If you have had the pleasure of eating Asian cuisine, then you have probably encountered the culinary spice turmeric.
Turmeric’s active compound, curcumin, has been shown to have immense health benefits for inflammation and other symptoms, leading many to begin incorporating curcumin into their daily supplementation regimen.
But with so many products on the market, it can be difficult to decide which is the best for you. Let’s take a deep dive into some of the mechanisms of curcumin and then some considerations you should have when picking the best curcumin supplement for your best health.
Turmeric and Curcumin
Turmeric is a bright yellow or orange powder found in most spice cabinets around the world. It is commonly used in Asian meals and medicines. Indian food often features turmeric in curries.
Korean and Japanese cuisine uses it in tea and other drinks. In Thailand and China, you’ll find it in cosmetics and as a coloring agent.
Eastern culture is very familiar with the use of turmeric for many everyday things, but it has had an important role in eastern medicine as well. In fact, the use of turmeric in eastern medicine dates back to ancient times and continues to be a prominent medical herb today.
Although turmeric has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, the mechanism by which it goes about achieving these benefits has only just been discovered. The compound of medical interest in turmeric is called curcumin.
Curcumin is a polyphenol, found primarily in the spice turmeric, that has been shown to target signaling molecules and reduce oxidized molecules in order to inhibit inflammatory pathways and temporarily alleviate associated discomfort. There are other medicinal and therapeutic effects of curcumin as well, including better metabolic health and immune health.
Metabolic Health Mechanisms
Insulin resistance is one of the biggest indicators of metabolic health. It is extremely common; the most conservative estimates state that insulin resistance affects 24% of adults.
Insulin is produced by beta-cells of the pancreas in response to food. It is released in greater volumes based on the chemical makeup of the food. Insulin also has a larger spike in response to simple sugars, complex sugars, proteins, and fats.
The larger the spikes, the larger the impact they have on creating insulin resistance over time. This resistance primarily impacts three different body tissues: Muscle, Hepatic (Liver), Adipose (Fats).
Studies have shown that curcumin improves pancreatic function by strengthening beta-cells. While this does not prevent insulin resistance at the tissue sites it does increase the longevity of the beta-cells, and therefore may reduce the effects of type two diabetes.
Maintaining a healthy gut permeability level has been shown to be a crucial factor for health throughout the body, but most importantly, as it pertains to auto-immune diseases--where the body attacks itself.
Gut permeability is often referred to as leaky gut, because many people suffering from high gut permeability will have a greater number of toxins, bacteria and other antigens “leaking” through the epithelial lining of the stomach and into the bloodstream.
These disease-causing molecules have much greater power in the bloodstream and can lead to sickness.
One way that the body combats these incoming pathogens is through the gut microbiome, which has been shown to have many important influences on everything from sleep to cardiovascular function. In this case, the microbiota digests and prevents the pathogens from reaching the bloodstream and affecting your health.
So, how does curcumin come into play?
Curcumin has been shown to influence the permeability of the gut lining, and has been shown to bolster the diversity of the gut microbiome. These two effects together synergistically combat the effects of leaky gut and may reduce the prevalence of auto-immune and other diseases.
Immune Health Mechanisms
Oxidative stress occurs when molecules become oxidized, losing an electron. This happens due to normal body function and is one of the key components in aging.
When these oxidized substances are formed they can be dangerous to the body, reacting with otherwise stable molecules and compromising the integrity of some cells. These reactive species come in a few forms, the most common being reactive oxygen species and reactive nitrogen species.
However, these havoc-wreaking molecules will find their demise in polyphenols--natural reducing agents. Polyphenols neutralize the oxidized molecules, so they have been called antioxidants. Notably, curcumin is a polyphenol and has all these neutralizing capabilities.
Inflammation has a positive feedback loop where it causes the rise of reactive species, which in turn causes pro-inflammatory genes to be upregulated. Pro-inflammatory agents create more inflammation, and therefore more reactive species and so on.
Curcumin’s powerful antioxidant characteristics therefore reduce inflammation as well. But, it doesn’t stop there! Curcumin also directly downregulates nuclear factor kappa B (NF-κB).
NF-κB is a transcription factor that is made by the body in response to inflammatory cytokines (a communication molecule), stress, high-glucose, stress, pollutants and smoke, bacteria, ultraviolet light, etc.
Once it is made it associates with genetic material to produce many inflammation factors. One specific variant of NF-κB is TNF-α (Tumor necrosis factor-alpha) and is directly linked to the development of many chronic and tumor-related conditions including allergies, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis, and many more.
The inhibition of these nuclear factors by curcumin has been shown to alleviate some of the inflammatory effects and other burdens that may be brought on by some of these diseases.
Because of its powerful anti-inflammatory effects, curcumin has been heralded as an intervention for arthritis. Arthritis is one of the most well-researched areas of curcumin’s potential as a natural remedy.
Based on evidence collected by several reviews, curcumin has statistically significant effects on relieving pain, equating it to treatment options like ibuprofen and diclofenac sodium. One study recommended an eight- to twelve-week regimen of 1000mg/day of curcumin for arthritis-related symptoms.
Now that you’ve seen the benefits and mechanisms of curcumin you might want to know the main considerations you should have when selecting a curcumin supplement.
Well, one of the main problems with curcumin is that it has low bioavailability, making it difficult to access many of its health benefits. When curcumin enters the body it is poorly absorbed, rapidly metabolized, and quickly eliminated from the body.
Choosing which curcumin supplement is the best one needs to address these other biological factors that inhibit curcumin from having its desired effect.
Better Absorption: Take with Fats
One of the stated problems with Curcumin’s bioavailability is its poor absorbtion rate. To better support the absorption of curcumin, consider taking the supplement with fats.
Curcumin is a fat soluble molecule, meaning that it is better ingested and absorbed when taken with fatty foods such as fish, eggs and dairy.
When you take your curcumin supplements along with some fats the curcumin will stick to the fats and give them an easier trip into the bloodstream where they will be much more useful to your body.
Studies showed an increase of 19.2 times the absorption rate when taken with fatty foods.
Slower Metabolism: Look for Piperine
The second issue reducing curcumin’s bioavailability is that the body breaks it down before it can do anything--it is metabolized too quickly. For a solution to this problem, look for piperine.
Piperine or Bioperine is a compound found in black pepper that inhibits many of the digestive enzymes that break down curcumin.
In fact, one study found the bioavailability of curcumin to increase by 1.5 times when taken with piperine, while other studies have estimated upwards of 20 times.
Curcumin has been a staple in eastern medicine and with its diverse set of benefits for numerous bodily mechanisms, such as the metabolic and immune systems, it's not very difficult to see why.
The powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties give many using curcumin a real option for a natural pain reliever especially for joint-related issues.