A lot of anti-inflammation research has mainly focused on the protective and anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 essential fatty acids. With that said, another anti-inflammatory compound is starting to be supported by strong scientific research: curcumin.
Curcumin is the active ingredient in the culinary spice turmeric. If you’ve ever eaten Indian food, you’re probably familiar with turmeric. It is a member of the ginger family, well known as the bright yellow/orange seasoning used to make curries.
Curcumin has long been used in ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine to treat inflammatory conditions. It has only recently begun to be studied and understood in Western medicine. But what we’re seeing is promising and impressive. In fact, one report concluded that, “Curcumin has been shown to exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer activities and thus has the potential against various malignant diseases, diabetes, allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and other chronic illnesses.”1
Before going into curcumin’s effect on inflammation, it helps to understand inflammation itself.
Think back to the last time you cut your finger. The redness and swelling that surrounded the injury was your body’s normal response to injury. Once your body senses that something is awry, the blood vessels around the cut start to dilate, allowing white blood cells to flood the area. The white blood cells’ job is to fight off harmful bacteria and other germs so that the tissues can heal. When healing is complete, the swelling goes away. This acute inflammatory response can be life saving.
With chronic inflammation, the body initiates a similar response, but it continues indefinitely. When this happens, it’s no longer a life-saving process; it’s potentially deadly. Instead of a red, swollen finger, your entire body simmers and stews as your cells and tissues slowly become damaged.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to some of the most dangerous and deadly diseases of our time. If the inflammation happens in your arteries, you could develop heart disease. If it’s in your joints, it could lead to arthritis. If it’s occurs in your brain, you run the risk of Alzheimer’s. The list goes on…
During any inflammatory reaction, your body sends messengers called cytokines to your liver. They instruct your liver to release substances into the blood; the most commonly measured is called C-reactive protein (CRP).
CRP binds to specific molecules and promotes the further production of cytokines. During normal acute inflammatory responses, this helps speed along the healing process. But when it occurs nonstop, CRP becomes not only a marker, but also a direct cause of inflammation!2
This is where curcumin can stop the cycle.
How Curcumin Works
Numerous studies have shown that curcumin supplementation can significantly reduce inflammation by several different mechanisms of action.
It inhibits compounds that activate genes involved in inflammation, and it blocks the effects of specific inflammatory enzymes, such as COX-2. COX-2 is targeted by several popular prescription anti-inflammatory drugs. In addition, research shows that curcumin lowers CRP levels.3
These properties are what make curcumin so promising in the prevention and treatment of several of the most serious diseases related to inflammation. Here are some of the diseases where research has examined its use:
- Arthritis: In one study involving 100 patients with osteoarthritis, those using curcumin for eight months experienced decreased markers of inflammation and significant improvement in pain, stiffness, and joint function compared to the control group.4
- Heart disease: Animal research indicates curcumin can lower cholesterol and triglycerides, while at the same time increasing beneficial HDL cholesterol. In doing so, it appears to suppress atherosclerosis—itself an inflammatory condition that dramatically increases risk of heart disease and heart attack.5
- Diabetes: In one study, 240 people with pre-diabetes took either curcumin or placebo for 9 months. At the conclusion of the intervention, 16.4% in the placebo group were diagnosed with diabetes, while no one in the curcumin group developed the disease.6
- Cancer: In animal and cellular studies, curcumin has been shown to cut inflammation and promote cancer cell death in various forms of cancer, including melanoma, colorectal, pancreatic, ovarian, prostate, and oral.7
A lot of this research is preliminary and further human testing needs to be done. But the potential is there.
Curcumin does have one major downside: Oral forms of the supplement have notoriously low bioavailability. This refers to the degree to which it can be absorbed and used by your body. The higher the bioavailability, the better.
There are a few standardized forms of curcumin, however, that are much more bioavailable and therefore more effectively utilized by the body. Look for those forms of curcumin when buying supplements.
- Aggarwal BB, et al. Adv Exp Biol. 2007;595:1-75.
- Li JJ, et al. Med Hypotheses. 2004;62(4):499-506.
- Goel A, et al. Cancer Lett. 2001 Oct 30;172(2):111-8.
- Belcaro G, et al. Altern Med Rev. 2010 Dec;15(4):337-44.
- Shin SK, et al. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2011 Dec;55(12):1829-40.
- Chuengsamarn S, et al. Diabetes Care. 2012 Nov;35(11):2121-7.
- Perrone D, et al. Exp Ther Med. 2015 Nov;10(5):1615-23.