What’s the difference between turmeric and curcumin? Is there a difference? Are they good for you? Which is best? Should you eat one or both? It’s all so confusing!
Let’s start with turmeric
Turmeric is a spice belonging to the ginger family. It is made from dried root of the plant, Curcuma Longa. It has been used in India as far back as 4000 years. India continues to produce most of the world’s supply. Turmeric adds a distinct flavor to food and gives food an orange-yellow color.
Turmeric is a good source of manganese, iron, vitamin B6 and fiber.
Where does curcumin fit in?
Turmeric contains compounds that give the spice its color. These agents are called curcuminoids. There are three different types: curcumin, demethoxycurcuminoid and bis-demethoxycurcuminoid. They are all natural antioxidants and are known to provide health benefits. The largest component of the root is an oil containing turmerone. Besides the curcuminoids, each substance found in the turmeric root provides a unique health benefit. That means that it may be beneficial to use whole turmeric to spice foods.
A typical turmeric root contains only about 2-5% curcumin. The actual amount of curcumin in turmeric can vary with the growing season, time of harvest and how the curcumin is extracted. Curcumin supplements contain concentrated curcumin that has been extracted from turmeric root.
An undesirable finding in some supplements containing turmeric herb powder is the heavy metal, lead. That’s because of the high level of lead in the soils in which turmeric is grown. Supplements containing turmeric extract, however, have had the impurity removed. Turmeric extract is commonly sold as “curcumin.”
Research studies on turmeric can be confusing
Listen carefully when you hear or read about the health benefits of turmeric. Most scientific studies have looked at the active ingredient, curcumin, rather than the whole turmeric spice. That makes it trickier to interpret the health benefits of this spice when it’s used in cooking, because the amount of curcumin in turmeric can be very small.
Most studies on turmeric have looked at curcumin rather than the whole spice. Most have been conducted using rats and mice. There are no large-scale studies on humans, but the results from animal studies are so numerous and the results so consistent, inferences are easily made.
Improved brain function
Curcumin stimulates the production of DHA and ALA, which are both Omega-3 fatty acids (Wu et al, 2015). Since the brain is 2/3 fat, it requires high levels of EPA and DHA. These fats help the brain cells connect and communicate with one another. Better communication leads to improved memory, mood and thinking.
Curcumin can stimulate the growth of new nerve cells (neurogenesis) and repair nerve cells in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for emotions and the creation of new memories (Kim et al., 2008). Curcumin may also help reduce inflammation in the brain through the same mechanism by which it works in the rest of the body. Even the brain falls prey to environmental toxins, diabetes, high levels of cortisol from increased stress and poor diet.
Beyond your brain…. the health benefits of curcumin are impressive
- Decreased joint pain – Curcumin is known to decrease chemicals made by the immune system that accelerate the inflammatory response (Jurenka, 2009). It does so by blocking a molecule that passes into cells and turns on genes responsible for inflammation. Pain, stiffness, and inflammation in individuals with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis have reportedly improved with curcumin.
- Digestive system – Turmeric powder has been found to be better than a placebo for symptoms of indigestion. Some small studies involving human participants (Taylor and Leonard, 2011) have found that turmeric can improve intestinal inflammation, like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Most of this involves lowering the production of immune chemicals.
- Antioxidant –Harmful waste products known as free radicals are released when chemical reactions occur for metabolism. The free radicals are damaging to cells and tissues and are one of the factors that cause aging and many diseases. Curcumin is an antioxidant that can neutralize free radicals (Ak and Gulcin, 2008). It can also boost the body’s own antioxidant enzymes.
- Removal of toxins from the body – Curcumin enhances the detoxification process in the liver (Agarwal et al., 2010). By binding toxins with other molecules, they are more easily removed from the body through urine or through stool.
- Decreased risk of cancer – Animal research on curcumin has looked at cancer in many organs: digestive organs, lung, breast, prostate and more. Turmeric works to protect from cancer via its anti-inflammatory mechanisms (Wilken 2011). It is also thought to be protective through its effect on the immune system, its antioxidant action and its ability to stimulate detoxification in the liver.
- Heart Health – Curcumin appears to boost the activity of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This lowers blood sugars, decreasing your chance of heart disease. Adding the turmeric spice to a meal can lower triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood. Through its anti-inflammatory properties, curcumin helps protect the inner lining of blood vessels, decreasing the chance for clots to occur (Wongcharoen and Phrommintikul, 2009).
Agarwal R, Goel SK and Behari JR (2010) Detoxification and antioxidant effects of curcumin in rats experimentally exposed to mercury, J Appl Toxicol, 30:457-468.
Ak T and Gulcin I (2008) Antioxidant and radical scavenging properties of curcumin, 174:27-37.
Jurenka JS (2009) Anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin: a major constituent of Curcumin longa: a review of preclinical and clinical research, Altern Med Rev, 14:141-153.
Kim SJ, Son TG, Park HR, Park M, Kim MS, Kim, HS, Chung HY, Mattson MP and Lee J (2008) Curcumin stimulates proliferation of embryonic neural progenitor cells and neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus, J Biol Chem, 283:14497-14505.
Taylor RA and Leonard MC (2011) Curcumin for inflammatory bowel disease: a review of human studies, Altern Med Rev, 16:152-156.
Wilkin R, Veena MS, Wang MB and Srivatsan ES (2011) Curcumin: A review of anti-cancer properties and therapeutic activity in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, Mol Cancer, 10.
Wongcharoen W and Phrommintikul A (2009) The protective role of curcumin in cardiovascular diseases, Int J Cardiol, 133:145-151.
Wu A, Noble EE, Tyagi E, Ying Z, Zhuang Y and Gomez-Pinilla F (2015) Curcumin boosts DHA in the brain: implications for the prevention of anxiety disorders, Biochim Biophys Acta, 1852:951-961.