Curcumin: The Next Big Superfood
Hardcore Science Meets Herbal Medicine
Coach Alwyn Cosgrove has been harping in my ear about it for four years. Dr. Jonny Bowden lists it as one of the healthiest foods on earth. It's been an essential part of Asian medicine for centuries.
Finally, science is catching up on the news: turmeric, more specifically one of its curcuminoids called curcumin, is the next big superfood.
But, curcumin has a little problem: bioavailability.
So here's something that might be able to help you drop fat, squash catabolism, better handle pesticides in foods, and live longer, but it doesn't absorb well.
Don't sweat it; there's a way to get around that. Let's look at the latest curcumin research, then fix the bioavailability issue.
622 New Studies and Counting
The body of research surrounding curcumin is getting larger and larger every year, and it doesn't seem to be slowing down. I think 2011 will be the year curcumin goes mainstream (at least it should).
Like forskolin, curcumin acts on a widely-used set of biochemical processes in the human body, but as you'll see, it does even more. A 2010 study published in Current Drug Targets (1) identified curcumin's abilities as being:
Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of clinical trials which focus on the effects of curcumin supplements. And the clinical trials that researchers have done are generally on people who are very sick (cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, etc).
Drawing conclusions for healthy people based on these types of studies is difficult. Regardless, curcumin has been shown to be a beneficial adjunct to the treatment of osteoarthritis (2), ulcerative colitis (3), and even potentially Alzheimer's disease (4).
Now let's dig into a few of the 622 latest curcumin studies and see what's new.
Promotes Fat Loss
Curcumin can enhance fat loss through multiple mechanisms. It can inhibit fatty acid synthase and increase beta-oxidation (10-11). Another study shows that curcumin can decrease fatty acid levels through inhibiting the production of the mRNA of key enzymes involved in the storage of fatty acids (12).
Prevents Cellular Damage Caused by Pesticides in Food
With the growing popularity of organic foods, researchers are focusing more on the pesticides used to keep non-organic foods bug-free and their effects on our health.
Researchers found that curcumin decreased oxidative stress in white blood cells caused by common food pesticides (9). So, if you can't always go organic, at least take your curcumin.
Controls Cortisol Levels and Prevents Muscle Loss When Dieting
Chinese researchers found that supplementing pigs with curcumin lowered their stress response during travel. Finally, a way for Porky and Wilbur to ease the stress of going through airport security!
While I'm not one for referencing pig research, similar diminished stress-responses have been shown with rats as well, suggesting that this effect is real and it spans multiple species (6). And couldn't we all use some cortisol relief?
Curcumin may also play a role in preventing muscle loss. The details here would require a full article, but I'll just say for now that curcumin may be an effective adjunct to your supplement regimen to prevent muscle loss during phases of extreme dieting.
Improves Blood Vessel Function
Thai researchers induced diabetes in rats by sending them out for Burger King Cini-minis every day for a month. (Okay, okay, they did it chemically.)
After administering curcumin to the now-diabetic rats, the researchers found that the rats experienced improvements in the diabetes-induced blood vessel dysfunction. They also had decreased levels of free radicals in their blood vessels, specifically superoxide anion, a compound that deactivates nitric oxide (5).
Improves Gut Health and Reduces Inflammation
Because of curcumin's ability to inhibit the COX-2 enzyme, it has anti-inflammatory effects, much like Celebrex or VIOXX. Unlike drugs, however, curcumin doesn't cause GI distress or pesky side effects like heart attacks and strokes.
In fact, curcumin might protect your intestines. German researchers found that giving mice curcumin leads to decreases in intestinal inflammation and strengthening of the intestinal wall, which prevented bacteria from crossing it (7).
Treats Resistant Cancer Cells
Oftentimes, cancer cells become resistant to chemotherapy drugs. This is a problem with chemo treatment for pancreatic cancer. But research out of New Zealand finds that curcumin was able to reverse this multi-drug resistance in pancreatic cancer cells (8). Dear Cancer, F.U.
How to Increase the Bioavailability of Curcumin
As mentioned, one potential problem with curcumin is bioavailability. It just doesn't absorb well. However, there are a couple things that have been shown to help increase bioavailability.
Certain methods, like nanoparticulation, while effective, aren't practical. (I don't know about you, but I've yet to find the "nanoparticulate" setting on my food processor.)
Here are two practical things that you can do:
1. Use a curcumin supplement that contains piperine.
Piperine is an alkaloid of black pepper that can increase curcumin absorption by 2000% in humans (13). Curcumin contains the right amount of piperine to get the job done.
2. Take your curcumin with olive oil.
Taking curcumin and olive oil together yields increased blood levels of curcumin (4).
I've just scratched the surface here, but it's safe to say that curcumin should play a role in your supplement arsenal. Keep an eye out for more info as clinical trials and newer studies get published!
1. Zhou H, Beevers CS, Huang S. The Targets of Curcumin. Curr Drug Targets 2010.
2. Belcaro G, Cesarone MR, Dugall M, et al. Product-evaluation registry of Meriva, a curcumin-phosphatidylcholine complex, for the complementary management of osteoarthritis. Panminerva Medica 2010;52:55-62.
3. Hanai H, Iida T, Takeuchi K, et al. Curcumin Maintenance Therapy for Ulcerative Colitis: Randomized, Multicenter, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology 2006;4:1502-1506.
4. Baum L, Lam CWK, Cheung S, et al. Six-month randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, pilot clinical trial of curcumin in patients with Alzheimer disease. Journal of clinical psychopharmacology 2008;28:110-113.
5. Rungseesantivanon S, Thenchaisri N, Ruangvejvorachai P, Patumraj S. Curcumin supplementation could improve diabetes-induced endothelial dysfunction associated with decreased vascular superoxide production and PKC inhibition. BMC Complement Altern Med 2010;10:57.
6. Wei S, Xu H, Xia D, Zhao R. Curcumin attenuates the effects of transport stress on serum cortisol concentration, hippocampal NO production, and BDNF expression in the pig. Domestic animal endocrinology 2010;39:231-239.
7. Bereswill S, Muoz M, Fischer A, et al. Anti-inflammatory effects of resveratrol, curcumin and simvastatin in acute small intestinal inflammation. PloS one 2010;5:e15099-e15099.
8. Li Y, Revalde JL, Reid G, Paxton JW. Modulatory effects of curcumin on multi-drug resistance-associated protein 5 in pancreatic cancer cells. Cancer Chemother Pharmacol 2010.
9. Ahmed T, Pathak R, Mustafa M, et al. Ameliorating effect of N-acetylcysteine and curcumin on pesticide-induced oxidative DNA damage in human peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Environ Monit Assess 2010.
10. Jang E-M, Choi M-S, Jung U, et al. Beneficial effects of curcumin on hyperlipidemia and insulin resistance in high-fat-fed hamsters. Metabolism, clinical and experimental 2008;57:1576-1583.
11. Smith S. The animal fatty acid synthase: one gene, one polypeptide, seven enzymes. The FASEB Journal 1994;8:1248-1259.
12. Ejaz A, Wu D, Kwan P, Meydani M. Curcumin Inhibits Adipogenesis in 3T3-L1 Adipocytes and Angiogenesis and Obesity in C57/BL Mice. The Journal of Nutrition 2009;139:919-925.
13. Shoba G, Joy D, Joseph T, Majeed M, Rajendran R, Srinivas PS. Influence of piperine on the pharmacokinetics of curcumin in animals and human volunteers. Planta medica 1998;64:353-356.