What’s the Hype About Turmeric?

By Gabriel Espinoza, MD

April 21, 2022

Turmeric

Turmeric has been around for millennia. It has been used as a dye due to its bright, attractive yellow color, as a cooking spice, and medicinal purposes, with Sanskrit treatises of the spice’s use dating back to ancient India. Turmeric’s main active ingredient is curcumin, which has gathered much attention recently with its reported medicinal properties, including managing inflammatory conditions, managing metabolic syndrome, and helping with mood. However, much evidence is still needed to find its mechanism of action. So what's all of the hype about turmeric? This article will review some of turmeric’s benefits and why you should consider adding it to your healthy diet regimen.

What Are Turmeric Polyphenols?

Turmeric has many plant compounds that function as antioxidants, with the main one being curcumin. Curcumin is a type of polyphenol, and these compounds have been shown to have antioxidant activity and have been reported to have health benefits. Polyphenols are produced by plants and are designed to help the plant defend against radiation from UV rays, insects, and other pathogens. In addition, they provide a food’s bitterness, acidity, color, flavor, and oxidative ability; think of red wine.

Polyphenols such as curcumin have gained popularity since epidemiological studies have repeatedly shown that a high polyphenol-rich diet has many antioxidant benefits. The polyphenol benefits of turmeric are vast and include blood sugar control, anti-inflammatory, cholesterol control, and mood regulation. These will be discussed below.

Does Turmeric Prevent Diabetes?

Type 2 Diabetes is a condition that affects millions globally. Its precursor, metabolic syndrome, is a condition that may be associated with inflammation. It is composed of a constellation of symptoms including insulin resistance, elevated blood glucose levels, high blood pressure, central obesity, elevated triglycerides, low HDL, “the good cholesterol,” and elevated LDL, “the bad cholesterol,” Although medications are available to treat diabetes, like metformin (Glucophage®) and Insulin, lifestyle modification, and diet changes are the cornerstones of preventing diabetes. There has been growing evidence that supplementing a healthy diet with turmeric may help prevent diabetes.

Further evidence suggests that turmeric may help control glucose levels in individuals who have been diagnosed with diabetes. In many animal studies done with turmeric and diabetes, turmeric was shown to modulate inflammatory signaling molecules, improve insulin sensitivity, and stimulate your liver to further break down glucose and metabolize lipids, the precursors to cholesterol. So, in addition to having an active lifestyle and eating a balanced meal filled with vegetables, fruits, low glycemic grains, and lean meats, consider adding turmeric to your diet to help prevent diabetes.

Is Turmeric an Anti-Inflammatory?

Inflammation involves a complex set of signaling reactions in any tissue in response to irritating stimuli inside or outside that tissue. For example, the redness that develops after a papercut is a byproduct of the many signaling molecules and reactions that are produced by the body in response to that irritant. Similar reactions occur inside your body when exposed to unhealthy foods, smoke, or drinking excessively. The ultimate goal of inflammation is to protect the tissue and eliminate the initial cause of cell injury, but prolonged unregulated inflammation can lead to more tissue damage than expected.

Signaling molecules are made and released by cells in the inflammatory pathway. If left unregulated, it may lead to a perpetual cycle of creating more inflammatory cells and molecules, which means more inflammation and damage to surrounding tissues. This is how rheumatological conditions like arthritis lead to damaged joints, pain, swelling, and ultimately deformation of the joints.

Turmeric has been shown to block inflammatory cell signals, therefore leading to lower levels of inflammatory signals, reducing the number of inflammatory cells going to an irritant. The downside to turmeric is its weak bioavailability, which has limited further clinical studies on these fantastic benefits. However, it has been noted that using turmeric in lecithin-rich foods, like eggs, vegetable oils, and buttermilk yogurts, may help increase its absorption in the gut. This may explain why many cuisines that employ turmeric use these ingredients in their sauces that contain turmeric.

Can Turmeric Lower Cholesterol?

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally. Major risk factors include high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, elevated levels of bad cholesterol, known as LDL, and lower levels of good cholesterol, HDL. One of the mechanisms that lead to cardiovascular disease is inflammation, which leads to damage around the walls of the blood vessels that supply the heart and other organs. The inflammation may lead to atherosclerosis, the deposition of plaques of fatty material in the walls of these blood vessels.

