If you use herbs for health, chances are that you have bought green tea, lemon balm, cat’s claw capsaicin, resveratrol, or turmeric with curcumin. If you eat fruit and vegetables for health, chances are that you eat apples, broccoli, buckwheat, citrus fruit, grapes, raisins, or spinach. Or maybe you sometimes brew a cup of soothing herbal tea.
The common denominator of these healthy choices among herbs and foods is a group of chemicals known as polyphenols. These plant compounds are soluble in water, and they are released from the foods that contain them by probiotic bacteria that live in the colon.
The polyphenols can attach themselves to enzymes inside the human body to make them work faster or slower. The body can transport them inside tissues or between tissues and add them to the urine as it regulates acidity and alkalinity. The most comprehensively studied of all the polyphenols is curcumin, the antioxidant found in the spice turmeric.
What is Turmeric?
Turmeric is Curcuma longa, a tropical plant in the ginger family. The rhizome or root of the plant is used in herbal medicines and in making powdered turmeric, although turmeric leaves are used in some Indonesian dishes.
What is the Difference Between Turmeric and Curcumin?
Turmeric is a yellow-orange spice that is very important in Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisine. About 3% of the total mass of turmeric is curcumin, the pigment that gives the spice its characteristic bright color, which is also a potent free radical fighter and enzyme activator when it is absorbed by the human body.
The curcumin in turmeric makes turmeric a good indicator of the acidity or alkalinity in a food. In an acidic food, curcumin turns yellow. In an alkaline food, it turns red.
In the plant itself, curcumin protects the root of the plant from injury. When a bug chomps on the turmeric root, curcumin helps it heal without developing woody patches that can’t absorb water and nutrients. The healing strength of curcumin creates some unexpected situations in processing and storing turmeric.
Although none of the products recommended by the owner of this site have been irradiated, many spice companies expose their spice and flavor mixes to radiation to kill insects. This does not work with turmeric.
When spices are not stored under cool, dry, sanitary conditions, various kinds of weevils can get into the product. When these weevils feed on turmeric, the curcumin protects them from radiation, so that not only does the irradiation not sterilize the product, it kills the bugs on nearby bags of other spices so that the bugs can jump from the turmeric to eat their way through an entire shipment.
When it comes to processing turmeric, organic methods are a must. Spice vendors have learned that it simply does not do any good to use radiation and chemicals on turmeric, so they have to pay careful attention to cleanliness and clean storage. The result is an additive-free turmeric product for consumers, with the antioxidants reserved for the humans that use the turmeric, not any visitors from the storage areas.
Why Do Most Companies Sell “Turmeric with Curcumin” Turmeric Supplements?
Curcumin is the main active chemical in turmeric, but it is not the only healthy chemical in turmeric. Many natural product manufacturers encapsulate both curcumin and whole turmeric so that you get the full range of healthy antioxidants in the spice. Turmeric also contains many of the beneficial chemical compounds found in closely related plants, such as gingerol, which is also found in ginger (and which calms digestion and relieves nausea), and various sesquiterpenes, which give turmeric its liver-protective effects.
The essential oil and oleoresin are only found in the whole herb, not in curcumin. These components of the herb may relieve depression, but only if you taste and smell them. You get more from your supplement if it contains both turmeric and curcumin.
Some companies extract curcumin from turmeric with acetone or alcohol, and then let the acetone or alcohol evaporate from the curcumin extract. This is actually safe but, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never cared for the idea of taking herbal supplements made with acetone or hexanol. And making supplements with a solvent called ethylene dichloride can be downright dangerous.
Other companies extract curcumin from turmeric with highly pressurized liquid carbon dioxide. At sea level or above, dry ice sublimates into a gas. You’ve probably seen vapors coming off dry ice used to make “smoke” in a theatrical production.
