Turmeric, a commonly used spice, is derived from the root of the turmeric plant. It has a long history of use as a food additive, and medicinal agent in India and other Asian countries for thousands of years.
Curcumin, often mistakenly used interchangeably with turmeric, is one the active constituents derived from turmeric. Curcumin is well known for its yellow color and is utilized both for its medical benefits and as a coloring agent in food (e.g. mustard) and cosmetics.
Curcumin has been shown to have potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Results from numerous high-quality studies suggest turmeric is a promising natural supplement for:
- Joint pain associated with arthritis and gout
- Abdominal pain
- Crohn's disease
Some studies have found that it can be as effective as some conventional pain medications such as ibuprofen (Advil) and Diclofenac (Voltaren)! In fact, evidence shows that curcumin may work in a similar way to NSAIDs to treat joint pain, by reducing inflammatory mediators and enzymes.
In this article, we discuss turmeric in greater detail and the scientific evidence that supports its beneficial effects for reliving joint pain.
A Quick Overview of Turmeric
Turmeric is a herbaceous plant that belongs to Zingiberaceae, also called the ginger family. Its scientific name is Curcuma longa. Ayurveda, the traditional Indian Medicine System, recognizes turmeric as one of the most powerful herbs present in nature. In the Western countries, turmeric powder is mainly used as a coloring agent in processed foods but has recently gained popularity as a dietary supplement.
Turmeric supplements have been widely marketed as health foods with numerous health claims. As a supplement, turmeric is mostly available in the form of capsule, either alone or in combination with black pepper extract (piperine), B vitamins, alpha-lipoic acid and other substances.
Turmeric For Joint Pain: What Science Says
Turmeric (curcumin) is one of the most widely studied natural substances and many studies have found that curcumin can be effective in treating joint pain. Researchers attribute the pain-relieving property of curcumin to its potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities.
Below is a list of a number of studies (sorted by year) that have shown the beneficial effects of curcumin.
- 1980: A 2-week administration of curcumin produced improvement in symptoms of arthritis in 18 young patients. The effect was comparable to that of phenylbutazone, a NSAID similar to ibuprofen.
- 2007: One study suggests curcumin could help prevent inflammatory diseases by regulating inflammatory pathways that include the enzymes cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase.
- 2010: In one study, osteoarthritis patients taking Meriva (curcumin with phosphatidylcholine) were able to walk longer in the treadmill test and had lower blood levels of an inflammatory substance called C-reactive protein (CRP).
- 2012: A 2012 study concluded that curcumin produced the highest level of improvement in joint tenderness and swelling compared to its combination with diclofenac or diclofenac alone.
- 2013: In this study, researchers concluded that curcumin could be a potential natural treatment for OA as it is shown to: reduce inflammation by inhibiting pro-inflammatory substances, prevent cartilage degradation, and counteract cellular destruction.
- 2013: A study testing a proprietary form of a curcumin extract showed that consistent dosing over 6 weeks significantly reduced pain and improved function compared to placebo in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee.
- 2016: In one large meta-analysis, 8–12 weeks of standardized turmeric extracts (typically 1000 mg/day of curcumin) treatment can reduce arthritis symptoms (mainly pain and inflammation-related symptoms) and result in similar improvements of the symptoms as ibuprofen and diclofenac sodium.
What Studies Say: Summary
Turmeric (curcumin) has a large body of positive evidence for the treatment of joint pain from osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. Dosages in the studies have ranged from 50 mg to over 2,000 mg curcumin per day.
Turmeric Supplements: What To Look For
Turmeric (Curcumin) Content
When shopping for a turmeric or curcumin extract supplement, it is extremely important to look at the "Supplement Facts" on the label. Remember that the beneficial effects of turmeric are thought to be mostly due to the curcumin content.
Lower quality, or less expensive turmeric supplements will have a large amount of turmeric listed on the label, but very small amounts of curcumin listed, if any. To get the most benefit from your turmeric supplement, be sure that curcumin (or curcuminoids) is listed on the label.
In the example above, the label on the left lists a large amount or turmeric (1.44 grams per serving) but there is no indication as to the curcumin content in the supplement. A large amount of turmeric doesn't necessarily mean there is a beneficial amount of curcumin on the product. The label on the right lists curcumin and would generally be the better choice as you have a better idea of the supplement contents.
Studies have shown that the bioavailability (i.e. the rate and extent of absorption) of curcumin is extremely very low after taking it by mouth. For this reason, you will often see turmeric supplements combined with black pepper extract, known as piperine. Piperine has been shown in studies to significantly increase the absorption of the curcumin contained in turmeric supplements.
Many popular turmeric supplements contain a patented form of piperine known as BioPerine, which markets itself as a "purified extract of piperine". Below is a graph, based on the results of a study, showing the increased absorption of curcumin when co-administered with BioPerine.
Lastly, it is important to take turmeric supplements with food as studies have shown it increases absorption.
Is It Safe to Take Turmeric?
Curcumin has a long history of demonstrated safety as observed in numerous studies. Its allowable daily intake (ADI) is 0-3 mg/kg body weight, according to JECFA (The Joint United Nations and World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives) and EFSA (European Food Safety Authority).
- In addition, the US FDA categorizes curcumin as “generally recognized as safe when taken by mouth or applied to the skin”.
Given below are some study results that suggest curcumin is unlikely to cause any serious side effects when used as directed.
- In a 2016 study, turmeric preparations and curcumin were considered safe at doses not exceeding 1200 mg/day for up to 4 months.
- Six human trials have found that curcumin is safe.
However, some people taking higher doses of curcumin may have nausea, diarrhea, headache, rash, and yellow stool. Moreover, there have been reports of increased levels of enzymes alkaline phosphatase and lactate dehydrogenase in patients who took large amounts of turmeric. Nevertheless, turmeric is considered safe for most individuals at a wide range of dosages.
Lastly, you might be concerned about the safety of curcumin most after reading news of death linked to a contaminated product. However, you should know that it was not curcumin that caused the death but a contaminant present in the product. Moreover, the product was an injectable, not an oral preparation.
- Turmeric can be an effective alternative treatment for chronic joint pain associated with arthritis and gout.
- Turmeric is generally well tolerated and has an excellent safety profile. However, taking it in large amounts can cause some digestive problems and headache.
- Turmeric (specifically curcumin) has poor oral bioavailability and is not absorbed well after taking by mouth, a major problem that reduces its effectiveness. Studies have found that combining it with black pepper extract can significantly increase its absorption from the digestive tract.