Does Turmeric Really Reduce Inflammation?
The latest on what researchers say this spice can—and can't—do
Turmeric—sold as a spice and in supplement form—has become a highly promoted super-ingredient. But despite promises that it can do everything from eliminating chronic pain to curing various diseases, a new study—which focuses on postsurgical inflammation—suggests that the marketing has gotten slightly ahead of the science.
Dozens of animal studies and small human trials have indicated that curcumin (the medically active compound in turmeric) has some anti-inflammatory properties. That’s why it has become a popular remedy for conditions such as arthritis, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
But the first large-scale human trial, published this week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, has found no evidence that curcumin—taken in this study in the form of supplement capsules—reduces inflammation in humans.
“It’s disappointing when a large, rigorous study fails to align with the findings of smaller previous studies, but this happens every day,” says Kristen Patrick, deputy editor of the CMAJ, who wrote an editorial accompanying the new study.
While the researchers tested how turmeric affects only one type of inflammation in a specific population, the findings still might “help temper the enthusiasm around curcumin,” Patrick says.
Here’s what you need to know about the study findings, the promise of turmeric, and whether you should consider using it.
What the Study Found
This new study examined the effects of curcumin supplements on postsurgical inflammation.
“We were very open-minded to curcumin’s potential benefits based on the positive results of many earlier studies,” says lead author Amit Garg, M.D., a professor in the department of medicine at Western University and Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ontario. “It has been used traditionally for thousands of years in Indian and Chinese medicine, but it’s irresponsible to espouse its health benefits without evidence to prove it.”
Turmeric Still Has Potential
While this is a large, well-designed trial, it looks at a very specific population and situation. The average age of the subjects was 76, and most had one or more medical complications—such as diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure.
“The results need to be looked at in that context,” says Chris D’Adamo, Ph.D., director of research and education at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. “This study shows that curcumin did not reduce postsurgical inflammation in older adults with serious medical conditions, but those findings may not be applicable to younger, healthier populations.”
D’Adamo notes that surgery is a unique source of inflammation and that this study doesn’t necessarily mean curcumin can’t help alleviate some of the inflammation involved in arthritis, colitis, or IBS.
For example: A 2015 study of 50 patients with ulcerative colitis found that those who took 3,000 mg of curcumin capsules on top of their regular treatment were more likely to be in remission a month later than those who took a placebo. Other research is underway investigating how curcumin might be used alongside conventional cancer treatment.
The authors of the new study acknowledge that this one study isn’t the final word on curcumin’s potential. “We are advocating for additional testing of it,” Garg says. “I wouldn’t say that it couldn’t potentially be effective in other settings or formulations.”
Should You Try Turmeric?
Turmeric has been a staple spice in Indian and other Asian cuisines for centuries. Adding it to your cooking or your tea, however, will provide only a tiny fraction of the amount of curcumin typically given in animal or human studies. (Only 1 to 6 percent of turmeric is curcumin.)
“For someone who isn’t trying to use curcumin to manage chronic disease, adding turmeric to food—in combination with fat and black pepper, both of which aid absorption—can still provide benefits,” D’Adamo says.
In general, however, curcumin taken orally, whether as a spice or as a supplement, is not well-absorbed and is quickly eliminated from the body—one of the reasons that some experts have been skeptical about claims of its effects in humans. One 2017 study compared curcumin to “a missile that continually blows up on the launch pad, never reaching ... its intended target.”
Turmeric is also not without risks.
“Several studies and periodic Food and Drug Administration nationwide recalls have shown turmeric powder can be contaminated with heavy metals such as lead,” says Tunde Akinleye, a chemist in Consumer Reports’ food safety division.
And curcumin supplements, like all supplements, are not regulated in the same way medications are. That means that they may not contain what the label advertises and that claims have not been vetted. “Just because they are ‘natural’ doesn’t mean they are necessarily helpful or even benign,” Garg says.
Finally, be sure to consult with your doctor if you are considering taking curcumin supplements. They can interact dangerously with certain medications, such as blood thinners.