At very high pressure, carbon dioxide becomes a liquid. This liquid can be used to extract and concentrate curcumin in the turmeric itself. The pressure in the production chamber is released, and a high-curcumin extract is instantly produced, with no noxious or toxic chemicals. Turmeric with curcumin made this way gives you the full range of healthy plant chemicals with no harm to you or the environment during the production process.
What about Piperine in Turmeric Supplements?
If you take a close look at turmeric supplements, you will find some products that are advertised as containing piperine or “Bio-Piperine” for fast absorption. The president of the company that makes this piperine derivative was my lab partner in college, so I am biased in favor of the product, but it is a helpful ingredient. Here’s why.
Curcumin is soluble in water. Most of the contents of your digestive tract are water. Curcumin is a very potent antioxidant. It starts attacking free radicals that may have been released by food or medications while it is still in the small intestine, and most of the curcumin you get in turmeric or you take in a supplement will never get inside your body unless something speeds up absorption.
One product for speeding up absorption is the patented “Bio-Peperine“. My college classmate was from India and was knowledgeable of the Ayurvedic tradition of mixing turmeric with black pepper for better effect. What he did was to isolate the chemical that helps the body absorb curcumin and patent it. “Bio-Peperine” increases curcumin absorption by nearly 2,000 percent, for the first hour, it is in the lower digestive tract.
Bio-Peperine is not the only product that increases the absorption of curcumin. There is also a forthcoming Chinese product that combines curcumin with nanoparticles, and scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles have developed a curcumin phospholipid that is absorbed as quickly as the products made with Bio-Piperine. There is also a product called Nutmeric that combines curcumin with nutmeg, and a product that combines curcumin with plant oil in capsules.
All of these products work, but I have a suggestion that works at least as well. Take your curcumin supplements on an empty stomach, at least an hour before and after you eat any other food or take any medication. That way, the curcumin in your supplement has your digestive tract all to itself and is much easier to absorb.
Why Not Just Use Turmeric in Cooking?
You don’t have to take a supplement to get the benefits of curcumin, but you have to consume 30 to 35 times as much turmeric to get the same amount of curcumin. Taking a supplement is just a lot easier than eating 2 or 3 tablespoons of turmeric (not curry powder, which contains 10 to 30 other spices) every day. Turmeric loses its flavor and color quickly, as well as its antioxidant power. Turmeric and curcumin capsules do not.
Health Benefits of Turmeric and Curcumin
I could easily write an entire book on the health benefits of turmeric and curcumin. Here are just the highlights of over 4,000 published scientific studies of the health benefits of curcumin.
Alzheimer’s disease. This chronic disease of brain deterioration causes the formation of tangled fibers of protein in the brain. There is some evidence from studies of laboratory animals that curcumin may be helpful in preventing the disease or perhaps in treating the early stages of the disease if it is taken along with alpha-lipoic acid, green tea extract (ECGC), complete B vitamins, vitamin C, and N-acetyl cystine (NAC). There is no evidence that turmeric or curcumin by themselves prevents or treats Alzheimer’s disease.
Arthritis. Turmeric with curcumin relieves pain and inflammation caused by arthritis about as effectively as the same amount of aspirin or Tylenol (one capsule of turmeric providing about as much pain relief as one adult aspirin or one capsule of adult Tylenol) with the potential for stomach upset. Use turmeric with curcumin when you are reducing the dosage of other pain medications.
Atherosclerosis. “Hardening of the arteries,” or atherosclerosis, is a process that begins with the oxidation of streaks of cholesterol in the linings of blood vessels. Oxidation changes certain kinds of LDL cholesterol into hardened forms that have to be removed by the immune system, and sometimes the white blood cells sent by the immune system to get rid of the cholesterol get stuck.
Curcumin reduces the oxidation of cholesterol, which reduces the formation of “hard” cholesterol, which reduces the risk that white blood cells will form a plug that clogs a blood vessel. In lab studies with animals, curcumin also increases bloodstream concentrations of vitamin A, vitamin E, and coenzyme Q10, probably by protecting them from oxidation. Increasing coenzyme Q10 can counteract the depletion of coenzyme Q10 by statin drugs prescribed for high cholesterol. Turmeric will not lower cholesterol, but it will fight the processes that transform cholesterol into plaques.
