Turmeric is well known for it’s vibrant yellow hue and as the warming, aromatic spice found in many curry dishes. Originating from India and South-East Asia, turmeric rhizome has long been cultivated and used as a food, and as a natural die, in many cultures for thousands of years. The Latin name of turmeric is Curcuma longa, and as a member of the ginger family, the rhizome has a similar shape and consistency to ginger[i].
Despite it’s longstanding use as a culinary spice, this herb has also been widely used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine as an ancient remedy for treating digestive and liver problems. In the last two decades, turmeric’s therapeutic actions on the digestive system have been largely confirmed by scientific research, which demonstrates that turmeric increases bile production and flow, and has a protective action on the stomach and the liver1. Research has also shown that the herb inhibits blood-clotting, lowers cholesterol and has anti-microbial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions[ii].
The yellow pigment of turmeric comes from a substance called curcumin, which is the main active constituent shown to exert powerful antioxidant[iii] and anti-inflammatory properties[iv]. Although turmeric as a whole food has a host of nutritional benefits, curcumin as an isolated extract, is one of the key compounds providing medicinal value. Curcumin has gained a lot of attention in the last decade for it’s use as a natural remedy for reducing pain associated with inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, tendonitis, bursitis and other joint and muscle injuries7.
Curcumin exerts it’s anti-inflammatory properties by regulating some of the key players in the body’s inflammatory processes. For instance, it has been shown to be a dual inhibitor of arachidonic acid metabolism by inhibiting both enzymes (5-lipooxygenase and cyclooxygenase) involved in the body’s damaging inflammatory pathways2. Although curcumin does not relieve pain directly, it’s anti-inflammatory action is the reason the herb has gained so much popularity as a natural “pain reliever” and as an alternative to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
Clinical trials comparing curcumin to NSAIDs have shown that curcumin exerts comparable anti-inflammatory actions to the NSAID phenylbutazone, but without significant side effects[v]. Another study comparing curcumin to phenylbutazone in patients with rheumatoid arthritis showed comparable improvements in morning stiffness, pain, walking time, and joint swelling in both groups[vi]. Other studies have shown that curcumin has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects greater than those of hydrocortisone2. Topical curcumin also exerts anti-inflammatory actions by the same mechanisms mentioned above with additional counter-irritant activity which depletes nerve endings of substance P, the neurotransmitter involved in pain production[vii].
The trouble with using fresh or powdered turmeric is that it has been shown to have poor bioavailability, meaning it is difficult for the body to absorb and utilize the medicinal constituents. When using turmeric as a whole herb, there are ways to enhance it’s absorption. For example, using the powder form may be more desirable for anti-inflammatory effects since water-based extracts lack the medicinal essential oils as well as the oil-soluble curcumin. Since curcumin is an oil-soluble compound, combining it with coconut oil and other dietary oils greatly enhances it’s absorption[viii]. Adding a teaspoon of lecithin, which acts as an emulsifier, can also be added to improve absorption. In addition, studies have shown that concomitant administration of curcumin with piperine, the active constituent in black pepper, greatly increased bioavailability by 20 times. There is also research being done on the development of curcumin supplements showing that supercritical carbon dioxide extracts, which involves a specialized type of extraction process, is an excellent way to provide a concentrated dose of curcumin compounds8.
Some supplement companies have done extensive research and development to produce a curcumin product that has higher bioavailability. For instance, Curcummatrix™ by Cytomatrix offers a patented technology designed to specifically increase the solubility and bioavailability of curcumin. This was achieved by combining curcumin with a high “Hydrophilic-Lipophilic Balance” emulsifier, which has been shown to be 5 times more bioavailable then soy lecithin based curcumin[ix].
Turmeric has been shown to be a very safe herb when taken at the recommended doses, as there have been no reports of toxicity at standard dosage levels7. However, turmeric occasionally causes skin rashes in some sensitive individuals, so those taking turmeric medicinally in high doses should avoid overexposure to the sun since the herb can increase sensitivity to sunlight1. Caution should also be taken with gall bladder problems or certain stomach conditions such as biliary obstruction, gallstones or stomach hyperacidity/stomach ulcers7.
Overall, based on all the research and traditional use as an ancient medicine, turmeric, has been shown to provide benefits far beyond it’s use as a culinary spice and a natural die, but also as a natural pain remedy with promising effects at reducing pain associated with many inflammatory conditions.
Information can be empowering, but we all have unique health profiles and needs. The health-related information contained in this article is intended to be general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for a visit with a licensed naturopathic doctor. The advice in this article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
[i] Chevalier A. Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. 2 Ed. Dorling Kindersley Limited, London. 2000. p.92.
[ii] Mills S, and Bone, K. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine. Churchill Livingstone, 2000. Pp. 569-578.
[iii] Lubbad A, Oriowo MA, Khan I. Curcumin attenuates inflammation through inhibition of TLR-4 receptor in experimental colitis. Mol Cell Biochem. 2008 Nov 11. Epup ahead of print.
[iv] Jurenka JS. Anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, a major constituent of Curcuma longa: a review of preclinical and clinical research. Altern Med Rev. 2009 Jun;14(2):141-53.
[v] Satoskar RR, Shah SJ, Shenoy SG. Evaluation of anti-inflammatory property of curcumin (diferuloyl methane) in patients with postoperative inflammation. Int J Clin Pharmacol Ther Toxicol. 1986;24:651-654.
[vi] Deodhar SD, Sethi R, Srimal RC. Preliminary studies on anti-rheumatic activity of curcumin (diferuloyl methane). Ind J Med Res. 1980;71:632-634.
[viii] Ganora L. Herbal Constituents: Foundations of Phytochemistry. Herbalchem Press, Louisville, Colorado, 2009. pp. 113-114.