The use of turmeric dates back at least 4000 years - with the first recorded use being in India, the world's largest exporter of the spice. Fast forward to 2021, and it has become one of the most popular supplements in the west with purported benefits for those suffering with arthritis and chronic pain. But how exactly does it work, and is it going to make you feel any better?
The active ingredient in turmeric is called curcumin. This compound has been studied extensively in relation to its cancer-inhibiting, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects, but has also been linked to improvements in atherosclerosis (plaque build up in the arteries) and myocardial infarctions (heart attacks).
Curcumin on its own is poorly absorbed by the body. Recently, scientists discovered that piperine, the active compound in black pepper, increased absorption of curcumin by 2000% (20x). As a result, almost all high-street turmeric supplements contain piperine. Since the introduction of this catalyst, scientists have made multiple revelations on just how curcumin affects our physiology.
In the paper "Mechanism of the Anti-inflammatory Effect of Curcumin: PPAR-γ Activation (Jacob, Wu, Zhou & Wang 2008)", the authors reached this conclusion:
The administration of curcumin reduced blood sugar and glycosylated hemoglobin levels in an alloxan-induced rat model of type 2 diabetes. Curcumin appears to suppress oxidative damage, inflammation, cognitive deficits, and amyloid accumulation in Alzheimer's disease. In addition, curcumin appears to show protective effects in cystic fibrosis, human immunodeficiency virus, and experimental alcoholic liver disease.
Despite all this evidence, though, scientists are as of yet unable to elucidate the mechanism behind these physiological effects. Studies show that PPAR-γ (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma) is responsible for anti-inflammatory effects, and it is activated by curcumin. The resultant reduction in inflammation throughout the body could be responsible for the remission of disease and pain.
From personal experience, I associated my turmeric use (3000mg daily) with reduced joint pain and improved mood, but my pain score as a young man is much lower than the average arthritic consumer. Despite this, a study from the Journal of Medicinal food noted that an 8-12 week course of supplemental turmeric can reduce arthritis-induced pain. More studies need to be carried out on human subjects over longer timeframes in order to validate the findings of recent research, but it looks positive for curcumin.
Many curcumin supplements are rated extremely highly on Amazon, with the majority of reviews relating to arthritis. It seems the general consensus is that turmeric supplementation is a no-brainer for anyone struggling with inflammatory issues.