From the kitchen to the medicine cabinet, turmeric has an impressive number of uses. If you follow alternative medicine, you've probably heard of its supposed virtues in the treatment of various disorders, including respiratory, skin, stomach and liver conditions. Centuries before contemporary science took a serious look at this versatile spice, traditional Asian medicine tapped into turmeric's anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Now, research studies provide some backing for claims of turmeric's anti-inflammatory effects.
If you've ever bumped into a hard object and hurt yourself, you certainly experienced the overt signs of acute inflammation: heat, pain, redness and swelling. Acute inflammation is a rapid response your body adopts to quickly deliver immune cells to a site of injury. The trigger may be an infection, microbial toxins, trauma, certain physical or chemical agents, tissue death, foreign bodies or immune reactions. During acute inflammation, the caliber and structure of your blood vessels change to facilitate the accumulation of white blood cells at the injury site. Then these white blood cells, mainly the neutrophils, help eliminate the offending agent.
Your body can be in a state whereby active inflammation, tissue destruction and attempts at repair all occur at the same time. This is a characteristic of chronic inflammation, which can last for weeks or months. Other characteristics include the formation of blood vessels and scar tissue. Also, the immune cells involved here are macrophages, lymphocytes and plasma cells. Possible triggers of chronic inflammation include persistent infections, prolonged exposure to toxic agents and auto-immune disorders. Chronic inflammation is behind the tissue damage in such disorders as rheumatoid arthritis, atherosclerosis, tuberculosis and other chronic lung diseases.
The major components of turmeric are curcumin, curcumoids and essential oils. Also called diferuloylmethane, curcumin is the main active ingredient in turmeric. As such, it is responsible for the bulk of turmeric's biological effects, including anti-inflammation. Ajay Goel and colleagues describe curcumin as polyphenol that is chemically similar to the yellow-pigmented curcumoids that are responsible for turmeric's yellow color. The major curcumoids are called curcumin II, curcumin III and cyclocurcumin.
Cytokines are small proteins that regulate your body's inflammatory response--the greater their number, the stronger the inflammation. In their bid to test curcumin's anti-inflammatory effects in patients with stomach infection, scientist Chuchart Koosirirat and colleagues discovered that curcumin does not significantly lower the production of inflammatory cytokines. Yet, other studies report that curcumin provided symptom relief to patients with different inflammatory disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. A 2009 issue of the journal Toxicology features lab studies showing curcumin's ability to inhibit inflammation or improve symptoms.
Mechanism of Action
Physician Jennifer Jamison notes that curcumin fights inflammation by preventing neutrophils from functioning, and by tampering with the synthesis of various eicosanoids, which are signaling molecules that play a role in the development of fever, pain and inflammation. Curcumin particularly inhibits leukotrienes, a type of eicosanoid involved in the development of atherosclerosis and asthma. In addition to confirming curcumin's activity against eicosanoids, Kavita Bishta and colleagues also found that turmeric extract can stifle the inflammatory response by blocking the production of various cytokines and other immune system proteins.
Dosage and Toxicity
Jamison indicates that curcumin dosage depends on the disorder you need to treat. Generally speaking, she says the adult maintenance dose is about 100 mg per day, with a disease-dependent increase of the dose, up to 1,500 mg. However, a 2008 issue of the journal Biochemical Pharmacology reports the safe use of higher doses of turmeric, especially in cancer patients. Animal and human studies show that turmeric has a good safety profile and does not show toxicity at doses as high as 12,000 mg per day.
The scientific literature shows a lot of potential regarding turmeric's medicinal properties, but keep in mind that most studies look at the effects of the active substances in turmeric, and not the raw spice. Also, because many studies have taken place in labs, additional human studies may be needed to get conclusive results. Lastly, the conflicting evidence from various reports suggest that the anti-inflammatory effects of turmeric may vary depending on how you use it, and the cause of the inflammation.