by Rachael Link, MS, RD
These days, the uses of turmeric extend way beyond the spice shelf. Turmeric can be found mixed into golden milk, added to skin care serums, and even sprinkled onto rice or roasted veggies. Full of flavor, color and health benefits, there’s no doubt that turmeric makes a worthy addition to a healthy diet. At the root of the multitude of turmeric benefits is curcumin, a chemical that’s responsible for its powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
While adding turmeric to your diet can definitely bring some big benefits in terms of nutrition, going straight to the source and getting in a concentrated dose of curcumin is even better. This incredible compound can influence just about every aspect of health inside and out, from your skin all the way to your brain.
What Is Curcumin?
Curcumin is a chemical with a vibrant yellow hue that is produced by certain kinds of plants. It’s actually a type of curcuminoid, which is a natural plant pigment that possesses powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
It’s primarily found in turmeric, a potent medicinal plant that belongs to the same family as ginger. Turmeric is often dried and ground up into a rich spice that is used to bump up the flavor, color and nutritional value of many curries and cuisines.
The benefits of curcumin are extremely well-researched and extensive. Turmeric and turmeric essential oil have been linked to everything from reduced inflammation to better brain health. Not only that, but turmeric safe, effective and well-tolerated with minimal risk of side effects.
10 Curcumin Benefits
- Alleviates Inflammation
- Promotes Skin Health
- Regulates Blood Sugar
- May Have Anti-Cancer Properties
- May Improve Mental Health
- Helps Prevent Blood Clots
- Relieves Joint Pain
- Balances Cholesterol
- Enhances Detoxification
- Boosts Brain Function
1. Alleviates Inflammation
Inflammation is a normal immune response that helps protect the body against disease and infection. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is a serious issue that is believed to contribute to a number of chronic conditions, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. (1)
One of the most notable benefits of curcumin is its ability to relieve inflammation in the body by blocking the activity of several enzymes involved in the inflammatory process. (2) A human study published in Oncogene compared the anti-inflammatory effects of several compounds and found that aspirin and ibuprofen, two common medications used to treat inflammation, were the least potent while curcumin extract was one of the most effective at relieving inflammation. (3)
This could have a powerful effect when it comes to health. Not only can alleviating inflammation help reduce the risk of chronic disease, but it may also improve symptoms of inflammatory conditions like arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma.
2. Promotes Skin Health
Thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, getting in your daily dose of curcumin could help keep your skin glowing and healthy. According to a review out of the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Maryland, curcumin can help neutralize free radicals to prevent cell damage. It may also accelerate wound healing and improve collagen deposition. (4)
It may also help treat several skin conditions related to inflammation. An animal study in 2016 out of China showed that administering curcumin to mice slashed the proliferation of inflammatory cells by 50 percent and significantly improved symptoms of psoriasis. (5) Other research — including a pilot study examining the common Ayurvedic medicine practice of using turmeric and neem and a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial conducted by the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Department of Dermatology on 30 breast cancer patients — suggests that it may also be useful in the treatment of other skin conditions, such as scabies and radiation-induced dermatitis. (6, 7)
3. Regulates Blood Sugar
High blood sugar can take a serious toll on health. In the short term, it can cause diabetes symptoms like increased thirst, fatigue and unintentional weight loss. Sustaining high levels of blood sugar for long periods can come with even more dangerous consequences, including nerve damage, impaired wound healing and loss of vision.
Some evidence shows that curcumin may help maintain normal blood sugar levels to prevent these serious side effects. According to a review published in the International Journal of Endocrinology Metabolism, curcumin works by reducing glucose production, decreasing inflammation, stimulating glucose uptake and increasing the secretion of insulin from the pancreas. (8)
One study published in the Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry showed that giving diabetic patients curcumin in combination with metformin, a common diabetes drug, resulted in lower blood sugar, oxidative stress and inflammation. (9) A 2012 human study also found that taking curcumin capsules for nine months significantly reduced the number of prediabetics who developed diabetes compared to a placebo. (10)
4. May Have Anti-Cancer Properties
Diet can have a powerful effect on cancer growth and development. In fact, filling up on cancer-fighting foods like turmeric may be effective in helping shrink tumors and kill off cancer cells.
Curcumin works by blocking cell signaling and inhibiting cell division in specific types of enzymes and growth factors that are directly involved in cancer development. (11) In vitro studies have found that it may be effective against several types of cancer, including pancreatic, colorectal, breast and lung cancers, as well as multiple myeloma. (12)
5. May Improve Mental Health
Although research is still limited in humans, some studies suggest that curcumin may help enhance mental health and aid in the treatment of conditions like depression and anxiety. A recent 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association compiled data from six studies and found that curcumin was able to significantly reduce symptoms of both depression and anxiety compared to a placebo with minimal risk of side effects. (13)
Other animal models have also found that it can help decrease anxiety and can boost levels of DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid that plays a role brain development and may be involved in cognitive disorders like anxiety. (14, 15)
6. Helps Prevent Blood Clots
The formation of blood clots is a major health concern for many. Blood clots are formed through a process called platelet aggregation, which causes the platelets in your blood to clump together and form a clot. This can contribute to some serious health issues, including stroke, deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism.
