Turmeric is a staple in many cultures, especially in eastern Asia, and lots of people believe it is beneficial for joint pain and inflammation.
The plant has been used for thousands of years in cooking typically in the form of a ground powder, and many people add turmeric to their diets in the form of juice, tea and supplements with the goal of bolstering their immune systems and improving digestive health.
Other health benefits people attribute to turmeric include:
- Improvement in mood
- Better skin when applied topically
- Reduced allergy symptoms
- Aid for high cholesterol
Turmeric supplements will cost you anywhere between $14 and $30, but are they actually beneficial for health? The answer is actually trickier than you’d think.
While it is possible that a daily turmeric supplement may help with certain things like reducing inflammation, research shows that an active ingredient found in turmeric, may be much better at achieving those health outcomes.
The active component in turmeric that is most responsible for the health benefits people are looking for is called curcumin.
But unfortunately, “turmeric only contains a very small percentage of curcumin,” roughly two to six percent, according to Dr. Elizabeth Ko, an internist and medical director of the UCLA Health Integrative Medicine Collaborative.
“Curcumin is where we find the anti-inflammatory, antioxidant effect that can help treat or prevent diseases like arthritis.”
A systematic review published in 2021 that analyzed more than 10 randomized controlled trials found that curcumin supplements may be helpful for managing osteoarthritis.
And earlier this year, the Arthritis Foundation updated its guidance, stating that turmeric supplements likely won’t help reduce symptoms of arthritis but curcumin supplements might.
“Should you have a choice between turmeric and curcumin, I would opt for the curcumin,” says Ko.
And Dr. Bhakti Shah, a rheumatologist with a private practice in New York, agrees. She recommends purchasing curcumin for decreasing inflammation within your joints over turmeric, likening curcumin’s effects to that of ibuprofen with less risks of side effects.
Curcumin is a plant compound called polyphenol, and according to Shah, polyphenols may:
- Reduce risk of heart disease
- Decrease cancer risk
- Lower risk of diabetes
- Increase brain function
Though more research is required to determine curcumin’s effects on a person’s immune system, Shah says curcumin is an antioxidant. Research shows that antioxidants are associated with a neutralization of harmful, free radicals and an enhancement of vital immune functions.
“Curcumin is hard for the body to absorb, so only about two to three percent may actually end up in your bloodstream,” says Ko.
However, the solution isn’t to take more curcumin than recommended, says Shah. Instead, you should take curcumin supplements with black pepper or healthy fats, including eggs, yogurt or milk, which can increase the absorption of curcumin.
Curcumin is safe for daily use, the experts agree, and the standard use is 500 milligrams, twice a day, according to Ko.
Curcumin supplements can often be labeled as “turmeric curcumin,” which can be confusing. As a rule of thumb, the Arthritis Foundation recommends buying “the high-quality extracts used in clinical trials, which contain up to 95% curcumin. Look for brands using black pepper (piperine), phospholipids (Meriva, BCM-95), antioxidants (CurcuWIN) or nanoparticles (Theracurmin),” for better absorption.
People shouldn’t exceed 1,000 milligrams in a day, Shah adds. Potential side effects of taking very high doses of curcumin supplements are nausea and diarrhea, she notes.
Shah’s important disclaimer for those looking to try curcumin supplements is: “I would encourage people to look for brands that use cleaner ingredients that don’t have a lot of additional additives.”
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