About the Author: Rohit Jayakar MD is a physician in the field of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at Jayakar Medical Group. He specializes in treating musculoskeletal injuries, neurological injuries, and chronic pain.
Vitamins and supplements are becoming increasingly popular for sick and healthy adults alike. As COVID-19 has put wellness and health at the forefront of people’s minds, there has been a dramatic increase in supplementation, with an increase of 12% in 2020 alone.13
Still, there are numerous inaccurate health claims among many of these supplements, making it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction in the world of wellness.
Turmeric is one supplement that continues to make headlines, often being touted as a wonderdrug or miracle superfood that can be used for many health ailments. But is there any truth in these claims? In this article, we will review the potential health benefits of turmeric and the evidence behind them, as well as the potential side effects of supplementation.
What Is Turmeric?
Turmeric (curcuma longa) is a plant in the ginger family whose roots have been used as a spice for centuries in Southeast Asian cuisine. Turmeric’s positive health effects can be attributed to curcumin, a major component of turmeric that gives it its bright yellowish-orange color. Ayurvedic medicine, one of the world’s oldest holistic medicine philosophies from India, uses turmeric frequently for treating disorders of the skin, respiratory tract, joints, and digestive systems.
How Does Turmeric Work?
Turmeric is well known to have strong anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Its antioxidant properties are thought to allow protection from free-radical damage in cells, helping to prevent the DNA and protein mutations behind diseases like cancers, cardiovascular conditions, and neurological ailments.1 Turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties are believed to block enzymes involved in the inflammation pathway, many of which play a role in diseases like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.1 Because inflammation and free-radical damage play such a large role in so many health conditions, turmeric continues to be studied for a broad scope of diseases.
For What Conditions Can Turmeric Be Helpful?
There is strong evidence to suggest turmeric can work for pain from arthritis. One study found that approximately 1000mg (1g/day) of curcumin per day helped alleviate several arthritis symptoms, including pain, stiffness, and mobility with daily activities.6 One study specifically looking at knee osteoarthritis demonstrated that 500mg of curcumin, three times per day was as equally effective as diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug traditionally used for osteoarthritis.7
When used alongside traditional medications to lower cholesterol, such as statins, turmeric supplementation has been shown to provide additional benefit.9 In turn, lower cholesterol levels can improve cardiovascular health and lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Turmeric has also been shown to improve blood vessel health, which may help lower blood pressure.10 While further research is required to resolve uncertainties related to dosage, these are all potential benefits of supplementation.
Turmeric has been studied as a possible treatment for several cancers, including colorectal, pancreatic, breast, prostate, lung, oral, and head and neck cancers. The results have so far been promising; for many of these cancer types, tumor markers indicated slower cancer growth in those treated with curcumin. Most of these studies have been small and used different amounts of turmeric, so it is hard to extrapolate these findings to a broader population at this point.
Inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, is a group of conditions caused by a buildup of inflammation in the GI tract.
Curcumin has shown some success in helping patient’s symptoms when taken in doses of 1-1.5g/day.3 While these studies were all small, this lays a foundation for future randomized controlled trials.
While turmeric has been studied for neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, there is no strong support for its use in these conditions just yet. So far, one study has found that curcumin plays a role in immune function that may help clear the brain plaques found in Alzheimer’s disease.11 However, subsequent randomized controlled studies have not shown a clear benefit in Alzheimer’s patients.12 More research is being done to analyze this relationship.
What about for healthy adults?
Analyzing the effects of turmeric on healthy people is difficult, as the benefits of supplementation may not be immediate or measurable. That being said, the studies that have been done hold promise. For instance, there has been some evidence to suggest supplementation may lead to lower triglyceride levels, decreased stress markers, decreased muscle damage after exercise, and decreased markers of aging.8
How Much Turmeric Is Sufficient To Experience Health Benefits?
For those not looking to treat a specific condition, adding turmeric to your cuisine can certainly be a tasty way to increase your intake. In fact, the active ingredient in black pepper, piperine, has been demonstrated to increase the ability for curcumin to be absorbed by the body. Studies have found that just 20mg of piperine can increase the absorption of turmeric by up to 2000%!2 For some delicious recipes that make use of turmeric, click here.
To treat diseases mentioned above, there is no set guideline on how much turmeric should be used, as each study adopted a slightly different experimental protocol. However, the range of doses used would be extremely difficult to achieve through diet alone, so supplementation would likely be required. Given the current scientific literature on turmeric, patients should roughly aim to take 500mg-2000mg of active curcumin per day, which can be taken at once or split up over multiple doses.
Side Effects and Other Considerations
As with many things in life, “more” is not necessarily “better.” According to several studies, no more than 8 grams of turmeric should be taken per day due to the increased risk of negative side effects, such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, and nausea.3 Side effects are rare when taken below this upper dosage limit.
Importantly, supplementation should be avoided until you have had a chance to discuss the risks and benefits with a healthcare provider. Such a conversation is especially important for individuals with the following medical conditions:
- Iron deficiency: turmeric may interfere with iron absorption.
- Kidney stones: turmeric has oxalate, which can worsen certain types of stones.
- Gallstones: turmeric may increase gallbladder contractions and worsen pain.
- Bleeding disorders: turmeric can slightly lower the body’s ability to clot.