Cancer. What you need to know about using turmeric and curcumin in cancer support is that they can be very helpful for preventing cancer or perhaps in supporting recovery from the early stages of cancer, and they can make chemotherapy and radiation work better so less treatment is needed, but there are also some situations in which turmeric and curcumin should be avoided.
In vitro (test tube or Petri dish) studies of curcumin have found that it activates a “suicide switch” in cell cultures of breast cancer, lung cancer, leukemia, myeloma, melanoma, neuroblastoma, and prostate cancer cells. Epidemiologists have observed that the United States, where turmeric is not consumed very often, compared to India, where turmeric is consumed by most people every day, has:
- A 700% higher rate of bladder cancer in men and an 800% higher rate of bladder cancer in women.
- A 700% higher rate of lung cancer in men and an 1800% higher rate of lung cancer in women.
- A 1400% higher rate of melanoma in men and a 900% higher rate of melanoma in women.
- A 900% higher rate of kidney cancer in men and a 1400% higher rate of kidney cancer in women.
- An 1100% higher rate of colorectal cancer in men and a 1000% higher rate of colorectal cancer in women.
- A 900% higher rate of endometrial cancer.
- A 500% higher rate of breast cancer in women.
- A 2300% higher rate of prostate cancer.
Since immigrants from India experience a greater risk of cancer when they adopt American diets, it is possible that a traditional Indian diet, which is low in animal fats and rich in turmeric and spices, may be highly protective against cancer. There are other explanations for these results, but it is such a simple thing to add turmeric and curcumin to your daily health routine, why not try it.
Crohn’s disease. This disorder of chronic intestinal inflammation sometimes causes the formation of scar tissue that interferes with the flow of digested food through the bowel. Taking turmeric with curcumin may prevent the formation of this scar tissue, but it probably will not reverse or dissolve it.
Diabetes. Turmeric and curcumin won’t help diabetics lower their blood sugar levels. It is still necessary to use diet, exercise, judicious choices among supplements, and medication to keep blood sugar levels in control. If you simply don’t let your blood sugar levels run high after meals, you have done the single most important thing you can do to prevent diabetic complications.
But if you already have diabetic complications, taking a turmeric and curcumin supplement may be very helpful.
- Physicians at the Shiraz Nephro-Urology Research Center found that diabetics with kidney disease who took three capsules of turmeric and curcumin per day had less protein leakage and slower progression of kidney failure. The diabetics in this study took three capsules of a product containing 500 mg of turmeric with 22.1 mg of curcumin.
- Laboratory studies have found that a combination of turmeric and curcumin slows the activity of an enzyme called sorbitol dehydrogenase, which the body uses to convert fructose (the sugar in fruit and in high-fructose corn syrup) into sorbitol. Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol that causes the linking of proteins that cause cataracts, and the accumulation of sorbitol is the reason that diabetics are more likely to have cataracts. While taking turmeric with curcumin may help diabetics avoid cataracts, there is no evidence that it will help non-diabetics avoid cataracts.
- Curcumin “downregulates” two hormones that cause inflammation in fat cells, resistin and leptin. It “upregulates” the hormone adiponectin, which controls appetite. Diabetics who take turmeric with curcumin may lose “water weight” trapped in belly fat by inflammation and find it easier to manage their appetites.
Digestive diseases. Turmeric, like ginger, can help stop nausea. It is a useful addition to ginger when nausea is a problem. A more important application of turmeric and curcumin, however, is stopping the destructive activity of a gastrointestinal bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori.
