Curcumin – All You Need To Know
Magical supplements pop up every day in the fitness industry. Hang around long enough and you might see a couple resurface now and then too. They all make promises more wild and wonderful than the previous one. Fortunately, science is here to start making sense of those claims. While it’s not perfect, it certainly does help to sort the (gluten-free) wheat from the chafe. Curcumin seems to be one of the few supplements that not only fulfills its promises, but also holds even more in reserve.
Tradition is where it’s at
Although it only recently became a buzzword in the field of health and fitness, it’s actually been studied for quite some time. Turmeric has been part of the ayurvedic pharmacopeia for a long time. Think thousands of years. It was mostly consumed as a food, in the form of various (and tasty) curry pastes. The crushed or powdered form has also been used as medicine
Curcuminoids form around 3% of the weight of the turmeric root, which is a member of the ginger family. Of those compounds, curcumin represents around 80% of them. It was first discovered and isolated in 1815. It was then formulated into crystalline form in 1870. But the first study on it only came out in 1937. So as you can see, curcumin enjoys a long and solid reputation in both traditional medicine and evidence-based practice.
The scientific caveat
Despite an impressive body of research, it was only recently that it became a hot topic. Studies and research papers on the topic have multiplied dramatically. This article will explain in detail what claims are valid and how to use curcumin properly. Before we do that, let’s start with one key factor driving the validity of the various papers.
When you start pouring over the science you need to be aware of one important fact, the way curcumin is consumed. While everything ever studied has been shown to be both a panacea and a fake, the devil is in the details.
Traditionally, curcumin, in the form of turmeric, is consumed with fat. Whether ghee or coconut oil, turmeric is often part of a curry paste, along with other spices and herbs. Turns out, the ancient tradition understood this critical element: curcumin is fat-soluble. That means it needs to be ingested with fat if you want you body to properly absorb it. Unfortunately, a lot of scientific research studies ignored, willingly or not, this crucial fact. And some of the less competent companies of the supplement industry followed suit.
If you want to gain any advantage from consuming curcumin, you need to eat turmeric in some sort of fat-based mixture. Or you need to choose a supplement that takes this into account. To be clear, this means it has a form of lipid added to the composition of the formula.
The Science Spotlight
The good thing about this is that it makes it easier to spot studies that aren’t as valid or applicable. Those studies using a form of curcumin that is less absorbed are not worth looking at. Those studies that are worth looking at, find evidence that curcumin could support many systems in the body. Some even suggest it could replace certain drugs.
Alas, a large part of the body of science is based on the animal model. While this does not disprove some of their conclusions, we have to be careful in how this translates to humans. On a positive note, most of the studies done on humans have been able to replicate the results of animal studies.
However, it is not easy to make sense of all of these claims. Curcumin has been shown to be a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. If you know anything about health and science, you know those two are quasi-omnipresent. So whether the results obtained with certain health conditions is related to a direct action or just a support mechanism needs to be clarified.
Many chronic health conditions have an inflammation component. Uncontrolled oxidation processes that overcome the natural antioxidant capacities of the body are also to blame in many diseases. Curcumin has been shown to act on multiple levels as an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant. This means that any health conditions created or made worse by those two factors can potentially benefit from curcumin supplementation. While this is great news for the ailing population, it makes it hard to discern the exact mechanisms that make curcumin effective.
The anti-inflammatory action has shown the ability to lower inflammatory cytokines. These are a class of compounds that trigger the inflammation cascade in the body. They include various interleukins such a IL-6 and IL-8, and also tumor-necrosis factor A, or TNF-A. The latter is a protein that is involved in muscle protein catabolism. It is thought to be involved in the muscle wasting occurring in certain types of cancer. It is also linked with reduced muscle mass due to aging. Collectively, these cytokines play a role in obesity, diabetes, and many cancers when their actions get out of control.
The fat burning powerhouse
One of the most marked effects of curcumin is on lipids; i.e. fats. This means that curcumin helps you mobilize and burn fat. But it also means that it can have drastic effects on lipid-related conditions.
Let’s take a look at its mode of action. The effect it has on fat is through 3 different but synergistic pathways. First, it boosts AMPK (5′ adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase), an enzyme involved in homeostasis. More precisely in glucose and fatty-acid regulation. It is triggered when glycogen stores in the body are low. When it is activated, it helps switch the body’s metabolic furnace from sugar-burning to fat-burning. AMPK also inhibits another enzyme that promotes fat storage. Think of it as fairy fat-burning dust for your metabolism.
Curcumin also promotes the release of cAMP (Cyclic adenosine monophosphate). Not to be confused with AMPK, this molecule is in charge of releasing fat from the adipocytes, the fat-storing cells of the body. This makes it readily available as a fuel source.
