I read a lot of research papers. I go through yellow highlighters the way 16-year-old girls go through lip gloss. It’s not often, though, that I find a paper from a respected journal where the authors make an actual, concrete suggestion on how to use the subject of their paper to further human health or physical achievement.
Generally speaking, a generic scientist could report on a rock-solid, double-blind, placebo controlled, peer-reviewed study of a million people who, when fed waffles with syrup for breakfast every morning, never developed cancer. Most regular people would think, “Hey, maybe I should start eating waffles for breakfast,” but not the authors of the paper.
They’d give you a bunch of reasons why their research might have been screwy and then they’d conclude by saying, “More research is needed.” Meanwhile, millions of non-waffle eaters would die. It’s almost as if scientists have kind of a first-rule-of-fight-club rule when it comes to making any kind of deductive leap about their research.
But the authors of a recent paper on curcumin seemingly ignored that rule. They not only agreed that taking curcumin after intense training would facilitate recovery, but they even came up with an elegant plan on how to use varying amounts of the polyphenol to train and peak for an athletic event.
Why is Curcumin Great for Training?
A lot of athletes, despite current best advice, still take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to combat post-training soreness and inflammation. Their motivation is, of course, to reduce pain and improve their recovery time.
The problem is, NSAIDs appear to block the first stage of healing and don’t necessarily restore muscle performance and may in fact hinder recovery. Furthermore, long-term use might negatively affect the nervous system and damage the liver.
Curcumin, however, can limit inflammation and oxidative stress without the negative consequences of NSAIDs, thus allowing athletes to train harder and more often.
It does so by a dose-dependent decrease of an enzyme named COX-2, which is responsible for the conversion of arachidonic acid into prostaglandins and thromboxane, two lipid compounds that initiate swelling and the feeling of pain. This is similar to the action of NSAIDs, but less pronounced and without the negative side effects.
An Ergogenic Aid? Show Me the Studies!
The authors of the paper referred to a few examples of human studies in which curcumin mitigated inflammation and soreness from training, the highlights of which follow:
- One study found that when curcumin (5.3 mg/kg) was given 48 hours prior to a bout of downhill running, subjects accumulated less muscle damage (as measured by MRI) and experienced a significant decrease in serum IL-8 (a pro-inflammatory cytokine) at two hours after exercise.
- Subjects who did 60 reps of leg press at 110% of their 1RM (eccentric movements only) had decreased serum creatine kinase (an indicator of muscle damage) and decreased levels of IL-8 after taking 400 mg. of curcumin for two days prior to the test and four days after the test.
- Subjects who took 1,000 mg. of curcumin a day experienced no loss in muscle strength after a bout of downhill running.
- Subjects training for a half-marathon were given 1,000 mg. of curcumin a day (in combination with pomegranate extract, another polyphenol). They were able to put in 11% more training mileage and 20% more caloric expenditure when compared to placebo, despite a similar number of training sessions in the 30 days prior to a half-marathon race.
The results of these studies, plus all their other relevant data, led the authors of the paper to speculate that curcumin, given in steadily increasing doses during a long-term training program (leading up to a competition or event), could greatly benefit an athlete.
So What’s the Big Curcumin Plan?
The authors noted three main effects directly attributable to oral curcumin supplementation:
- The polyphenol reduces biological markers of inflammation.
- It reduces muscle damage.
- It can reduce muscle soreness.
Furthermore, they determined that doses of up to 400 mg. a day are needed to affect systemic inflammation, while doses greater than 1,000 mg. a day might be needed to affect both inflammation and muscle soreness.
So, for a long-term training plan, “…it may be necessary to progressively increase the dose of curcumin supplementation to match the anticipated quantity of muscle injury from exercise.”
They then constructed a novel training model by which curcumin might improve an athlete’s training and competition results:
See what’s going on in the chart? When training for an event begins, the athlete begins by taking between 400 to 600 mg. of curcumin a day. As the weeks go by and training volume steadily increases, so does the amount of daily curcumin, steadily climbing from the “starter” dose of 400 to 600 mg., then progressing to 600 to 800 per day; then 800 to 1,000 a day; and finally, as the competition draws near, peaking at 1500 mg. a day.
They also prescribe periodic “booster” doses of 500 to 1,000 mg. during days of particularly intense training when greater amounts of muscle damage are incurred.
The model is really pretty cool, but regardless of whether you’re an endurance runner, a powerlifter, or a bodybuilder, it reflects a simple truth – that curcumin, in addition to all its health-promoting superpowers, is really an excellent ergogenic aid.
Is Taking High Amounts of Curcumin Safe?
The worst things that could happen to you if you took really large amounts (over 8 grams a day) of curcumin are indigestion, kidney stones, or having stools that look like the Beatles yellow submarine.
That third side effect is actually a distinct possibility, but only with traditional, “un-optimized” curcumin because it doesn’t absorb very well. Ordinary curcumin generally causes only a tiny rise in blood levels because as soon as it clears the small intestine, the liver makes it water soluble and bam! It’s out of your body as fast as a can of Budweiser. As a result, the average user sees (or feels) little benefit from average curcumin products.
Even the authors of the current study recommend using a curcumin that’s been commercially optimized. Biotest’s Curcumin fits the bill.
In addition to being standardized to contain at least 90% total curcuminoids (the active ingredients), it also contains piperine, an extract of pepper, which interferes with the liver’s efforts to make curcumin more water soluble, thus enhancing absorption by about 2,000 percent.
- Brian K. McFarlin, et al. “Does Acute Improvement in Muscle Recovery with Curcumin Supplementation Translate to Long-Term Training?” Journal of Science in Sport and Exercise, Volume 1, pp. 203-207, November 26. 2019.