Research suggests that curcumin modifies eicosanoid biosynthesis, a natural process that’s directly involved in inflammation. It specifically affects the synthesis of thromboxanes, which are a type of eicosanoid that play a central role in clot formation, according to research out of Odense University’s Department of Environmental Medicine in Denmark. (16)
Several in vitro studies and animal models have shown that curcumin can successfully inhibit platelet aggregation to reduce the risk of blood clot formation and minimize the risk of adverse effects on health as a result. (17, 18, 19)
7. Relieves Joint Pain
Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory condition that causes symptoms like pain, stiffness and swelling in the joints. With its wealth of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, it’s no surprise that curcumin may be effective in decreasing joint pain and improving rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
One human study even found that it may be just as effective as a common medication used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. In the study, patients with rheumatoid arthritis were given either curcumin, diclofenac sodium or both. At the end of the study, patients in all three groups showed significant improvement, but those who were given curcumin actually showed the greatest reduction in symptoms. (20) Other studies have found that it may also work as a natural painkiller and can help reduce joint pain as well as pain from other causes, like nerve damage. (21)
8. Balances Cholesterol
High cholesterol levels are one of the main risk factors for heart disease. This waxy, fat-like substance builds up in your arteries, causing them to harden and narrow, forcing your heart muscle to work even harder to pump blood throughout your body.
Curcumin may help boost heart health by keeping cholesterol levels in check. A 2008 study out of the University of Indonesia showed that curcumin reduced levels of both total and bad LDL cholesterol in acute coronary syndrome patients. (22) Similarly, another study from the Amala Cancer Research Centre in India found that taking 500 milligrams daily of curcumin increased beneficial HDL cholesterol and dropped total cholesterol by an impressive 12 percent in 10 healthy human volunteers. (23)
9. Enhances Detoxification
Your body has a powerful detox system built right in: Your lungs help expel carbon dioxide, your liver flushes out toxins, your kidneys filter the blood, and your intestines extract nutrients from food and excrete waste products. Although this system works pretty well on its own, there are plenty of ways to help it run more efficiently to keep out dangerous toxins and bacteria.
Curcumin can help enhance detoxification and keep your body in tip-top shape through several mechanisms. A review out of Mexico reported that curcumin is able to protect the liver against damage and disease, allowing it to continue working to remove toxins and harmful compounds from the body. (24) An animal model published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology even found that curcumin helped protect rats against mercury poisoning. (25) Curcumin may also help increase levels of specific enzymes involved in detoxification to prevent a buildup of toxins and cancer-causing compounds, according to the National Institute of Nutrition’s Food and Drug Toxicology Research Centre in India. (26)
10. Boosts Brain Function
What you put on your plate can have a huge impact on the health of your brain. While ultra-processed foods and junk foods are thought to contribute to oxidative stress and inflammation, filling up on brain foods may actually support cognitive health and prevent neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Animal research shows that curcumin can actually increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a type of growth hormone linked to brain function, and it’s been used in traditional Chinese medicine to enhance brain function for centuries. (27) Although studies in humans are lacking, animal models — specifically rats — have found that curcumin may improve memory, reduce oxidative damage and enhance cognition. (28, 29)
Top Foods Containing Curcumin
Curcumin powder is found primarily in turmeric, a plant that is native to India and Southeast Asia and belongs to the same family as ginger. The rhizomes of the plant are typically boiled, then dried in ovens and ground into a fine powder with a rich and vibrant orange-yellow hue.
Turmeric is a highly versatile spice that can be used in many different ways. It has an earthy aroma and slightly bitter taste that suits savory recipes especially well, but it is also sometimes used to prepare sweet dishes. It also imparts its bold color into foods as well and is perfect for brightening up just about any plate.
While adding a sprinkle of turmeric here and there to your cooking can definitely be beneficial, it’s unlikely to contribute a significant amount of curcumin to your diet. In fact, a study conducted by the Hashemite University in Jordan found that pure turmeric powder only contains about 3 percent curcumin by weight. (30)
To get in a more concentrated dose of curcumin, curcumin supplements made from turmeric extract are also available. These supplements contain a much higher curcumin dosage than what is found in turmeric powder, helping maximize the potential health benefits and reproduce results more similar to those found in clinical trials.
Be sure to pick a supplement that also contains piperine, a natural compound found in black pepper that helps to enhance curcumin absorption. One animal model out of India even found that administering piperine alongside curcumin increased the bioavailability of curcumin by a whopping 2,000 percent. (31) Additionally, you may want to look for a supplement made with organic turmeric and consider opting for a fermented curcumin capsule as the process of fermentation may also help boost absorption. (32)
Although curcumin is jam-packed with plenty of health benefits, there are some curcumin side effects that you may want to consider. Skin exposure to turmeric, for example, has been associated with an itchy rash and skin irritation in some people, and taking high doses of a curcumin supplement may also produce other side effects as well.
Some of the most common symptoms reported from curcumin include: (33)
- Low blood sugar
- Increased risk of bleeding
- Reduced fertility
- Increased menstrual flow
Additionally, while turmeric found in foods is generally safe during pregnancy, pregnant women should not take curcumin supplements as they may stimulate uterine contractions. If you are on diabetes medications or blood thinners, you should also consult with your doctor before starting curcumin supplementation to prevent an interaction.
- Curcumin is a chemical and type of curcuminoid found in turmeric that provides a wealth of health benefits.
- Potential turmeric/curcumin benefits include reduced inflammation, better skin health, lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and relief from joint pain. Curcumin may also have anti-cancer properties and could help enhance detoxification and prevent blood clots.
- In addition to turmeric, curcumin is also available in supplement form, which helps provide a more concentrated dose and helps amplify the benefits.
- Use curcumin in combination with a nutritious, well-rounded diet and active lifestyle to maximize the potential benefits on your health.
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