The Nutritionist’s Guide to Curcumin and Curcumin Supplements

Takeaway: Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant compound found in turmeric, boasting a plethora of health benefits. Curcumin can aid in weight loss, reduce pain, prevent disease, and its anti-inflammatory properties can improve your overall health. Studies have shown that taking turmeric and curcumin supplements can help to treat osteoarthritis and, potentially, rheumatoid arthritis by bringing down inflammation in the joints.

Curcumin supplements are cropping up more and more in everything from nutrition stores to your local coffee shop. The turmeric-derived substance has been touted as the solution to everything from cancer to hair loss. But, exactly what is curcumin good for and why has this ancient Chinese and Indian medicinal practice become a popular health item?

What is Curcumin?

Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant compound found in turmeric, boasting a plethora of health benefits. The active ingredient found in turmeric supplements, curcumin, is a rhizome compound that gives it its bright yellow color. Although it has been used as a digestive medicine in India and China for years, scientists say that it may be used for much more.

Generally touted as an anti-inflammatory, curcumin supplements can be used for several other health benefits. One study by the University of California, Los Angeles has found that curcumin may even help improve memory and mood. Curcumin can be taken in a variety of ways, whether it’s via turmeric powder, turmeric root, curcumin extract or curcumin capsules.

Curcumin vs Turmeric

Turmeric root and powder.
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Since curcumin is an extract of turmeric, you may be asking yourself “is curcumin the same as turmeric?” For the most part, however, this isn’t the case. There are the two main defining factors when comparing curcumin to turmeric.

  • Turmeric is derived from the root of the Curcuma Longa plant. It is harvested, cleaned, cured and dried into its most common form: a ground spice powder.
  • Curcumin is a chemical compound that must be further derived from turmeric. Typically, a turmeric root contains around 2% of curcumin. For this reason, taking the supplement alone via curcumin capsules or curcumin extract is much stronger than taking turmeric on it’s own.

How Much Curcumin is in Turmeric?

Turmeric root.
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If you’re taking curcumin through turmeric, it’s good to know how much is in it. Typically, curcumin makes up about 2% of turmeric powder. However, this percentage can vary depending on several factors.

How are you taking it?

  • While it is true that curry powder contains turmeric, the amount of curcumin found in the powder is much lower than that of pure turmeric powder. While turmeric powder can have around 2% of curcumin, curry powder has been found in research to generally have less than 0.5% of the substance. Additionally, cooking with spices that contain curcumin may not contain enough of the substance to garner its health benefits, so it is recommended to take a supplement for this purpose.

Where does it come from?

    • The percentage of curcumin found in turmeric root can vary depending on where the crop was grown and harvested. According to research done by the Avinashilingam Institute for Home Science and Higher Education
      for Women, turmeric samples taken from Indian states Odisha and Andra Padesh were shown to have higher percentages of curcumin than other states’ crops.

How is it processed?

    • When turmeric is processed, some percentage of the powder’s curcumin can be lost. This is due to the heat applied to the substance’s rhizomes, which can deplete the amount of curcumin found in the final product. For this reason, it is best to look for raw turmeric that bypasses the heated processing that causes loss in curcuminoids.

Cumin vs Curcumin

Assorted spices.
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While they sound very similar in name, cumin and curcumin are not the same thing. While curcumin is a rhizome found in the root of a turmeric plant, cumin is a seed that is usually made into a spice. The only similarity that the two substances have is their relation to curry powder, as both cumin and curcumin’s turmeric are both spices typically found in the spice mixture.

Who Should Take Curcumin Supplements?

Turmeric/curcumin supplements.

So, what is curcumin used for then? Curcumin supplements hold benefits that may alleviate symptoms for many different types of conditions, from high blood pressure, depression, chronic pain, arthritis to even hair loss. However, parents should avoid giving young children curcumin supplements before consulting with a pediatrician.

The Benefits of Curcumin

Curcumin health benefits have helped to alleviate symptoms caused by many different types of medical conditions due to it’s anti-inflammatory effects. While the compound has been typically used in India for treating laryngitis, bronchitis and diabetes for years, new research has shown that there may be many more health benefits to be discovered.

Curcumin and Cancer

Due to curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties, many have found that it effectively takes on the inflammation that plays a big part in cancer. According to Dr. Timothy J. Moynihan, laboratory and animal research has shown that curcumin may slow the effect of cancer and even prevent it altogether, as well as protecting healthy cells from chemotherapy. There has even been research to show that topical curcumin can be used for skin cancer treatment.

Turmeric powder.
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Curcumin and Depression

According to a several studies, curcumin has shown promise in helping to treat clinical depression. Some theorize that this may be due curcumin’s effectiveness as an anti-inflammatory, with new evidence showing that depression may be linked to inflammation. Research shows that taking curcumin supplements alongside prescribed antidepressants, like fluoxetine, may make the prescription medication more effective as well.

Curcumin for Pain

Chronic pain can have many different causes, but one of the most common is inflammation. Curcumin has been shown to yield results in patients that can match and, in some cases, outperform prescription pain medications. Using curcumin for pain also comes with the added benefit of being non-addictive, unlike many common medications prescribed for pain like those derived from opioids.

Curcumin Anti-inflammatory Benefits

The anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin benefit many types of individuals with a wide range of diseases and conditions. By inhibiting the enzymes COX-1 and COX-2, which are responsible for the type of chronic pain seen in many inflammatory conditions like arthritis, curcumin is able to help to alleviate painful symptoms. Due to the inflammatory nature of a wide range of common diseases and conditions, curcumin’s anti-inflammatory benefits are effective for many people.

