Curcumin: One of Nature’s Most Powerful Plant Medicines

I’ve never seen an ingredient with as much capacity for improving health and fighting disease as curcumin. Research on this powerhouse antioxidant and anti-inflammatory continues to impress me. It seems like each month we learn something new and remarkable about curcumin. It’s important to remember that curcumin and turmeric are two different substances. Turmeric is a spice that is used as a flavorful ingredient in Indian and Asian cuisine. It has also been part of Ayurvedic medicine for millennia. Powdered turmeric has some health benefits but is limited in its therapeutic potential because it contains very little curcumin. Curcumin is the medicinal component in turmeric and needs to be concentrated and enhanced for absorbability in order to have broad spectrum health benefits. Turmeric and curcumin are poorly absorbed, so to enhance the absorbability of curcumin and increase its activity in the body over a longer period of time it needs to be combined with turmerones, which are the volatile oils found in the turmeric root. The combination is retained in the body 10x better than any other form of curcumin. Think of it this way—an apple comes from a tree. To get healthy, you don’t eat the whole tree, you just eat the apple. For medicinal effects, it isn’t enough to use turmeric powder (containing only two to five percent curcumin content) just as you wouldn’t eat a tree if you wanted an apple.

One of the reasons that curcumin works so well on such a wide range of diseases is because it is such a powerful anti-inflammatory. We know that almost all chronic diseases—from diabetes to heart disease to cancer to arthritis to Alzheimer’s disease— have something in common: unchecked, destructive inflammation. Unlike synthetic drugs, which typically work against only a single inflammation pathway, natural curcumin reduces inflammation through its effects on multiple inflammation targets. Curcumin simultaneously works at multiple levels of multiple pathways. In technical terms, curcumin has been found to: suppress the activation of the NF-kB, which regulates the expression of pro-inflammatory gene products, downregulate COX-2, the enzyme linked to most inflammation, Inhibit 5-LOX, another pro-inflammatory enzyme, downregulate the expression of cell surface adhesion molecules linked to inflammation, and inhibit the activity of TNF, one of the most pro-inflammatory cytokines (cell-signaling protein molecules). Because of this anti-inflammatory activity, as well as its ability to kill tumor cells, increase the activity of protective antioxidants such as glutathione, and modulate tumor growth cell factors, curcumin is effective against hundreds of diseases. Here are some of the primary benefits of curcumin extract:

Curcumin and Cancer

Curcumin has been shown to influence cancer initiation, promotion, and progression, meaning that it stops the changes that cause normal cells to become cancerous, stops the replication of cancerous cells (tumor formation), and stops cancerous cells from migrating to other parts of the body (known as metastasis). Published studies on curcumin’s anticancer activity (so far) have found that it can suppress breast, prostate, liver, skin, oral, colon, and lung cancer. And, as an adjunct to conventional treatment, recent cell research showed that the best results for inhibiting cancer growth occurred when curcumin was used as a pretreatment before chemotherapy. Curcumin has also been shown to increase the activity of cancer drugs and to decrease drug resistance in cancer cells (meaning it helps cancer drugs kill tumors more effectively). Additionally, it protects normal cells from the toxic effects of chemotherapy drugs and radiation treatments.

Curcumin, Inflammation, and Chronic Disease

Inflammation is normal. It is a natural physical response that is triggered when the body begins to repair damage or injuries. However, inflammation should be limited, with a definite beginning and end. It should not continue, day after day. On-going, persistent inflammation is destructive, not restorative. One of the keys to improving chronic diseases (heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, etc.) is stopping the cycle of chronic inflammation. As discussed earlier, curcumin, unlike synthetic drugs, works on multiple inflammation pathways to help the body return to a normal inflammation balance.


The hallmarks of osteoarthritis are cartilage destruction and inflammation—two conditions that curcumin is able to prevent. An interesting property of curcumin is its ability to protect chondrocytes, specialized cells found in joint cartilage, from being broken down by inflammatory compounds in the body (IL-1beta, MMP3). A recent clinical study looked at a combination of highly absorbable curcumin and boswellia (also an excellent natural anti-inflammatory) or the prescription drug celecoxib (Celebrex®) in the treatment of patients with arthritis. The herbal combination worked better than the drug, with no serious side effects! Remarkably, 93 percent of the participants receiving the herbal combination reported reduced or no pain, compared to only 86 percent of the prescription drug group. The group receiving the special curcumin and boswellia extract was also able to walk further and had less pain and a better range of movement, all without significant adverse effects.

Alzheimer’s Disease

The cause of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is not entirely known. However, certain characteristic changes are found in the brains of people with this condition— accumulated clusters of a protein called beta-amyloid, and clumps of dead and dying nerve and brain cells. These clusters and clumps, called plaques and tangles, are believed to interfere with the proper transmission of messages between brain cells and lead to the death of brain cells as well. Inflammation is also involved, causing the accumulation of plaques and tangles to have even more damaging effects. Because of the known anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin, researchers are now looking at its effects in treating AD. What they have discovered is astonishing. Not only does curcumin protect brain cells from damaging inflammation, but in experimental models of Alzheimer’s disease, curcumin was able to reduce beta-amyloid levels and shrink the size of accumulated plaques by over 30 percent!


Depression and Mental well-being

Depression is a debilitating disease that is difficult to treat. Approximately 30 percent of patients who take prescription drugs to relieve their depression experience no benefits, and the remaining 70 percent will have only partial improvement. Additionally, the side effects can be significant, including nausea, weight gain, dizziness, sexual dysfunction, dry mouth, blurred vision, insomnia, and more. Because curcumin has been shown to be effective at treating other brain disorders, researchers have investigated whether it is also helpful in relieving depression. First, inflammation is known to play a major role in the development of depression.  Therefore, it seems logical that the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin may be helpful. Second, curcumin is also able to modulate the levels of brain neurotransmitters (chemical messengers —serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine) that influence mood, behavior, appetite, emotions, and even dreaming and memory. In experimental models of depression, curcumin has been shown to increase levels of the “feel good” neurotransmitter, serotonin, as well as relieve other symptoms of depression.  In a published study comparing a special, highly absorbable curcumin enhanced with turmeric oil to two prescription drugs, fluoxetine (Prozac®) and imipramine (Tofranil®), an experimental model found the highly absorbable curcumin to be just as effective as the two drugs—but without the adverse side effects.


Gastrointestinal Inflammation (IBD and IBS)

Chronic inflammation of the intestines (the gastrointestinal tract) is associated with several commonly experienced diseases—particularly, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and Crohn’s disease. Bloating, frequent diarrhea or constipation, gas, abdominal pain, and even heartburn and acid reflux, can all be signs that unchecked inflammation is affecting the proper function of your digestive system. A study of over 200 people with IBS found that use of a standardized extract of curcumin was associated with up to a 25 percent reduction in abdominal pain, and two thirds of participants reported an improvement in overall symptoms. In a small pilot study of patients with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative proctitis (a type of IBD) who received curcumin along with the standard anti-inflammatory drugs (including steroids), many of the patients were able to reduce or stop the medications, and inflammation markers decreased to a normal level. One of the interesting benefits of curcumin is that it has not only been shown to reduce inflammatory compounds in the intestines, but it can also strengthen the intestinal wall to prevent harmful bacteria from passing out of the intestines and reaching other organs, such as the liver and kidneys.

Michael Chase, MS, NTP
Nutrition Science and Dietetics

DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this post is for educational purposes only, and should not be construed as personal medical advice or instruction. No action should be taken based solely on the contents of this information. Individuals should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being. The statements made in this informational document have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any product discussed is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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