Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
If you’ve ever eaten curry or cooked with the spice turmeric (which gives curry its yellowish color), you’ve consumed curcumin, a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory with potentially far-reaching health benefits. Eating a lot of curry, for example, may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and help maintain mental function. In a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers reported that people who often ate curry had half the risk of becoming mentally impaired. Eating curry on occasion reduced the risk of mental decline by a little more than one third.
Other human, animal, and cell studies have shown curcumin to be effective in preventing or treating a wide range of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatitis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetic retinopathy, and cancer. All of these diseases share underlying inflammation that curcumin can diminish.
Related: How to Reduce Inflammation Naturally
How it Works
Curcumin works through several well-established mechanisms. An antioxidant in its own right, it also boosts levels of glutathione S-transferase, one of the body’s principal antioxidants. It blocks the formation of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), a compound that promotes inflammation within the body.
Curcumin also inhibits activity of “nuclear factor kappa beta,” another substance involved in inflammation. In addition, it reduces the activity of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) and 5-lipoxygenase (5-LOX), two more inflammation-promoting enzymes. Finally, curcumin prevents mutations to DNA, in effect helping to maintain younger, healthier cells.
Supplemental curcumin can help with the following conditions and diseases:
In a study conducted at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center in Tucson, researchers used a curcumin-rich turmeric extract to treat rheumatoid arthritis in laboratory animals. The extract blocked joint inflammation and the breakdown of joint cartilage and bone. It worked by inhibiting genes involved in inflammation.
Curcumin holds tremendous promise in preventing cancer and as an adjunct treatment. Animal studies show that curcumin can protect against colon, intestinal, oral, and skin cancers. Its benefits derive from several mechanisms. First, it blocks the cell-growth cycle (a process called apoptosis) in cancer cells, leading to cell destruction. It also reduces free radicals and inflammation, both of which can lead to cancer-causing cell mutations.
Liver and kidney protection
Studies have found that curcumin can protect the liver against a variety of toxic compounds—important news for people suffering from liver diseases, such as hepatitis or cirrhosis. In one study, researchers reported that curcumin increased the clearance of creatinine and urea, signs of improved kidney function. It also reduced liver damage from toxic chemicals and excess iron. Studies have also found that curcumin is affective in reducing disease severity in cirrhosis.
Japanese doctors used curcumin, drugs, or placebos to treat 89 patients with ulcerative colitis. A combination of curcumin and conventional medications led to the greatest benefits over six months of treatment. Patients took 1,000 mg of curcumin after breakfast and again after dinner.
Turmeric, the source of curcumin, has been used as a culinary spice for nearly least 4,000 years. It was listed in an Assyrian herbal in 600 BC, used by ancient Greeks, and widely recommended in Ayurvedic medicine. It is native to India and other regions of South Asia.
Curcumin is safe in amounts from 500 to 8,000 mg daily, and most supplements supply doses in the low end of this range. Turmeric is safe in even larger amounts, but is usually limited by taste as a spice. Look for a standardized supplement containing at least 90 percent curcumin. To get more curcumin into your diet, try these delicious curry recipes.