Curcumin and Weight Loss

Curcumin supplements have also seen success in being used as a weight loss supplement, even among those who struggle with metabolic disorders. This is because of curcumin’s ability to decrease a cell’s efficiency to process nutrients. By doing this, it forces the body to burn fat in order to provide the energy it needs. However, it also helps weight loss by reducing insulin resistance, allowing patients cells to process more nutrients and experience weight loss more easily.

Curcumin for Arthritis

Turmeric or curcumin supplements.
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By far, the most promising use for curcumin is its treatment for arthritis. Studies have shown that taking turmeric and curcumin supplements can help to treat osteoarthritis and, potentially, rheumatoid arthritis by bringing down inflammation in the joints, specifically swelling in the knees.

Curcumin and Blood Pressure

Curcumin also shows promise in helping to treat hypertension, or high blood pressure. This is because of its anti-clotting properties that help keep blood vessels healthy and protect cells from damage. It does this by inhibiting the transport of calcium, which tells muscle cells to contract making the arteries dilate.

Curcumin and Diabetes

Early research has been done showing that curcumin may be effective in helping to treat diabetes, according to a 2013 review of studies. This is accomplished by the compound decreasing the level of glucose and lipids (fat molecules) in the blood, which are complications related to diabetes. However, it may lower blood sugar levels too much in some diabetic patients, so it’s best to speak with a physician before deciding to take curcumin supplements.

Curcumin and Alzheimer’s Disease

Current research is looking into the potential prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia through the use of curcumin supplements, although more conclusive evidence is needed. It has been noted among many researchers that India, a country whose diet consists of large amounts of turmeric, has a very low incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. By protecting brain cells and decreasing the death of nerve cells, curcumin has shown memory improvement in studies using curcumin on mice subjects.

Turmeric root and powder.
Image via Wikipedia

Curcumin and Hair Loss

Studies have shown that curcumin shares properties to finasteride, which is a synthetic drug used to treat androgenic alopecia. It does this by inhibiting an enzyme associated with androgenic hair loss that shuts down and kills hair follicles. However, curcumin has no toxic effects over a long period of use like finasteride does, so it may be an effective substitute for the drug in the future after more conclusive research is done.

Curcumin for Dogs

Turmeric has been shown to even have health benefits for dogs, helping to decrease joint pain and degeneration in older dogs due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. You can give your dog turmeric supplements via powder form, which can be made into a paste that is mixed into their food. However, it is possible to give your dog too much curcumin, so avoid turmeric powders that have over 95% curcumin in them.

Using Curcumin: What to Expect

Turmeric powder in a spoon.
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How Much Curcumin Should I Take?

For the compound’s anti-inflammatory effects, you should be taking a curcumin dosage of around 500 to 1,000 milligrams of curcumin per day, whether it is via curcumin tablets or curcumin oil. However, if you want to treat chronic pain symptoms with curcumin supplements, you should quadruple this amount. If you want to use raw turmeric rather than a curcumin supplement, you’ll need to remember that in one teaspoon of fresh or ground turmeric, there are about 200 milligrams of curcumin.

Curcumin Interactions With Other Drugs

While curcumin has been rated as “likely safe” by physcians, it’s important to pay attention to the potential issues it may cause when combines with other drugs. It’s always best to ask a physician before beginning use due to some curcumin supplement side effects.

  • Medications changed by the liver: Turmeric might decrease how quickly the liver breaks down some medications, such as calcium channel blockers, chemotherapeutic agents, anti-fungals, fentanyl, lidocaine, and others.
  • Medications for diabetes: Turmeric might decrease blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes which, in combination with diabetes medication, may cause your blood sugar to go too low. These medications include glimepiride, insulin, glyburide, and others.
  • Medications that slow blood clotting: Turmeric might slow blood clotting which, in combination with medications that also slow clotting, might increase the chances of bruising and bleeding. These medications include aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, warfarin, and others.

Curcumin Bioavailability

Molecular structure of curcumin.
Image via Wikipedia

While curcumin may be easily absorbed into the body, it often times may not be entirely “bioavailable,” which means it has entered the blood stream and is ready to be active. This is the main issue in determining whether or not curcumin can actually be an effective supplement for all of its proposed benefits, however, there may be ways to increase curcumin bioavailability. While one of the most popular methods of increasing bioavailability is the addition of piperine, or black pepper, this may actually be dangerous and throw off the metabolism of other drugs.

Here are two of the best curcumin supplements that have shown to be good options in increasing bioavailability.

  • CurcuWin is a curcumin blend that uses antioxidants to improve bioavailability. This blend has been shown to absorb better than phospholipid, or fat based, blends.
  • Nordic Natural’s Omega Curcumin uses high quality omega 3 fats to increase bioavailability instead than the nutrient choline, which is potentially bad for your heart.

Is Curcumin a Blood Thinner?

One of the only major side effects of curcumin is its anti-clotting effect on the blood; in conjunction with other blood thinning medications, curcumin supplements could cause the blood to become too thin. While this interaction hasn’t been studied well enough and isn’t listed in the official prescription information for the common blood thinning drug warfarin, many have experienced this adverse reaction. For this reason, it is best to wait to use curcumin if you are on blood thinning medication until you speak with a physician.


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