Finally, curcumin ramps up levels of PGC-1 and CTP-1, two enzymes that act on the mitochondria. They are the literal fat-burning engines of the cell in charge of producing energy.
As you can see, curcumin has many ways to promote fat loss by increasing fat mobilization and oxidation (fat release and fat burning, respectively). But it also reduces the activity of another enzyme, glycerol-3-phosphate acyl transferase-1 and NFK-B, who are responsible for storing fatty acids circulating in the body.
If that was not enough, at least one study showed that curcumin promotes the transformation of white fat-storing adipose tissue into the fat-burning brown adipose tissue. Although the latter one needs more research to confirm, it’s a nice addition to the fat loss arsenal curcumin is packing.
More than just fat loss
Research has shown that the effects on lipids extend to other conditions as well. Curcumin helps prevent non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). This chronic liver condition can lead to cirrhosis (liver failure) or liver cancer, one of the most aggressive forms of cancer. Curcumin can inhibit an enzyme linked to accumulation of lipids in the liver called fatty acid synthetase. This is in addition to its other lipid management benefits. NAFLD affects between 10 to 20% of Americans today, most of them unaware of the condition until it is too late. So an ounce of turmeric really is worth a pound of cure in this case.
Speaking of health-related fats, several trials have shown that curcumin affects blood lipids quite drastically. Studies have found that it can:
- Decrease LDL
- Increase HDL
- Decrease triglycerides and free fatty acids
This means a global trend toward a better blood lipid profile. One study found that as little as 10 mg/day would have this effect. While another study found that 500 mg/day would yield a 33% reduction in lipid peroxides (oxidized fats that are toxic), a 29% increase in HDL while also lowering total cholesterol by 12% within 1 week. The real kicker here is the speed at which those results showed up in the blood profile.
It can do even more for your heart.
The cardiovascular saver
Heart diseases have been outweighed by obesity and diabetes as America’s top killer, but they still do plenty of damage. One of the leading causes of heart disease is high blood pressure. Think of it as the grand-daddy of heart failure and infarction.
At the heart (no pun intended) of high blood pressure, there is arterial stiffness. Think of a garden hose that has dried out, cracked, and started leaking. Stiff arteries are a bit like that. They make the heart pump harder to move the blood around. This stiffness comes from damages done to the tissue lining the inside of the arteries, called endothelial tissue. This tissue is in charge of producing Nitric Oxide (NO) to dilate the blood vessels. And the more inflammation is present in the body, the less NO it can produce. Yes, that is the same NO many supplements tout as the cure to a greater muscle pump. Well, it turns out that curcumin can increase NO production by endothelial tissue by up to 40%. This means that plain old turmeric outclasses a lot of those fancy NO booster supplements.
To top it off, at least one study has shown that curcumin helped prevent the growth of cardiac tissue, another possible cause of heart failure.
Curcumin does a brain good too
Evidence is mounting that many brain conditions stem from or are made worse by inflammation. The brain is particularly sensitive to inflammation. If this condition is made chronic, it can lead to many serious conditions, such as depression and Alzheimer’s.
The link between depression and inflammation is well known in medicine. It should come as no surprise that curcumin can help tremendously in this case. In a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study involving 56 participants, both male and female, participants were placed into one of two groups: curcumin or placebo. The curcumin group was given 500 mg of curcumin twice daily while the placebo group got an inert compound. The study lasted 8 weeks and the symptoms were assessed as such:
- The primary measure was the Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology self-rated version (IDS-SR30).
- Secondary outcomes included IDS-SR30 factor scores and the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI).
Progress was measured each week. The researchers reported:
“From weeks 4 to 8, curcumin was significantly more effective than placebo in improving several mood-related symptoms, demonstrated by a significant group x time interaction for IDS-SR30 total score (F1, 53=4.22, p=.045) and IDS-SR30 mood score (F1, 53=6.51, p=.014), and a non-significant trend for STAI trait score (F1, 48=2.86, p=.097). Greater efficacy from curcumin treatment was identified in a subgroup of individuals with atypical depression.”
The other brain benefit
Another helpful factor that curcumin can provide is boosting DHA in the brain. DHA is the brain-friendly fatty acid found in fish oil. Many clinical trials have found that DHA supplementation can alleviate depressive symptoms. Curcumin has also been shown to boost brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein helps in the growth and maintenance of neurons in the brain.
Another disease related to inflammation of the brain is Alzheimer’s. The onset of this condition is also related to another important factor: insulin resistance. This link is so strong that functional medicine practitioners call it “Type 3 diabetes.” This causes accumulation of beta-amyloid and TAU proteins in the brain. These are known precursors of Alzheimer’s disease. Curcumin has been shown to be one of the few natural substances able to prevent their accumulation in the brain. It is also capable of removing them once they have started accumulating. Neat huh?
