Turmeric > Curcumin

Curcumin is extracted from the turmeric root, a common Indian spice with a long tradition of healing applications.  Turmeric is about 2-5% curcumin.  It is a robust anti-inflammatory agent, and it signals cancer cells to eliminate themselves.  Evidence from several modalities suggests that curcumin protects gainst Alzheimer’s Disease.  Can it also help us live longer?

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Begin with the idea that inflammaging is one of the four programs of self-destruction which take over our bodies later in life.  Quelling the body’s inflammation is one of the best anti-aging strategies we have, and curcumin is the most effective herbal anti-inflammatory agent we know.  It couldn’t be clearer…

But look below the surface, and things are more ambiguous, more complicated as usual.  Yes, I believe that curcumin has a place in a longevity program, but how much to take? and in what form?  These are questions that only get more difficult in the light of hundreds of studies, some with results that are contradictory in crucial ways.

The first mystery about curcumin is that there is a long tradition of turmeric root in Ayurvedic and Oriental medicine, yet hardly any curcumin is absorbed from the stomach.  Are there other compounds in the turmeric root that facilitate absorption of curcumin?  Or maybe curcumin is not the only beneficial ingredient in turmeric.  There is a lot of literature documenting the metabolic effects of curcumin, but only one study I could find that compared curcumin to whole turmeric (and some of its reported findings were so strange that it makes me suspicious of everything in this paper).

First, the benefits:

 

Anti-inflammatory

Curcumin acts by a similar mechanism to aspirin and other NSAIDs, inhibiting COX chemistry that promotes inflammation.  In addition, curcumin suppresses the action of NFkB, a signaling chemical that promotes inflammation, and increases in prevalence as we age, to our detriment.  This is theoretical ground for believing that curcumin can do something that aspirin does only weakly, so curcumin may have benefits even for those who are already taking daily aspirin or ibuprofen.  There are also some rodent experiments [ref, ref] suggesting that aspirin + curcumin is better than aspirin alone.

I have written that anti-inflammatory supplements are the easiest and surest longevity program currently available.  Surely curcumin finds a place in this program.

 

Anti-Cancer Activity

Curcumin has been demonstrated to kill cancer cells grown in the lab [ref, ref, ref, ref].  In mice and rats, oral curcumin has been shown to prevent cancer [ref, ref, ref], and in humans there have been some small epidemiological studies.  A search of ClinicalTrials.gov produced 97 studies, about a third of them involving cancer.  Cancers of the digestive tract are most likely first targets, because of the difficulty of getting curcumin into the bloodstream.

 

Alzheimer’s Disease

Evidence that curcumin protects against AD is even stronger than for cancer.  There has been extensive experimentation with cell cultures [ref] and with rodents [ref], and in addition there is the human epidemiology, linking consumption of curry spices to protection against AD.  Age-adjusted incidence of AD is far lower in India than in America ([Ref] compiled separately for people with different alleles of the gene APO-E) and the difference has been statistically linked to eating curry [Ref].  Often I am skeptical of cross-cultural comparisons, because so many differences are difficult to untangle, but in this case, understanding of the underlying biochemistry is so strong that I think the attribution to curry is probably warranted.

Since turmeric is only about 10% of curry, and curcumin is only a few percent of turmeric, and curcumin absorption in blood tests is less than 1%, it would be predicted that the amount of curcumin that is absorbed by people who eat curried foods ought to be too small to matter, and yet it doesmatter.  I take this to mean that there is something we don’t yet understand about turmeric’s mechanism of action.  In addition, there is at least one known synergy between turmeric and other spices that might be eaten with it: black pepper increases the staying power of curcumin in the bloodstream (more below).

 

Arthritis

For the last decade, it has been acknowledged that osteo arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis, is better described as an auto-immune disease than as a wearing-away of cartilage.  This would seem to be a natural application for curcumin, but study has just begun.  [Example]

 

Curcumin and cardiovascular disease

Also: whole turmeric is a vaso-relaxant [ref].  This means that eating turmeric might protect against heart disease in the near term.  In other columns, I’ve tried to make the distinction between slowing the aging process and cutting the immediate risk of mortality.  Of course, both are valuable.  Aspirin, for example, slows aging by damping inflammation, and also cuts the risk of stroke and heart attacks in the near term by reducing blood clots.  In that curcumin is an anti-inflammatory agent, it may slow the aging process.  To the extent that curcumin makes arteries more pliable, curcumin might also lay claim to reducing mortality, and by a different mechanism from aspirin, so that we might hope the effects (aspirin + curcumin) are additive.

