Turmeric, the bright, vibrant, yellow spice added to everything from curries to smoothies to oatmeal and even lattes (i.e. “golden milk”), has gained quite a reputation for being a nutritional superstar for its touted anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. On social media platforms, claims are being made that turmeric can do everything from reduce pain, conquer inflammation, improve liver function, and possibly even reduce the risk of cancer. But where exactly is the science with this, and how much turmeric does one need to ingest to boast any health benefit?
An intro to turmeric
While the use of turmeric has become much more mainstream around the world, it is most traditionally used in Indian dishes where it is primarily associated with curry. It is thought that the average traditional Indian diet contains about 2g of turmeric, or approximately 1 teaspoon per day. Turmeric contains many bioactive compounds (called curcuminoids) with curcumin being the primary bioactive component and the focus of most scientific research.
A little more on curcumin
Turmeric is about 3% curcumin, meaning that 1 tsp of turmeric has about 66mg of curcumin. Curcumin can be extracted from turmeric to produce supplements that have a much higher potency than turmeric. BUT, alone, curcumin has low bioavailability – meaning it is poorly absorbed at the gut level.
For curcumin to be absorbed from the intestines systemically, a dose of about 80-500mg is required in combination with one of the following enhancements:
- Pairing curcumin with black pepper (piperine)
- Curcumin phytosomes complexed with phosphatidylcholine (Meriva or BCM-95)
- Curcumin nanoparticles (THERACURMIN)
- Water-soluble curcumin (polyvinyl pyrrolidone)
If one of the above enhancements is not used, then too little curcumin will be absorbed, even in megadoses of curcumin.
So do turmeric supplements work?
Research shows that appropriate supplementation of curcumin (assuming correct dosage and presence of an enhancement) can reliably reduce markers of inflammation and increase the body’s own production of antioxidants. It can also have a small to moderate improvement in the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and pain and function in osteoarthritis. However, it is worth noting that in the research, typically supplements standardized for curcumin content are used at dosages of 500-2000mg curcumin (with an enhancement).
Some studies also suggest that there is a whole lot more going on in turmeric as a whole than just curcumin. The other less-researched compounds in turmeric may play a bigger role than we think; in fact, the naturally occurring oils in the whole spice may enhance the bioavailability of curcumin. A classic scenario of the WHOLE being greater than the sum of its parts.
So while research certainly looks promising, there is still a lot we don’t know about how turmeric works in the body. More research is needed to determine what form and dose of turmeric is best to elicit health benefits. In the meantime, if you are looking to reduce pain related to osteoarthritis, or to combat inflammation in the body, then consider building turmeric into your regimen.
How to get started
If you have little to mild inflammation, but want to take a proactive stance with your health, I would suggest aiming for 1 tsp of turmeric (66mg curcumin) per day. Add to smoothies, soups (such as my Golden Temple Soup recipe), stews, sauces, salad dressings, and warm drinks. To enhance absorption, always pair with a fat as well as black pepper.
If you have significant inflammation, try a curcumin supplement and aim for approximately 500mg curcumin per dose. Plus ensure one of the enhancers mentioned above is included. As with any supplement, speak with your healthcare practitioner first to ensure this is safe given your health status and current medications. You can also meet with your dietitian who can guide your product selection to ensure quality, inclusion of an enhancement, and the correct dose for you.