Although the mechanisms have not been explained yet, curcumin is also helpful in cases of dementia. Current hypothesis are, again, looking at the link with inflammation.
The cancer fighter
Cancer is another one on the top list of killers in the US. It has ties to both chronic inflammation and oxidation. So it’s no surprise that researchers have looked into curcumin’s potential benefits against cancer. Turns out, they were right.
The Cancer Research UK had this to say:
“A number of laboratory studies on cancer cells have shown that curcumin does have anticancer effects. It seems to be able to kill cancer cells and prevent more from growing. It has the best effects on breast cancer, bowel cancer, stomach cancer and skin cancer cells.”
Other studies have demonstrated that it can also act preventively in cases of liver and pancreatic cancers as well.
Preliminary studies done in laboratories demonstrated that curcumin has a two-pronged action. It kills cancer cells and prevents the growth of new cancer cells. Although this still needs to be demonstrated in humans, they lend credence to the cancer-fighting properties attributed to curcumin.
One of the common ailments of aging is arthritis. Curcumin has both anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing benefits. One study compared it to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), and has shown it to be just has effective. They used three groups: curcumin treatment alone, diclofenac sodium alone, and a combination of the two. The patients in the curcumin and combination group got 500 mg daily. The conclusions of the researchers speak for themselves:
“The curcumin group showed the highest percentage of improvement in overall [Disease Activity Score] scores and these scores were significantly better than the patients in the diclofenac sodium group. More importantly, curcumin treatment was found to be safe and did not relate with any adverse events. Our study provides the first evidence for the safety and superiority of curcumin treatment in patients with active RA, and highlights the need for future large-scale trials to validate these findings in patients with RA and other arthritic conditions.”
The best part is that a review of 8 randomized, controlled trials done on the subject confirms these findings:
“…these [randomized clinical trials] provide scientific evidence that supports the efficacy of turmeric extract (about 1000 mg/day of curcumin) in the treatment of arthritis.”
Furthermore, other studies have been looking into the pain-reducing benefits of curcumin. They compared curcumin to COX-2 inhibitors, the most widely-used treatment. They found curcumin to be just has effective as many of the most commonly prescribed drugs on the market.
Curcumin for gym rats
This is all well and good, but what can curcumin do for the average, muscle-focused trainees reading this website? Well, quite a lot actually. All the preliminary science highlighted its potent anti-inflammatory effects. So trick question: what is the most common inflammatory process all gym-goers suffer from?
Answer: DOMS, also known as delayed onset muscle soreness. It is the pain that presents itself 24-48 hours after the workout. It is a normal part of training. In fact, DOMS is essential if you want bigger, stronger muscles. It signals the body that muscle tissue has been damaged and needs to be repaired.
Good DOMs, Bad DOMs
No DOMS, no gains! But what happens when this process takes place in a context of too much inflammation? Repair and growth are impaired and exercise capacity is reduced. Gym goers have used NSAIDs and COX-2 inhibitors to fight the pain and get back in the gym. Unfortunately, those substances also reduce the necessary inflammation to trigger repair. You see, just a bit of acute inflammation at the right time is good. But too much chronic inflammation… not so much.
A recent paper studied the effects of curcumin on eccentric-induced muscle damage with a group of 28 active and sedentary individuals. There were two groups:
- treatment, where 400 mg/day of curcumin was given 2 days prior and 4 days after the exercise session
- while the placebo group got rice powder capsules. The results were quite
“Curcumin supplementation resulted in significantly smaller increases in CK (- 48%), TNF-α (- 25%), and IL-8 (- 21%) following EIMD compared to placebo. We observed no significant differences in IL-6, IL-10, or quadriceps muscle soreness between conditions for this sample size”
When compared to both group of drugs, curcumin has been shown to boost exercise recovery. It is able to reduce muscle damage without reducing muscle growth. Although it does not negate the pain, it helped trainees get back in the gym and perform well. The hypothesis as to why it can do this is that it works on many levels of the inflammatory pathways.
This led researchers to recommend curcumin in periods of high volume, where recovery is critical. It is also reasonable to assume that it can help stave off over-training, which is more often than not characterized by under-recovery.
Curcumin: the new fish oil?
A couple of years ago, fish oil was touted as a cure-all for many of the same reasons. Its effectiveness against inflammation and oxidation were mentioned as beneficial in almost all types of chronic illnesses. Curcumin seems to be on the right path to enjoy the same reputation. It offers a wide-range of health-promoting benefits on top of its anti-inflammation and antioxidant benefits.
If you want to enjoy its bounty, make sure you choose a quality, well-designed supplement that includes a healthy fat in the capsule. Or go the traditional route and consume turmeric with healthy fats such as coconut oil. Go curry or go home.
The Strength Sensei Legacy Team
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