 

Warning: Telomerase inhibitor

Part of the mechanism by which curcumin kills cancer cells is to inhibit telomerase.  Does curcumin also inhibit telomerase in healthy cells?  We need telomerase to keep our stem cells healthy into old age, so this is potentially a pro-aging function of curcumin.  I have found no data on the effect of curcumin on telomerase expression in healthy, non-cancerous cells  Note: after having written the above, I learned today that  Curcumin does not inhibit telomerase in healthy cells.  My sources are Bill Andrews, whose company, Sierra Sciences has assayed hundreds of thousands of substances for telomerase activity in vitro, and Jim Green, whose story I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Life Span Experiments

There is exactly one (אחד) (один) (واحد) (1.000) study in which mice fed curcumin** lived 10% longer [2007] and one (ένας) (ایک) (I) (ஒன்று) study which found no effect on mouse life span [2013].  There are many possible reasons the two well-respected research groups might have obtained different results.

 

Absorption and the fundamental mechanisms of action

It seems to be a common experimental finding that, after dosing a subject with turmeric or curcumin, no curcumin can be detected in the blood – and yet the full therapeutic benefit is being realized [Examples 1, 2, 3].  In some studies, curcumin could easily be found in urine samples, but was undetectable in the blood.  This situation suggests to me that something basic may be missing from our understanding of the metabolic chemistry of turmeric and curcuminoids.  Curcumin was identified more than 200 years ago as the active ingredient in turmeric, and most research up to this date has been designed and interpreted as though nothing else mattered but delivery of curcumin into the blood and thence into the body’s cells.  But perhaps there are metabolites that we have yet to identify, or perhaps a combination of chemicals acts synergistically.

A great deal of work has been done in recent years that is narrowly focused on delivery strategies that raise measured levels of curcumin in the blood.  This activity is commercially motivated.  Here is a promising herb that is cheap* and un-patentable, so companies are clamboring  to distinguish their products with proprietary processing for increased absorption.  But it may be that we don’t know enough yet to be sure that curcumin is all that matters, or that higher blood levels for longer times translate into better effectiveness.

Two issues of bioavailability are discussed in this this 2007 review:  First, inability to cross the stomach lining into the blood; second, the liver efficiently removes curcumin from the blood and breaks it down before it can be effective.  Liposomes address the first issue.  A liposome is a microscopic bubble of edible oil (“lipid”) which can carry a small quantity of chemical payload across the stomach wall.  Piperine (a chemical constituent of ordiary black pepper) addresses the second issue [ref], slowing breakdown of curcumin in the liver.  A phytosome is a liposome that contains a payload of multiple chemical species, and phytosomes are commercially available that combine curcumin with piperine.

Three formulations of curcumin with enhanced bio-availability are sold as Mervia, BCM-95 and Longvida.  All three use liposome microencapsulation, and include different proprietary ingredients and processes.  Dr Trutt describes the three, and recommends Longvida, based on indirect reasoning: Longvida has the most credible data for getting curcumin into the bloodstream, and only curcumin has been shown in lab tests based on cell biology to protect against Alzheimer’s Disease.  He may be right, but I would like to see some human or animal studies, since there are often surprises in the inference from cell culture to whole animal.

I wish

I wish there were more research on components of turmeric, together and separately; less on curcumin in isolation.  I wish there were more research with health and longevity as measured outcomes, less emphasis on blood levels of curcumin.

Until we have much better understanding, I’m going to suggest that whole turmeric with black pepper is the most conservative path to supplementation.  It tastes great with eggs.

 

The bottom line

Turmeric, with its main active ingredient curcumin, is a potent anti-inflammatory agent with evidence suggesting that it can lengthen human life span, while protecting against cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and possibly cardiovascular disease as well.  Most of the benefits overlap with aspirin/NSAID.  For those who prefer not to take NSAIDs because of stomach issues or because of a preference for “natural” products, turmeric provides unequivocal benefits.  And even if you are already taking NSAIDs, there are probably some additional benefits from turmeric.

Large quantities of turmeric are the most conservative and the cheapest form.  If you’re thinking in terms of daily supplementation, teaspoonsful of turmeric may be the least convenient form; but if you like Indian cooking, it may be the most convenient way to dose yourself with turmeric.

Turmeric has a long and venerable history, and it is not entirely clear how the different chemical components of turmeric might interact.  Eating turmeric with a small quantity of black pepper greatly increases the body’s uptake.

There is research to indicate that curcumin is the most important active ingredient, and concentrated curcumin can be taken conveniently in a pill that is twenty times smaller than the portion of whole turmeric from which it is derived.  Absorption into the body is still an issue, and there are various commercial formulations of curcumin that claim to have resolved this issue, supported mostly by in-house studies.

If you are taking telomerase-activation supplements, then there is potential for curcumin to interfere with their action.  Whether this is a serious problem is not known, but to be safe you may want to alternate telomerase activation with curcumin, for example on a cycle of 3 to 8 weeks.

 

Acknowledgment

Thanks to Steve Ellis of Edible Science for suggesting that I look into curcumin, and providing references and links.  The views expressed here are mine and not his.

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* $4 per pound of turmeric in bulk.  This works out to about 25c per gram of curcumin.  Even the liposomal product BCM95 is still only about $2.00/g retail.

** Actually a metabolite of curcumin, called tetrahydrocurcumin, which seems to have borrowed the abbreviation THC from a better-known substance.