Medications like statins atorvastatin (Lipitor®), rosuvastatin (Crestor®), and simvastatin (Zocor®) are the mainstay of treatment for dyslipidemia, poorly controlled cholesterol. These medications have side effects that include headaches, dizziness, digestive problems, and muscle pain. This may lead to poor adherence by many taking this type of medication. Turmeric has shown great promise in reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, components that contribute to dyslipidemia, and possibly helping to lower cholesterol.

In a systemic review, seven randomized studies showed the potential benefit of turmeric in patients at risk of developing cardiovascular disease. These studies showed that turmeric helped lower levels of triglycerides and LDL but did not have any significant effect on increasing the good cholesterol levels, HDL. Although the studies did not conclude on specific dosing needed to obtain these benefits from turmeric, it is safe to say that turmeric can be added as a spice to a healthy diet or even as a supplement to better improve your cholesterol levels and prevent cardiovascular disease.

Can Turmeric Improve Your Mood?

In addition to having anti-inflammatory properties, recent research has provided evidence that turmeric may also improve memory and mood. It seems that turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties protect the brain the excess inflammation, which has been linked to problems with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and depression.

In addition, six clinical trials have shown significant efficacy of turmeric in helping with mood and depressive symptoms. This is great news for people who may have some symptoms of depression but who may not need to take medications like Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) like sertraline (Zoloft®) or escitalopram (Lexapro®) or Selected-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors like duloxetine (Cymbalta®) or venlafaxine (Effexor®), which may take 2–4 weeks before benefits are felt. Based on the data, turmeric appears to be safe, well-tolerated, and efficacious among people with mild depression.

There need to be larger randomized clinical trials and follow-up studies over longer periods to further determine turmeric’s effect on depression and determine its mechanism of action.

Turmeric Dosage: How Much Should You Take?

Curcumin has a low bioavailability since it is poorly absorbed in the gut. When it is absorbed, it is metabolized quickly, and it is eliminated rapidly from the body. Piperine (black pepper) adjuvant has been generally added to formulations of turmeric to help with its absorption and bioavailability. Curcumin, the main compound of interest in turmeric, has been recognized as a safe compound by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The recommended daily dose of turmeric may range from 4–10 grams per day. Currently, there is little evidence that demonstrates any long-term consequences of prolonged curcumin or turmeric use. Although no serious side effects have been reported with the use of curcumin, some of the side effects may include diarrhea, headache, rash, and yellow stool.

If you are taking any of the medications mentioned above, or any others for different ailments not mentioned in this article, consult with your doctors before supplementing with turmeric. In vitro studies have shown that curcumin has antithrombotic activity, meaning that it may act as a blood thinner. Therefore, patients who are already taking blood thinners must speak with their doctors about any possible drug interactions or concerns.

Contact allergies to curcumin extract powder, like itching and rashes after immediate contact, have also been reported. If you experience any of these symptoms, stop using these supplements immediately. If you experience any wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, rash, or lip swelling, stop the use of any of the products containing curcumin or turmeric and call 911 immediately.

Should I Be Taking Turmeric?

Turmeric has been shown to have great potential as a preventative supplement for conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and depression. Not only is it a spice with tremendous health benefits, but it is also a great spice that adds a brightening color and incredible flavor profile to food, particularly lean meats, sauces, and vegetables.

If you are taking any medication prescribed by your doctor, take your prescription savings card to your local pharmacy, and they will help you find the best deal. They will compare prescription prices and help you get 65% average savings with ScriptSave® WellRx. Since turmeric is a dietary supplement, check with your pharmacist if your prescription savings card has any discounts for supplements. Finally, if you do start taking any dietary supplement, always consult with your doctor, and be sure to read the product label to ensure you are getting the right amount of turmeric you need.

Gabriel Espinoza, MD has experience in caring for patients in both primary care and emergency settings. Some of the topics he has focused on during his medical career include various areas in public health, pediatrics, and wellness. He has coauthored a chapter on the utility of point of care ultrasound in the diagnoses of various eye conditions. The content written by Dr. Espinoza is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5664031/
  2. https://www.nature.com/articles/aps2017179
  3. https://www.jbc.org/article/S0021-9258(20)32691-0/pdf
  4. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02998918
  5. https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/curcumin-improves-memory-and-mood-new-ucla-study-says
  6. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fendo.2021.669448/full
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3857752/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279298/
  9. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/phytochemicals/curcumin#biological-activities
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5637251/
  11. https://www.ajgponline.org/article/S1064-7481(17)30511-0/fulltext
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28236605/
  13. https://www.fda.gov/media/132575/download
  14. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22531131/
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