Do turmeric supplements work? Here’s what science says

By Duane Mellor | June 20, 2023

Should you take turmeric for brain health and the myriad other uses they are marketed for? Dietitian Duane Mellor, senior lecturer at the UK’s Aston Medical School, dives into research to discuss how turmeric actually lives up to health claims.

Turmeric has been used by humans for more than 4,000 years. In addition to cooking and cosmetics, it has been a staple of the traditional medicine practice of Ayurveda, used to treat a variety of conditions. Even today, turmeric remains a popular health supplement. There are many articles and social media posts claiming this spice’s benefits for everything from brain function to reducing pain and inflammation. But while some of these claims are linked to evidence, most of this research is in cells and animals, making the real effects in humans less clear. Here’s what we know.

What are Curcuminoids?

While turmeric is said to contain over 100 different compounds, most of its reported health benefits are tied to specific compounds called curcuminoids (the most abundant being curcumin). Curcuminoids are phenolic compounds, which are molecules that plants often produce as pigments or to discourage animals from eating them. This is what gives turmeric its distinctive color, but it can also change how cells function.

Many of turmeric’s potential health effects have been linked to these phenolic compounds which, in the laboratory, have been shown to have an antioxidant effect.

Antioxidants are substances that prevent or slow down the damage caused by free radicals, a harmful type of molecule that can cause inflammation and has also been linked to heart disease and cancer.

But while turmeric does indeed act as an anti-inflammatory, many of the health benefits caused by this effect have only been demonstrated in the laboratory (using cells) or in animals.

For example, one study fed obese mice one gram of curcumin per kilogram of body weight. After 12 weeks, they found that the mice given the curcumin had similar improvements in brain function and lower levels of inflammation in the liver than the mice that were on a weight-loss diet.

So while this may have translated into healthier mice, it’s unclear whether the same would be true for humans. Not to mention, if this study was conducted in humans, an average 70kg person would have had to consume over 2kg of turmeric per day during the trial, which would be impossible.

Since no similar studies have been done in humans yet, we don’t yet understand whether turmeric reduces inflammation in a similar way.

The effect of turmeric on pain

However, despite the lack of research demonstrating benefits in humans, turmeric (and curcumin) are widely marketed as anti-inflammatory supplements for a number of conditions including joint pain and arthritis. According to the results of a review, it appears that in human studies turmeric supplements may have a modest benefit on pain compared to a placebo and in some cases as beneficial as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Turmeric supplements are often marketed for everything from heart health, depression, blood sugar regulation, skin and eye health. However, studies have not shown the effectiveness of supplements, and consuming too much turmeric has its own health risks.

But the studies included in this review appear to be of variable quality. Many were conducted using a very small population (ten people or fewer) and had wide variation in the amount of turmeric given to the participants. This means that it is difficult to make a clear recommendation that turmeric is effective for pain.

It has also been suggested that turmeric has anticancer properties due to its antioxidant effect. In the laboratory, curcumin has been shown to reverse DNA changes in cells that cause breast cancer. But it’s less clear whether turmeric reduces cancer risk or supports treatment in humans. However, some research has shown that using turmeric gargles might reduce the side effects of radiation therapy in people with head and neck cancers.

It may also help people with a rare genetic condition called familial adenomatous polyposis, with one clinical study finding that consuming 120mg of curcumin (about the same as a teaspoon of turmeric) was linked to fewer cancer-causing polyps. for people with this condition which can be a sign of the early stages of cancer.

Since inflammation is linked to many cognitive health conditions such as dementia, some research has looked into whether turmeric may benefit brain function. So far, it’s unclear whether turmeric has any effect.

Studies that have been done in humans have generally been very small, with a lack of consistency in study design, dosing, and how they measured cognitive effects. Again, this makes it difficult to see if turmeric really has an effect or if any cognitive improvements are due to other factors.

Does turmeric really work?

One of the major challenges to getting turmeric to work in our bodies is getting it from the intestines into our bloodstream. Curcumin is a fairly large compound and as such can be difficult to absorb into the bloodstream because it is not very water soluble.

But other research suggests that turmeric works by acting on the bacteria in our gut. While more data is needed on whether this is true in humans, it may suggest that turmeric doesn’t need to be absorbed into the bloodstream to provide health benefits because it’s already absorbed through our gut.

Another challenge is how much turmeric is needed to see the benefits. In many studies, only curcumin extract is used, which makes up only about 3-5% of the turmeric powder itself. With many studies giving more than 1 gram of curcumin per kilogram for a mouse or rat, the equivalent amount for these effects to be seen in a human would be difficult to obtain even in supplement form.

Turmeric is a great spice, giving food a nice earthy flavor and vibrant natural yellow color. But it’s far from clear how its reported benefits translate to human health. So, enjoy turmeric as a spice and colorant in food, but don’t rely on it to provide major health benefits or to treat or cure disease.The conversation

This article by Duane Mellor Aston Medical School, head of evidence-based medicine and nutrition at Aston University, is republished from The Conversation licensed under Creative Commons.

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