13 thoughts on “Turmeric > Curcumin

  1. Josh, I e-mailed you about just such a venture -to start a not-for-profit corporation that would assess such purported “therapies” as cucumin, CoQ10 etc. Who can you trust? I think many people already trust you – running well controlled experiments should establish whether or not such treatments really work, no hype, no favoritism, everything run as double-blind experiments. If there’s something there – we’ll know it.
    Yes – a lot of people wish there were a truly independent agency beyond the monetary reach of the supplements industry to actually evaluate the efficacy of products – and the only way to do that is to do it I’d help. There’s so much hype out there, people listen to you because your interest is the truth, mine too.
    Now curcumin is found here as a ground powder, but in Indian food stores it is sold pickled as a condiment – I love it – it’s not that much different from a carrot- a highly colored root vegetable – and like beets it’s good pickled. I think that if pickling doesn’t destroy the curcumin, Americans might buy into using it as a condiment – my wife – who is not ‘into’ new foods loved it (sadly the one place in Salt Lake that I know sold it went out of business). So as a condiment you can eat fairly large quantities of the tuber and enjoy it as well.

  2. An excellent article. Thank you very much Sir, besides improving my knowledge,your articles are helping me to improve the quality of life of my patients.Once again thanks,Dr.Asif

  3. Nice research and write-up on Curcumin. Also see ‘ The Dark Side of Curcumin ‘ research paper.
    I would see your in-depth analysis on anatabine citrate, the active ingredient in Anatabloc.
    Abstract
    Anatabine, a naturally occurring alkaloid, is becoming a commonly used human food supplement, taken for its claimed anti-inflammatory properties although this has not yet been reported in human clinical trials. We have previously shown that anatabine does display certain anti-inflammatory properties and readily crosses the blood-brain barrier suggesting it could represent an important compound for mitigating neuro-inflammatory conditions. The present study was designed to determine whether anatabine had beneficial effects on the development of experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) in mice and to precisely determine its underlying mechanism of action in this mouse model of multiple sclerosis (MS). We found that orally administered anatabine markedly suppressed neurological deficits associated with EAE. Analyses of cytokine production in the periphery of the animals revealed that anatabine significantly reduced Th1 and Th17 cytokines known to contribute to the development of EAE. Anatabine appears to significantly suppress STAT3 and p65 NFκB phosphorylation in the spleen and the brain of EAE mice. These two transcription factors regulate a large array of inflammatory genes including cytokines suggesting a mechanism by which anatabine antagonizes pro-inflammatory cytokine production. Additionally, we found that anatabine alleviated the infiltration of macrophages/microglia and astrogliosis and significantly prevented demyelination in the spinal cord of EAE mice. Altogether our data suggest that anatabine may be effective in the treatment of MS and should be piloted in clinical trials.

  4. Hi Josh, great article! I would like to add theracurmin to the list of curcumin supplements. It’s actually water soluble and seems to have great absorption. The study I linked bellow compares the efficacy of various formulations and was funded by the German Government. (1) It may also bear mentioning that curcumin down regulates bcl-2 (2) and has been shown to be synergistic with resveratrol for inflammation (3). Interestingly bcl-2 overexpression also seems to attenuate one of resveratrol’s mechanisms of action.(4)

    (1)”The oral bioavailability of curcumin from micronized powder and liquid micelles is significantly increased in healthy humans and differs between sexes”
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/mnfr.201300724/full
    (2)http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0925443996000324
    (3)http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2249.2006.03257.x/full
    (4)http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/mnfr.201300724/full

  5. I have been looking for a good writeup on Curcumin for a long time Josh, thanks. So far I’ve been going to Margarets corner but she seems a bit to enthusiastic for my taste.
    I would like to add two things:
    1. Bharat B. Aggarwal has been suspected of scientific fraud, he has published several papers that are heavily referred to by other curcumin researchers.
    2. Curcumin seems to react with carbon in the lungs.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2691137/

  6. Thanks to Josh and all who added to the Turmeric/Curcumin thread. You motivated me to do some digging into bio-availability of the curcumin, which most of you know much more about than me. It appears to me Meriva and Longvida are the two top horses in the race, each with a different method of delivering what each claims is the highest amount of curcumin. I found the Longvida story compelling, and White Paper on their website credible. I urge anyone interested to review it here:
    http://www.longvida.com/verdure-sciences.html

    On the left side of the page you will see a link to Myth versus Fact — the white paper is there.

    No doubt anyone this interested (as I am) has read the results of the German study looking at different modalities. Here is another good one.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3918227/

  7. hi. I have a serius nerve damage, and will start to take turmeric fresh root (6 grms) with black pepper (1 tablespoon). Do you think I will have an interesting amount of curcumine with this? Please, I need advices.

  8. Thank you so much for this enlightening article. I have heard that the reason the turmeric in Indian Curries produces a more bio-available curcumin is because the turmeric is cooked in ghee (clarified butter) as part of the cooking process. (Indian cooks do this to bring out the flavor in the turmeric and other spices.) Do you know if this is true?

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