If you’re interested in what curcumin is good for, then you’re in the right place. As the active ingredient in turmeric, it’s exploded in popularity in recent years. Now a mainstream ingredient in smoothies and lattes, turmeric’s established itself as health-food favourite. But what exactly is it good for?

In this article – we review the nutrition science behind turmeric and curcumin, and examine the health benefits.

Turmeric has been touted as a super-spice in recent years but actually has longheld roots in Ayurvedic medicine. There’s mixed evidence about its effectiveness, yet sales of its active ingredient, curcumin, are expected to exceed $100m globally by 2024.

So, as part of my Masters degree studies in nutrition, I researched whether turmeric and curcumin can benefit health (or whether it’s just a load of marketing hype). Here’s a summary version of the research report…

Tumeric Smoothie

What is the Difference Between Turmeric and Curcumin?

Curcumin is a compound found in turmeric, a yellow spice used in Indian, Thai, and Indonesian cuisine. Traditionally an ingredient in curries, it’s also found in mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and custard (as a food colouring). However, the surge of curcumin-related health claims means turmeric is now popping up in smoothies, lattes, and supplement form too.

What is Curcumin Good For?

From preventing cancer and treating depression, to healing wounds and reducing cardiovascular disease (CVD), curcumin has been linked with a variety of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory functions.

But is there scientific evidence behind the promising claims? Or have supplement companies been cherry-picking studies with favourable results? We examine the research to understand whether curcumin really lives up to the hype…

Curcumin Health Benefits

Some studies have found that it inhibits transcription factors and enzymes related to inflammatory diseases and cancer. These include NF-κB, TNF-α, COX-2, and GSK-3β. This may have implications for numerous diseases including arthritis, depression, CVD, and many types of cancer, such as colon, breast, and lung.

Although interesting results, these interactions demonstrate associations rather than causal links. Just because a transcription factor or enzyme is ‘related’ doesn’t automatically mean it’s the root cause of a disease. Or that regulation via supplementation will prevent (or reverse) it.

Apart from TNF-α, these inhibitions also haven’t yet been demonstrated in humans. It’s possible they’d behave differently in the body to in a petri dish, so wouldn’t have the same effects in people. This doesn’t mean the findings should be dismissed, but they should be interpreted with caution.

Tumeric Latte

Does It Really Work?

Curcumin’s diverse interactions have caused both excitement and skepticism. Some scientists suggest that its chemical instability has confounded results, leading to misinterpretation about its properties.

There are also suggestions that cell membrane ‘perturbation’ may have been mistaken for protein binding. This would mean that curcumin doesn’t actually interact with growth factors, transporters, or ion channels, but merely ‘appears’ to.

So, to more accurately assess curcumin’s effects, we need to examine human studies…

Curcumin & Depression

Depression is one health area that curcumin has been linked to. A review of six randomised control trials (RCTs) concluded that curcumin can reduce symptoms of major depression. Results from 342 patients indicated it had the most significant effects on middle-aged people, who received 1g/day, for longer than 6 weeks. Whilst the mechanisms aren’t known for certain, it’s suggested that curcumin’s anti-depressive effect is linked to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

Although the number of trials analysed was small, they were of high quality with minimal variability. Crucially, they were all human studies rather than lab or animal-based, therefore provide a more accurate reflection of curcumin’s effect in the real world. However, it’s important to note that all the studies tested curcumin in combination with anti-depressants, so there’s no suggestion that these medications should be swapped for dietary or supplemental curcumin.

Curcumin & Cardiovascular Risk

When looking at curcumin health benefits, cardiovascular disease is something that’s frequently studied. Curcumin is thought to influence blood cholesterol, which at abnormal levels are a risk factor for CVD.

Studies have provided mixed results in the past, however, a literature review analysed seven randomised control trials with 649 subjects who exhibited CVD risk factors. Overall results indicated that curcumin reduced LDL cholesterol concentrations but didn’t affect HDL or total cholesterol. It’s thought that curcumin may influence LDL by suppressing the LDL-C receptor gene.

Curcumin & Cholesterol Chart
Overall effects of curcumin on blood lipid concentrations (adapted from Qin et al; 2017) – I take full responsibility for the ugliness of the chart ;)

Although interesting, the small number of studies and varied curcumin formulations used, make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions

  • Only four of the seven trials were considered ‘high quality’ and significant variability was detected.
  • Both turmeric and curcumin formulations were studied but weren’t distinguished in results, which could mask even smaller sample sizes.
  • It’s also unclear what dosage is required to deliver LDL-lowering benefits.

Biological Effects of Curcumin

Curcumin has produced exciting results in lab studies, but these have yet to be matched in humans. It binds to Iron, Zinc, and Copper, and interacts with over 30 different proteins. These influence a wide range of targets including enzymes, transcription factors, cytokines, and apoptosis elements.

It’s these interactions that have scientists excited about curcumin’s potential to reduce inflammation, treat depression, and decrease the risk of cancer and CVD. But until the results are demonstrated in humans rather than petri dishes, we should be cautious about how we interpret them.

How Much Turmeric or Curcumin Should You Consume?

There isn’t a recommended daily dosage for curcumin or turmeric, but it appears to be nontoxic and well-tolerated up to 8000mg/day. However, it can interact badly with some drugs and side-effects such as diarrhoea and nausea have been reported.

A typical curry contains ⅛-¼ teaspoon (0.4-0.7g) of turmeric per serving, of which 3.4% (13.6mg – 23.8mg) is curcumin. Supplements claim to provide higher concentrations (400mg-1000mg) but isn’t well-absorbed or utilised by the body.

Simple smoothie tip ⇒ if you’re making a turmeric smoothie then include ingredients that contain dietary fats (like avocado, soy yogurt, or nut butter) to aid absorption. Check out this spicy smoothie recipe.

Tumeric Powder

Final Verdict

So, now that we’ve looked at the evidence in detail, what’s the final verdict on curcumin? Well, the supplement shows promise but has yet to definitively prove that it lives up to the hype.

Lab experiments have demonstrated potentially exciting results but should be interpreted with caution. Just because something reacts one way in a  test-tube, doesn’t automatically mean it’ll behave the same way in humans. Real world studies suggest curcumin may be beneficial for depression, but inconsistent findings and mixed quality RCTs for other diseases necessitate further large-scale study.

With any supplement, it’s also important to consider them in the wider context of the diet. We don’t eat individual nutrients, we eat real food. It’s not that I’m anti-supplements – vitamin tablets cured my adult acne so I’m actually a big fan! But I do think it’s important that supplements are consumed as part of a wider balanced diet, rather than being considered in isolation.

What Is Curcumin Good For Pinterest
Categories: Nutrition

The Blendery

Written by Caroline, a qualified nutritionist with a Master’s degree in Human Nutrition, bachelor’s degree in Sports Science and English, Diploma in Personal Training, and 15+ years of experience in the health and fitness industry.