Curcumin is the plant-based chemical that gives turmeric its electric yellow colour. It’s most well studied as a treatment for inflammation caused by chronic conditions such as Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, and osteoarthritis.
Because curcumin is fat-soluble rather than water-soluble, manufacturers often add a binding agent to aid in its digestion. This has caused great diversity in its formulation from one manufacturer to another.
What is it?
If you’ve ever cooked an Indian dish with turmeric (and found yourself scrubbing its yellow stain from your hands), then you’ve been up close with curcumin. In fact, turmeric’s Latin name is Curcuma longa. And while curcumin shows up in many other Curcuma plant species, turmeric is its most common vehicle—though it only accounts for 3% of turmeric by weight.
Turmeric belongs to the plant family Zingiberaceae, which also includes ginger. The two root herbs look similar, although turmeric has smaller curls and whorls than ginger and its colour is deeper, almost orange. Curcumin is the reason for that vibrant shade, which is sometimes called “Indian Saffron” (and often used as a dye by clothing manufacturers).
Variations of this deep colour are found in plants known as flavonoids (think blueberries, raspberries and cacao). Flavonoids have diverse health benefits; that’s why dietary recommendations often include a colourful spectrum of fruits and vegetables. In the case of curcumin, those benefits include anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Ayurvedic medicine has long used curcumin as a common remedy; it’s gained popularity in western medicine more recently.
How is it made?
Curcumin’s natural bioavailability is low. In other words, our digestive systems have a hard time absorbing it and making its health benefits “available” to the body. That’s because curcumin dissolves in fat, not water—and our bodies are designed for water-soluble nutrition.
Many manufacturers work around this barrier by adding a fat-based binding agent like soy to their curcumin formula. As a result, curcumin formulations vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, making it difficult to broadly compare different products (see the sidebar for more on this).
In general, most manufacturers follow this basic process:,
- Start with raw turmeric root.
- Dry the root and grind it to powder.
- Add ingredients and liquids to extract curcumin from the ground turmeric.
- Filter the curcumin solution to remove impurities.
- Separate the solution into various elements.
- Isolate curcumin from the solution.
- Add bioavailability factors to aid the body’s absorption of curcumin.
By solely isolating curcumin content and stripping away the other constituents in the herb, there could be health effects that are absent in synthetic curcumin-only products as opposed to curcumin products that still have the herb as raw material. Meanwhile, emerging research reveals new information about curcumin almost daily, including recent studies that have uncovered the health effects in more isoforms of curcumin than previously identified (bisdemethodycurcumin and tetrahydroxurcumin).
Note: All formulas are not equal!
Many of us expect nutritional formulas to be relatively comparable between companies. When you buy Vitamin C, for example, you know what you’re getting from one manufacturer to another. Not so with curcumin.
Because of its insolubility in water and the complexity of its formula, true comparisons between different forms of curcumin are difficult. Some companies run bioavailability studies in which they track the metabolized (or “glucuronidated”) form of curcumin in the body, while others test the non-metabolized (or “free”) form. This means that one gram of curcumin from Company A is not comparable to one gram from Company B. Keep this in mind when considering options.
How is it delivered?
Although curcumin is the most studied active ingredient in turmeric, it only accounts for 3% of turmeric’s weight. That’s why whole ground turmeric, while beneficial to patient health in some ways, isn’t an effective vehicle for delivering curcumin to the body.
Instead, choose a curcuminoid product formulated to help your body absorb the supplement quickly and effectively. Some products combine the ingredients or formulations listed below, which are often found side-by-side on retail shelves.
This formula is an extraction of the active ingredients in turmeric. It’s so named because 95% of its weight is accounted for in some form of curcumin. Which form, though, is usually unclear. That’s because manufacturers don’t test for the specific identity and amounts. Possible forms include tetrahydrocurcumin, bisdemethoxycurcumin, and hexahydrocurcumin.
This form of curcumin is pure, with no added solubility agents. Without such agents, the curcumin’s bioavailability is diminished, and the body has a harder time absorbing it from gut to bloodstream. This form uses soy lecithin, sunflower lecithin, or other chemical emulsifiers as binding agents, helping the body better absorb curcumin. This emulsified formulation defined the first wave of products focused on bioavailability and are still prominently used today.
This option improves on emulsification technology. The curcumin is delivered inside fat packets called liposomes, enabling the body to absorb the serum more effectively.
This option delivers a lower percentage of curcumin by weight, but the trade-off comes with a benefit: these nano-curcumins achieve higher peak levels and stay in the body longer than other forms of curcumin.
What does it treat?
- Short-term and chronic pain
Curcumin has an inhibitory effect on the COX-1 and COX-2 receptors. These are the same receptors that aspirin and other NSAIDS (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) target to help deal with both short-term and chronic pain.
Although it’s sometimes touted as an inflammation cure-all, we urge you to use caution and apply curcumin to chronic conditions studied in a clinical setting (such as Chron’s, ulcerative colitis, and osteoarthritis) rather than any inflammation-related syndrome.
There are normally three steps in the inflammation process: initiation, resolution, and termination. Unlike most anti-inflammatory therapies, which stop inflammation before it begins, curcumin focuses on the second and third steps by helping to resolve inflammation already in the body. This makes curcumin especially good for conditions which happen over a longer period, like arthritis and autoimmune disorders. It’s less effective for acute conditions like strains and sprains.
Curcumin works as an anti-inflammatory agent by downregulating NF-KB, a transcription factor in the body. NF-KB creates inflammation and changes how proteins are made, which contributes to cancerous cell growth. By inhibiting NF-KB, curcumin supports the body’s ability to clear out inflammation cells and chemicals. Curcumin and the natural phenol Resveratrol are two of the only supplements that modify NF-KB effectively.
Note: Modifying how a transcription factor works doesn’t change a person’s genotype (or genetic code); instead, it changes the phenotype (or the way that genetic code is expressed).
Advice in this category is not as simple as, “Avoid oxidants and take antioxidants.” For example, a large study released in the early 1990s uncovered surprising effects of antioxidant supplementation in smokers. Those receiving beta carotene (a potent antioxidant) demonstrated a HIGHER risk of death from lung cancer and other causes than those not taking the supplement. These results ran exactly counter to the researchers’ expectations and revealed the complexity of resolving oxidant stress in the human body.
Enter NRF2. Its name stands for nuclear factor erythroid 2–related factor 2, which regulates how cells deal with oxidative stress. Like NF-KB, NRF2 is a transcription factor which can upregulate or downregulate its function. Modifying the NRF2 function provides an alternative to high doses of a single antioxidant for a long time (as in the beta carotene study). Curcumin helps by inducing NRF2 function, which supports the body’s normal ability to handle oxidant stresses.
What are the side effects?
Like ginger, curcumin thins the blood, which introduces a bleeding risk. Always check for any interactions with your current drug program before taking curcumin, especially if you’re already using blood thinners.
While curcumin effectively decreases episodes of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), it can cause bloody stool in rare cases of patients with IBD. This is a well-known and dose-related side effect.
Finally, remember that the vibrant colour of curcumin is the same stuff that stains your hands when cooking with turmeric. It’s harmless but may take a few days to disappear. Keep this in mind, especially if applying curcumin topically, such as in cases of oral mucositis.
Curcumin is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the FDA, and poses minimal concerns for the user. As always, speak with your practitioner if you notice a new symptom that may be related to this or any supplement.
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