- Diabetes: while turmeric can actually be beneficial for diabetics, patients should discuss this option with their doctor before starting supplementation. Supplementation can sometimes decrease blood sugar levels, so for those on insulin or those with large blood sugar swings, it can increase the risk of a hypoglycemic episode.
- Pregnancy: there have not been large scale studies on how turmeric influences pregnant individuals.
Turmeric can also interact with medications, changing their concentration in the bloodstream. Some of these medications include blood thinners, cardiovascular drugs, antidepressants, certain antibiotics, antihistamines and chemotherapeutic drugs.4 If you are on these medications and are interested in supplementation, have a discussion with your doctor before starting to ensure it is safe.
Since supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, careful attention should be paid to the label, ingredients, and dosages of your chosen supplement. Try to choose companies whose supplements are analyzed by independent labs to ensure quality. For example, many supplements are verified by USP (the United States Pharmacopeial Convention) or NSF International, which are third parties who test supplements and analyze quality. These certifications are usually on the label. For those that do not have these certifications, you can check if other third party labs have analyzed the supplement, such as Labdoor or Consumerlabs. These labs verify if what is advertised on the label is actually there, if products are standardized from batch to batch, and if there are harmful or undeclared additives. It should be noted that there have been some reports of lead contamination in certain turmeric supplements, likely due to lead’s ability to enhance their weight and bright yellow color.5
The Bottom Line
Turmeric can have several positive effects on the body and can be useful in helping to treat many diseases. The most convincing evidence for its use is for arthritis pain, but it also holds promise for an array of diseases like cancer, heart disease, and even for general health in asymptomatic adults.
Supplementation with turmeric extract is generally safe when high quality supplements are used and dosing ranges from 500mg to 2000mg a day, but be sure to speak to a doctor before investing in supplementation, particularly if you have underlying medical conditions and are on certain medications. Remember, turmeric supplements combined with piperine will have better absorption.
Rohit Jayakar, MD
- Menon VP, Sudheer AR. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2007;595:105-25. doi: 10.1007/978-0-387-46401-5_3. PMID: 17569207.
- Shoba G, Joy D, Joseph T, Majeed M, Rajendran R, Srinivas PS. Influence of piperine on the pharmacokinetics of curcumin in animals and human volunteers. Planta Med. 1998 May;64(4):353-6. doi: 10.1055/s-2006-957450. PMID: 9619120.
- Gupta SC, Patchva S, Aggarwal BB. Therapeutic roles of curcumin: lessons learned from clinical trials. AAPS J. 2013;15(1):195-218. doi:10.1208/s12248-012-9432-8
- Bahramsoltani R, Rahimi R, Farzaei MH. Pharmacokinetic interactions of curcuminoids with conventional drugs: A review. J Ethnopharmacol. 2017 Sep 14;209:1-12. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2017.07.022. Epub 2017 Jul 19. PMID: 28734960.
- Cowell W, Ireland T, Vorhees D, Heiger-Bernays W. Ground Turmeric as a Source of Lead Exposure in the United States. Public Health Rep. 2017;132(3):289-293. doi:10.1177/0033354917700109
- Daily JW, Yang M, Park S. Efficacy of Turmeric Extracts and Curcumin for Alleviating the Symptoms of Joint Arthritis: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. J Med Food. 2016 Aug;19(8):717-29. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2016.3705. PMID: 27533649; PMCID: PMC5003001.
- Shep D, Khanwelkar C, Gade P, Karad S. Safety and efficacy of curcumin versus diclofenac in knee osteoarthritis: a randomized open-label parallel-arm study. Trials. 2019 Apr 11;20(1):214. doi: 10.1186/s13063-019-3327-2. PMID: 30975196; PMCID: PMC6460672.
- Hewlings SJ, Kalman DS. Curcumin: A Review of Its Effects on Human Health. Foods. 2017;6(10):92. Published 2017 Oct 22. doi:10.3390/foods6100092
- Qin S, Huang L, Gong J, et al. Efficacy and safety of turmeric and curcumin in lowering blood lipid levels in patients with cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutr J. 2017;16(1):68. Published 2017 Oct 11. doi:10.1186/s12937-017-0293-y
- Akazawa N, Choi Y, Miyaki A, Tanabe Y, Sugawara J, Ajisaka R, Maeda S. Curcumin ingestion and exercise training improve vascular endothelial function in postmenopausal women. Nutr Res. 2012 Oct;32(10):795-9. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2012.09.002. Epub 2012 Oct 15. PMID: 23146777.
- Mishra S, Palanivelu K. The effect of curcumin (turmeric) on Alzheimer’s disease: An overview. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2008;11(1):13-19. doi:10.4103/0972-2327.40220
- Ringman JM, Frautschy SA, Teng E, Begum AN, Bardens J, Beigi M, Gylys KH, Badmaev V, Heath DD, Apostolova LG, Porter V, Vanek Z, Marshall GA, Hellemann G, Sugar C, Masterman DL, Montine TJ, Cummings JL, Cole GM. Oral curcumin for Alzheimer’s disease: tolerability and efficacy in a 24-week randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled study. Alzheimers Res Ther. 2012 Oct 29;4(5):43. doi: 10.1186/alzrt146. PMID: 23107780; PMCID: PMC3580400.
- Shi Z, Yan A. Dietary Supplements: Are Current Policies Adequate for Promoting Health?. Nutrients. 2020;12(11):3449. Published 2020 Nov 11. doi:10.3390/nu12113449