidence that it may help alleviate other health conditions like depression or chronic pain. It has poor bioavailability, so it's often used with black pepper or lipids. Curcumin has a high potency but is poorly absorbed during digestion, so different formulations are available to help improve its bioavailability. 

What is Curcumin?

Most people have heard of the spice turmeric as a potent anti-inflammatory. Turmeric is often used to make curries and lends its yellow color to the dish. It has been popular in India for thousands of years for cooking and medicinal purposes. Research studies back the claim that turmeric has compounds with medicinal properties. The compounds responsible are curcuminoids, and the most important ones are curcumin. The main active ingredient in turmeric is a potent antioxidant and is what has powerful anti-inflammatory effects. Curcumin can be extracted from turmeric to formulate supplements at a higher potency. 

Are Turmeric and Curcumin the Same Thing?

Curcuma longa is the scientific name for the turmeric plant, and its rhizomes, or roots, are used in herbal tonics and culinary spice powders. Curcumin is a naturally occurring compound in the turmeric plant's roots, a carotenoid pigment that provides antioxidant activity. The yellow color of turmeric comes from the carotenoid pigment, and there are two other related compounds in the curcuminoid family. Curcumin is technically a part of the turmeric plant. 

You may have heard of other antioxidants that are carotenoids, like zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, or lutein, all of which give color to foods. Carotenoids help plants absorb light as energy for photosynthesis. They act as antioxidants to combat free radicals that damage cells. It may sound strange that pigments are good for us, but our bodies use many natural substances in ways we may not even consider. Many studies have shown that curcumin may influence multiple cell signaling molecules, which explains how curcumin has such a positive and diverse effect on our health. 

What Does Curcumin Do for the Body?

When chronic inflammation begins to affect tissues in the body, taking curcumin can be beneficial. In a study on patients with ulcerative colitis, the patients who took 2 grams of curcumin a day and their regular medications had a higher likelihood of staying in remission than those who took only the medicine. In a clinical trial of adults without dementia, 90 grams of curcumin taken twice daily for 18 months showed improved memory performance. The researchers believed there was a reduction in brain inflammation because of curcumin's antioxidant properties. 

Turmeric has historically been used in Ayurveda and Chinese traditional medicine as an arthritis treatment. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, curcumin is a part of the category of herbs that invigorate the blood. Curcumin is believed to stimulate blood flow and clears the meridians while easing pain. It's used to help blood circulate in people that have menstrual irregularities or cardiovascular conditions. Curcumin can also treat stagnant blood that can cause clots, cysts, and tumors. Traditional Chinese medicine also uses it for chest pain, abdominal bloating, amenorrhea, abdominal pain, gallstones, and irregular menstruation. 

Is it Better to Take Turmeric or Curcumin?

The amount of curcumin in turmeric is low, around 3% by weight. Most of the studies on the herb use turmeric extracts that contain mainly turmeric in doses over one gram per day. It is challenging to get that much curcumin by using turmeric as a spice or herb. Because of this, many people choose to use a curcumin supplement. As mentioned before, curcumin has poor bioavailability (the rate at which your body can absorb a substance), so it's combined with other substances to increase its bioavailability. 

Black pepper is a common choice for combining with curcumin or turmeric because it contains a substance called piperine. Piperine enhances the absorption of curcumin by 2000%. The most effective curcumin supplements contain piperine because it makes them substantially more effective. Because curcumin is fat soluble, it breaks down and dissolves in oil and fat. Taking curcumin supplements with a meal containing fats may be a good idea. 

What Foods are High in Curcumin?

Only a handful of foods naturally contain turmeric, and curcumin is only found in plants that are a part of the ginger family. The darkness of its yellow color can indicate the level of curcumin in a plant. The more curcumin that is in the plant lends to the darker shade. What foods are high in curcumin?

  1. Turmeric - Turmeric is the plant that naturally contains the largest amount of curcumin. The useful part of the turmeric plant is the stem or rhizome. The stem can be crushed into a powder, dried, grated, or eaten raw. It's most commonly sold as a ground spice in the spice aisle and as a root in some grocery stores. It can dye things yellow and be added to foods like butter and mustard to make a deeper yellow color. 
  2. Curry powder - While most people associate curry powder with Indian dishes, it's a combination of many spices that generally contain ginger, cumin, black pepper, and sometimes cinnamon. Most dishes that use turmeric have a warm and complex flavor because of the spice mixture. 
  3. Mango Ginger - While other plants in the ginger family contain curcumin, they are in much smaller amounts than those found in turmeric. Mango ginger is a member of the ginger family and is generally pickled or used as preserves; unlike turmeric, which is dried and ground. 

You can purchase fresh root or powdered spice if you want to use more turmeric in your cooking. If you purchase the fresh root, make sure to buy a firm root and freeze turmeric if you aren't going to use it all quickly. Many Indian recipes and curries use turmeric spice for flavor, so looking up those recipes can help you consume more turmeric. Turmeric is used in India to treat digestive issues, skin conditions, and aches and pains. 

Health Benefits of Curcumin

Taking curcumin supplements effectively reduces inflammation markers while increasing the level of antioxidants in the body. More studies need to be performed on curcumin and areas of health, but the current research shows minor to moderate improvement in anxiety, depression, pain, and osteoarthritis functions. It has also been shown to reduce blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and LDL cholesterol. Inflammation is an essential function of the body, as it fights foreign invaders and helps to repair damage in the body. Some people have chronic inflammation and are only aware once they visit their doctor who runs lab work. Specific lab markers can be run to see the level of inflammation in the body. While you may not exhibit external signs of inflammation, your lab work may suggest that your body is struggling with chronic inflammation. 

Short-term acute inflammation can be beneficial, but if it becomes chronic, it can attack your body's tissues. Short-term inflammation occurs when your body has a cut or injury, and the area may swell to help the body heal. Researchers now have linked chronic low-level inflammation to some diseases and health conditions, including: 

  • Cancer
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Heart disease
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Mental health issues
  • Various degenerative conditions

As a result of this inflammation, any supplement that can help fight chronic inflammation can be important in preventing and treating these conditions. While the topic of inflammation is complex, with no simple answer, the main takeaway about curcumin is that it is a potent bioactive substance that fights inflammation. Turmeric or curcumin generally don't have many side effects, and taking curcumin is safe when taken daily. In fact, it's more effective when taken continuously for months. However, taking large doses is required to produce the medicinal results found in studies. 

Use Curcumin to Fight Inflammation 

Curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory and may be helpful as people age. Taking a curcumin supplement is more powerful and effective than using turmeric. Many people enjoy using turmeric as a spice, and you can up your herb consumption in many ways. If you do that, add some black pepper and fat for maximum absorption. If you use a supplement, some contain other substances to promote full benefits. Don't suffer from inflammation any longer- take a curcumin supplement and see if your inflammation diminishes!