Turmeric is an incredibly powerful antioxidant, and its broad-ranging capabilities have made it one of the most popular supplements in recent years.
Turmeric supplements are used for joint pain, heart health, cognitive function, and gastrointestinal health.
How can an all-natural compound have such a broad range of uses? It all comes back the the amazing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capabilities of curcumin, one of the core active ingredients in turmeric.
Read on to find out how to unlock turmeric’s impressive health benefits.
1. Turmeric is a spice containing curcumin, a powerful antioxidant
Turmeric has a long and respected history of medicinal use in India and other eastern countries.
Scientific studies of curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, confirm it has much more to offer than the distinctive yellow or gold coloring it imparts to curry dishes. Besides working to rid the body of free radicals caused by oxidation, it has extremely beneficial effects on inflammation. (1)
Curcumin is the most important of the curcuminoids contained in turmeric, but two factors make it difficult to get a significant amount of this spice through diet. It occurs in very small amounts at about 3% by volume of turmeric powder (2).
Since medicinal dosages of curcumin usually run at 500 milligrams (mg) or more daily, eating enough turmeric to get an appreciable amount of curcumin through diet isn’t practical. Purchasing an encapsulated extract to deliver the recommended dosage solves this problem.
Turmeric is a popular supplement for many of the same applications as other potent antioxidant agents. Its role in reducing inflammation makes it a promising avenue for treating joint pain, including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
For this reason, you’ll find it in some joint supplements alongside things like glucosamine and hyaluronic acid. It has also been studied for treating irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease.
2. Taking turmeric with black pepper extract can enhance its absorption
When taken in combination with piperine, a substance found in black pepper, absorption or curcumin is enhanced by 900 to 2000%. (3, 4) Eating curcumin with a meal containing fats is also helpful since curcumin is fat soluble.
Besides assisting the body with curcumin absorption, piperine (also known as Bioperine) boosts uptake of other phytonutrients as well as medications due to its bioavailability enhancing properties (5).
3. Turmeric can fight chronic inflammation
While inflammation itself isn’t a bad thing – it’s actually part of the body’s process for repairing wear and tear, as well as mounting attacks against foreign substances like bacteria or viruses that don’t belong in the system – excessive and chronic inflammation can become problematic.
Chronic inflammation is implicated in a number of serious health disorders, including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, and diseases associated with obesity. (6, 7)
In a clinical trial testing curcumin supplements with rheumatoid arthritis patients, those with the most improvement took curcumin alone; patients using curcumin in combination with an anti-inflammatory drug, as well as those using the pharmaceutical drug on its own, experienced less improvement. (8)
Even with established inflammatory conditions that have developed over a period of years, curcumin can offer as much or more help in normalizing the system as certain anti-inflammatory drugs. (9) When such powerful effects can be realized from a natural substance, avoiding pharmaceutical drugs and the possibility of detrimental side effects is an appealing option. (10, 11)
Being able to head off the development of inflammation on a molecular level is a powerful tool for keeping the body’s tissues in a healthy state and reducing cancer risk. (12, 13, 14) One way curcumin accomplishes this is by suppressing NF-kB, a molecule that is involved in DNA transcription, the first step in gene expression. NF-kB enters the cell nuclei and switches on genes associated with inflammation and cancer growth (15, 16, 37).
4. Turmeric may help with inflammatory bowel disease and related condition
In the case of inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, research has shown the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin improve symptoms in pediatric patients and warrants double-blind studies to investigate improved outcomes (39, 42).
The ability to soothe inflammation in early stages could also serve well as a preventative measure.
5. The antioxidant effects of turmeric may help maintain cognitive function as you get older
Along with Inflammation, oxidative damage is believed to be another factor contributing to the aging process (21), so adding a natural supplement that works to reduce both of these could be a winning two-punch for staying young and healthy.
The prospect of losing brain function as we grow older is a grim thought. Adding turmeric and curcumin to the diet of female rats improved memory (22), and further research will help determine if the same effect can be achieved with humans.
Curcumin stimulates brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a growth hormone necessary for creating new brain cells (23). Since BDNF levels affect the ability of neurons to generate new connections, it may play a role in keeping learning processes humming along, with the added benefit of helping reverse the effect of stress on the brain (24).
Patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and depression, as well as other brain disorders, statistically register low levels of BDNF. (25)
Curcumin crosses the blood-brain barrier (26) going straight to where it can protect against degeneration of key brain functions, as well as clearing the build-up of beta-amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease (27).
6. Turmeric could be useful for reducing your risk of heart disease
The endothelium cells lining blood vessels affect clotting as well as pressure regulation (30). Endothelium dysfunction raises the risk of heart disease; curcumin improves endothelium function, positively affecting this vital marker as efficiently as engaging in exercise or taking drugs (31, 32).
Curcumin’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties add more benefits for preventing heart disease; a recent study of heart disease patients indicated even a few days of taking supplements containing curcumin before surgery decreased the chance of a heart attack in the hospital by 65% (33).
7. The active ingredients in turmeric show some promise at reducing the growth of cancerous cells
Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally (39). The excessive multiplication of cells involved with cancer differs greatly between types, but the active ingredient in curcumin appears to be effective in reducing tumor growth, stopping the spread of cancer, and even killing existing cancer cells. (34). In-vitro research has also shown curcumin to target breast cancer cells but more research is needed to confirm this in humans (38).
One study followed 44 men with colon lesions known to become cancerous; the curcumin dosage of 4 grams daily (but not 2 grams) for 30 days reduced the amount of lesions present by 40% (35).