This bacterium lives in the lining of the stomach. It can survive exposure to stomach acid, and cause low-grade inflammation that usually only causes vague symptoms. You might feel a little hoarse even though you don’t have an allergy or a cold. That is due to regurgitation of tiny amounts of stomach acid you didn’t notice. Or you might have a slight stomach ache after you eat fatty or bitter foods, but not really enough to take anything. You might have a serious problem with acid reflux, heartburn, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, but mistakenly believe your problem is due to stress.
About 80% of the people who have H. pylori infections never go to the doctor for treatment because symptoms are bearable. About 20% of people who have chronic infections with this bacterium develop gastric or duodenal ulcers, and about 1% eventually develop stomach cancer or MALT lymphoma.
How many people are infected with this “bug?” In Australia, New Zealand, the US, the UK, Canada, and Europe, about 25% of the population has chronic H. pylori infection. In some developing countries, the infection rate is 80%, and in Nicaragua, it is nearly 100%. Treating the infection can make a huge difference in how you feel.
If your doctor diagnoses H. pylori, you will probably be given clarithromycin or metronidazole antibiotics. The problem with these antibiotics is that they don’t always work.
Taking turmeric with curcumin over a period of about three months may help the lining of your stomach resist the inflammation that allows each new generation of H. pylori to “root.” It also stops some of the tissue damage caused by the immune system to kill the bacterium by killing healthy tissue. Paradoxically, this hot spice can reduce acid reflux and help your stomach heal from the infection, but you need to continue using it every day for the long term.
Hemochromatosis. The hereditary iron overload disease hemochromatosis is usually treated by phlebotomy (drawing a pint/500 ml of blood once or twice a week for 1 to 2 years) or very expensive chelation therapy. At least one study has found that taking curcumin, like taking R-lipoic acid, may lower bloodstream levels of iron without phlebotomy or chelation therapy.
Ischemic bowel disease. As we get older, many of us suffer the symptoms of irritable bowel disease. There can be days that bowel movement simply does not occur, followed by a sudden onset of diarrhea. There can be sharp pain in the abdomen, and then no sensation at all.
You should not try to diagnose yourself. Let your doctor do that. But if you have these symptoms and you are over 50, the problem may be ischemic bowel disease.
An ischemic disease is a condition caused by poor circulation. We usually think of circulatory problems as affecting the heart, the brain, or the legs, but the inferior mesenteric artery that provides the left side of the intestines with blood often stops working in midlife. This is not because it gets “clogged,” but rather, there is a combination of pressure from belly fat and changes in the ability of the artery to make the chemicals it needs to relax its linings and allow blood to flow.
Sudden ischemic bowel disease is almost always fatal. However, about 20% of people develop a slowly progressive form of ischemic bowel disease that completely closes this artery by the age of 80.
If you have intense abdominal pain that you would not settle for your doctor telling you, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning,” then you should not take turmeric with curcumin. But if you have persistent, mild irritable, or inflamed bowel symptoms, add turmeric with curcumin to your daily supplement routine. You may find that pain before and during bowel movements is greatly reduced, and you may have fewer bowel spasms and less gas.
Liver diseases. Hundreds of millions of people have chronic liver diseases, especially in Egypt and the Philippines, but only a small percentage ever experience liver failure. When chronic hepatitis or fatty liver leads to liver failure, it is almost always because the liver has become filled with fibrous tissue.
Curcumin prevents fiber formation. This fiber is not like plant fiber. It’s scar tissue, formed of tough cords of collagen cross-linked into constricting bands that prevent the flow of blood through the liver, keeping the liver from doing its work.
The way curcumin prevents fiber formation in the liver is by slowing the action of a class of substances called superoxides. These compounds are formed by immune system cells known as Kupfer cells, and they trigger the inflammation of protein-producing stellate cells by an inflammatory hormone called TNF-alpha. The action of superoxides and TNF-alpha together makes the stellate cells create tiny star-shaped bits of scar tissue that can eventually clog the entire liver. Stopping the stellate cells stalls liver failure.
Taking turmeric with curcumin is probably more helpful than taking milk thistle with silymarin. However, it’s crucial to get the sources of inflammation, whether it’s a hepatovirus or constant alcohol or drug exposure, to enable all the treatments you take to work together to preserve liver health.
Pancreatitis. Laboratory studies with animals have found that curcumin can stop the infiltration of inflammatory chemicals from the immune system into the pancreas. Both deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) and turmeric may relieve the pain of pancreatitis, but it is still important to avoid bitter foods that increase the production of stomach acid as well as overeating fatty foods.
Skincare concerns. The most ancient use of turmeric is in treating inflammatory conditions of the skin, including acne, eczema, psoriasis, and precancerous lesions of the skin. Turmeric for boils and other skin infections is always applied as a cream, ointment, or lotion, and you get more benefits from products like Vicco Turmeric Cream than you do from turmeric capsules. This cream was traditionally used to lighten and whiten the skin to accent jewelry, lipsticks, and eye shadows, but it is now mostly used to repair sun-damaged skin.
Smoking-related health issues. Every puff of tobacco smoke contains about 10 trillion free radicals. Curcumin is three times more potent than vitamin E for fighting free radicals. Taking turmeric with curcumin over a period of years may prevent the formation of scar tissue in the lungs that leads to asthma, emphysema, and other forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Does Turmeric Cause Gynecomastia?
There was a report in the medical literature of a man who developed gynecomastia (enlargement of the breasts) after taking a curcumin supplement made in China. It turned out that the problem in the supplement was diethylstilbestrol (DES) added to the formula so it would reduce wrinkling in women’s skin. DES is a prescription drug that once was used to stimulate the growth of the uterus to prevent miscarriage, but its use was discontinued in most of the world because babies were born with sex-related birth defects.
Gynecomastia has been known to occur after the use of stinging nettle (usually for allergies or eczema), dong quai (usually for hot flashes, not recommended for men), or PC-SPES (an herbal formula for prostate cancer), but not after the use of turmeric or curcumin.
Are There Any Turmeric Side Effects?
Turmeric and curcumin are extremely non-toxic. Tests involving up to 12,000 mg of curcumin a day produced no side effects.
People who have iron-deficiency anemia should avoid curcumin since it can bind iron and take it out of the bloodstream. Since there is no conclusive evidence that turmeric and curcumin are or are not safe during pregnancy, expectant mothers should not take turmeric or curcumin supplements, although moderate consumption of curries is OK.
More Turmeric Related Articles
Benefits Of Turmeric – Turmeric has anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic and antioxidant properties. Learn more about the benefits of turmeric extract.
Turmeric for Cancer – Is turmeric a cancer cure? Can you forget about the medical treatment of cancer if you just take a high-quality turmeric supplement? I can answer those questions in just two words: Absolutely not. Turmeric, however, may be extremely useful in supporting recovery from cancer for reasons that are clearly substantiated by objective scientific research.
Turmeric for Skin – Turmeric is one of the world’s most ancient skin remedies. You may actually use turmeric skin care products already and not even know it. You may just know that the product works. Here is a quick guide to the benefits of turmeric in keeping skin clear, smooth, and wrinkle-free.
Turmeric for Hair Growth and Hair Loss – Can turmeric help you grow your hair? The answer is a definite maybe if you use the right form of turmeric for the right hair loss problem. And turmeric can also help you get rid of unwanted hairs, but it is very important to avoid inflammation in the process.
Turmeric Milk – Does turmeric milk come from turmeric cows? Actually, turmeric “milk” is the juice pressed from fresh turmeric root, which has some interesting applications for home remedies and natural medicine.
Turmeric Recipes – Turmeric is the hottest health supplement, but it is also an indispensable ingredient in Persian, Pakistani, Indian, and Thai food. Here are some simple ways to use turmeric as a food as well as a supplement.
Turmeric for Inflammation – Turmeric can help recovery from a variety of inflammatory conditions, not just arthritis and psoriasis. It’s most helpful to use a product that provides a combination of turmeric with curcumin in a capsule form.