You might think that you’ve heard everything there is to hear about curcumin, the compound found in turmeric (the yellow spice used in curry).
But I’m here to tell you that you haven’t.
For those who are unfamiliar, research has shown, for example, that curcumin may help alleviate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis and that it might even help prevent and treat certain cancers.
Now a new study suggests that curcumin can help with yet another serious condition—rheumatoid arthritis.
This is very promising when you consider how painful and debilitating rheumatoid arthritis can be…and when you consider that the main treatments—nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as diclofenac sodium, ibuprofen and celecoxib (Celebrex)—have serious side effects, including liver damage and gastrointestinal bleeding.
Could curcumin offer effective and safe relief? Let’s see what the research is saying…
Researchers decided to study curcumin because, in the human body, it’s believed to tamp down inflammation, and rheumatoid arthritis is driven by inflammation.
Ajay Goel, PhD, a coauthor of the study, split participants into three groups. For eight weeks, one group took curcumin in supplement form…one group took diclofenac sodium…and the third group took a combination of the two.
In terms of relief from painful and swollen joints, all three groups saw similar results. In fact, the people taking only curcumin saw slightly more relief than the others did. But when you think about it, that’s a staggering result—because the curcumin created none of the dangerous side effects caused by the NSAID. Not a single patient in the curcumin-only group or the combo group dropped out of the study due to intolerable side effects, while 14% of those taking only the NSAID did.
One limitation of the study is that it didn’t include a placebo group as a control. Dr. Goel noted that this is common in a Phase 1 clinical trial such as this one. In further studies, a control group will be included.
I understood why curcumin may have helped relieve symptoms, since, as I mentioned earlier, it’s an anti-inflammatory. But I was curious to know why it was better-tolerated by patients.
It has to do with how the treatments work within the body, Dr. Goel said. In simple terms, a pharmaceutical NSAID completely blocks one inflammatory pathway, while curcumin blocks many inflammatory pathways—and blocks each only a little, taking a balanced approach as opposed to an “all or nothing” approach.
“Some levels of inflammation are actually required for normal functioning of healthy cells in our body. So when you completely block a pathway, that’s what can trigger undesirable side effects. As a result, curcumin seems to be more gentle on the body,” said Dr. Goel.
Most Americans, he said, don’t eat enough curcumin. Even if you eat an Indian meal once or twice a week or occasionally sprinkle the spice on soup, meat or eggs, you’re not likely to reach the amount needed to get the anti-inflammatory benefit.
So if you have rheumatoid arthritis, Dr. Goel suggests talking to your doctor about taking a curcumin supplement (about $25 for 60 250-milligram capsules, a month’s supply). In his study, the curcumin dose that helped the study subjects was 500 milligrams of curcumin a day, but ask your doctor about the appropriate dose for you.
For people with arthritis who are not yet treating the condition, this supplement might be a good first step, said Dr. Goel. For those already treating the condition with an NSAID, ask your doctor if it’s OK to gradually start taking a curcumin supplement instead.
“Curcumin is very safe for most people,” said Dr. Goel, who gives the supplement to his nine- and seven-year-old children. But he added that people on certain drugs, such as anticoagulants, may not want to use it, because curcumin also has anticoagulant properties. Also, it may negatively interact with certain chemo drugs, and people with bile duct obstruction, gallstones or stomach ulcers may want to avoid using it. To be safe, check with your doctor before using it.
Source: Ajay Goel, PhD, director of epigenetics and cancer prevention, Baylor Research Institute, Baylor University Medical Center, Dallas.