These results show good promise for preventing cancer in the digestive system, and further studies may help determine whether curcumin can actually help treat or prevent cancer.
Turmeric side effects
Most turmeric side effects are minor. In clinical research, only minor side effects have been reported. The most common of these are gas and flatulence, as well as dry mouth. Some research has reported that up to a quarter of people who take a turmeric supplement (39).
High doses of turmeric taken over long periods of time could cause kidney stones. Beyond these side effects, some biochemical research suggests that high doses of turmeric, when taken over a long period of time, could increase your risk for kidney stones.
This was suggested by a study that found a significant increase in oxalate levels in urine after taking a standard dose of turmeric (40).
As such, if you have a history of kidney stones, taking turmeric may not be the best idea given the effects of turmeric on oxalate levels.
Turmeric may interact with blood thinners like warfarin. Make sure you ask your doctor before starting a turmeric supplement if you are taking blood thinners.
Aside from this, the safety profile of turmeric is quite attractive, which makes sense given its genesis as a spice for thousands of years.
Turmeric recommended dosage
One gram of raw turmeric equals about 40 mg of curcumin. If you are consuming raw turmeric, you’ll need to consume a lot to get an effective dosage. One study pegged the concentration of biologically active compounds in raw turmeric at approximately 3%, meaning you’d get about 30 mg of bioactive curcumins for every gram of raw turmeric (41).
Supplements of turmeric use extracted forms which can deliver a higher dose. While some of the benefits of turmeric likely come from the panoply of phytonutrients in the raw plant material, research studies are still typically focused on the curcumin dosage as the primary metric of dose.
Most research on turmeric uses doses of 80-500 mg per day. Among the research studies that have examined the benefits of turmeric, a fairly wide range of doses has been explored.
One study touted benefits for reducing blood lipids, inflammation, and cognitive benefits from a dosage of only 80 mg per day (42).
On the other hand, another study that also found improvements in blood lipids, alongside biomarkers of liver and kidney function, used a much higher dose of 500 mg (43). Another study that specifically targeted people with type two diabetes used a 2000 mg daily dosage, but this time using raw turmeric powder in capsules, again with success (44).
From these results, we might be able to infer that a higher dose might be necessary for more drastic health conditions, like type two diabetes, while lower doses may work just fine if you are fairly healthy to begin with.
However, one issue that scientists and nutritionists are starting to grapple with is that the bioavailability of turmeric varies considerably depending on how it’s consumed.
Turmeric works best dissolved in oil, or when paired with black pepper extract. For example, some supplement formulations use an oil or fat as a solvent to assist with bioavailability, while others rely on black pepper extracts (such as the proprietary formulation BioPerine) to enhance the absorption. Be on the lookout for these ingredients, as they’ll modify the effective dosage that you’re getting.
A dose of 400-600 mg should cover most use cases. That being said, a starting dose of 400 to 600 mg of turmeric, or 50 to 100 mg of curcumin, is a good place to start—that is approximately in line with the bulk of the clinical research. If you aren’t getting the results you want, you can try upping the dose.
Turmeric benefits FAQ
Q: What is the difference between turmeric and curcumin?
A: Turmeric refers to the raw plant material, as well as what’s left after the extraction process. Curcumin is one specific molecule that is present in raw turmeric at concentrations of approximately three percent.
Curcumin is thought to be responsible for many of the health benefits of turmeric, though turmeric contains other phytonutrients as well. It’s not known to what extent the health benefits ascribed to turmeric are solely the responsibility of curcumin, or whether these other phytonutrients contribute as well.
Q: How do you take turmeric for inflammation?
A: Combating inflammation is one of the greatest strengths of turmeric. Most research that has capitalized on the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric has used doses of about 500 mg per day, sometimes split into multiple doses.
Since turmeric is both metabolized and eliminated from your body fairly quickly, it’s important to be consistent with your supplementation routine to maintain high levels of anti-inflammatories in your blood to achieve the optimal effects.
People taking turmeric for inflammatory joint pain sometimes combine it with glucosamine or MSM, two popular supplemental solutions for reducing joint pain.
Q: What does turmeric do?
A: Turmeric’s greatest strength is its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. The biologically active compounds in turmeric, such as curcumin, help reduce inflammation and fight oxidative damage in the body.
Like other antioxidants, such as resveratrol and astaxanthin, turmeric has found uses when it comes to reducing risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure and high blood lipids.
It’s also included in joint supplements thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, and some people take turmeric directly for joint pain.
Finally, it may also be useful as an adjunctive treatment for type two diabetes, again thanks to its inflammation and oxidation fighting properties.
Q: How long does it take for turmeric to work?
A: Most studies on the efficacy of turmeric are several weeks long. To this end, it would probably be unrealistic to expect turmeric to reach its full effects before about six weeks or so of supplementation.
However, turmeric and its active ingredients are actually metabolized quite quickly, so in terms of a short term dose, you should feel an effect over the course of just a few hours (45).
However, turmeric isn’t a quick-fix supplement; generally, people need several weeks for any benefits to manifest themselves.
Related: Our best turmeric picks
Looking for an incredibly versatile antioxidant and anti-inflammatory supplement? Turmeric is the way to go.
Turmeric’s benefits range from decreasing joint pain to improving cardiovascular function and easing symptoms of inflammation-based gastrointestinal conditions.
This broad array of functions can all be traced to the strong biological activity of curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric.