Are the health benefits of curcumin supplements hype or real?
May 26, 2019 3:26 AM   Subscribe

I am considering taking curcumin supplements(one of those with black pepper extract for better absorption) to improve my health but I would like to know if they are really worth it given the expense.

It would be probably be cheaper and safer to consume "golden paste" (a mix of turmeric powder, oil and black pepper) but which will be more effective? Popping a pill is certainly easier than cooking up golden paste and trying to incorporate the latter into my daily diet.

I would like to know more about Mefites' experiences with turmeric and curcumin supplements, especially if you are someone from a scientific/medical background.

Apparently some people have had encountered side effects and I am concerned since I have never taken it before. I do regularly eat spicy food with turmeric in it but I have no idea what would happen if I suddenly ramped up doses with either golden paste or curcumin supplements.
posted by whitelotus to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Just a brief read of the Wikipedia page makes me think this is not worth doing, and that if it did have any pharmacological effect it would likely be negative.
posted by slkinsey at 3:42 AM on May 26, 2019

It’s a very good anti-inflammatory. But it interferes with my allergy med so I can’t take it. No other side effect here.
posted by Neekee at 4:22 AM on May 26, 2019

It depends exactly what health benefits you're hoping for. There is some evidence that it works for some conditions, like colitis, but not so much for claims that it helps with memory, depression and cancer. I love the infographic Snake Oil Supplements from Information Is Beautiful. You can filter by different conditions and if you click on a bubble, it gives you the nutshell version with links to relevant research.

If you still want to go ahead and try it, consider that the more ritual there is around a particular treatment, the more likely it is that the placebo effect will kick in. So you might be better off with the golden paste simply because it is time-consuming to prepare. After all, if the placebo effect works, it's still helpful!
posted by Athanassiel at 5:21 AM on May 26, 2019 [16 favorites]

I would be very wary. Turmeric does have anti-inflammatory properties but is meant to be consumed in small quantities. There's a reason no Indian recipes ask you to use very large quantities of turmeric - in fact, I've always been warned not to overdo the turmeric. A friend went really overboard on the turmeric dosing after reading all the hype and ended up with an anal fistula and surgery. Do not recommend.
posted by peacheater at 5:23 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh also, I forgot to say I took turmeric for inflammation and did not notice any effect. On the other hand, I didn't wind up with a fistula either so I'll count it as a win!
posted by Athanassiel at 5:32 AM on May 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

You don’t say what about your “health” you wish to “improve.” The question “does this work?” Is always best asked as “compared to what and for what exact purpose and how do you know?”

There is almost *no* good clinical evidence for the value of turmeric as a general “nutritional supplement.” Just because it has “anti-inflammatory” properties doesn’t make it useful. So does Advil. Unlike ibuprofen or aspirin, no one knows the safe or effective dose or whether there is an “effective dose.” Just because it’s “natural” doesn’t make it safe. Aspirin is natural. Would you take 40?

Hype is why you’ve even heard of it. A few years ago it was ginseng that was going to cure Alzheimer’s and cancer and scabies and turn you into a perfect specimen. Hardly meet anyone who takes it now.
posted by spitbull at 6:24 AM on May 26, 2019 [10 favorites]

If it’s being sold in the US as a supplement, it is nearly totally unregulated. If it’s unregulated there is not and oversight or required testing to prove the treatment works. Or even to prove that the bottle contains what is listed on the label. Turmeric and black pepper are at least food and regulated as such (in the US not suuuuuuper stringently, but better than supplements).
posted by bilabial at 7:03 AM on May 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

This recent summary seems well-considered:

One thing they also point out is that turmeric is sometimes contaminated with heavy metals like lead - something that might not stop me if I'm using a little in cooking, but would give me pause if I were taking it (or unregulated supplements derived from it) in high doses.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:07 AM on May 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

Anecdata: I have had to counsel patients to stop taking turmeric because it can increase risk of bleeding. In one case it was probably the culprit of halting the recovery of a brain bleed.

Otherwise I echo most of the comments above: there are regulatory issues with supplements, nothing is a cure-all, a plant/natural thing doesn't mean it doesn't act like a drug in certain doses, and ergo has pros and cons just like any other drug.
posted by cobaltnine at 7:33 AM on May 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

The most specific thing that I've heard about turmeric is that it binds to (?) and hence prevents some of the carcinogenic effects of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are produced when you singe meats while cooking with fire. Hence consuming them together defangs the meat to some extent.

BUT! "Some is good" does not imply that "more is better". Consider the people who poisoned their livers taking large doses of green tea extract. It's hard to overdose on spices and the like when you are using them to season your food and no more.
posted by heatherlogan at 7:41 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

The People's Pharmacy collects information about things like this, especially studies that give data on effectiveness.
posted by amtho at 7:47 AM on May 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

I take turmeric because there is some evidence that it may be helpful for the kind of cancer I have. If you’re a cancer patient, you don’t always want to wait for the specific studies that may never be done. I would not take it as a general health supplement. If there’s no specific health concern, you’re way better off spending that money on more fresh fruits and vegetables. There’s absolutely no downside to that.
posted by FencingGal at 8:03 AM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yep, that CMAJ study discussed in the Consumer Reports article that needs more cowbell posted is damning. Large scale, rigorous, double blind, placebo controlled and no significant results.

“Anti-inflammatory properties” is the new “immune system boosting” — a line of marketing hype that sounds vaguely scientific. It’s happening with the CBD Bullshit Goldrush too. Remember when anti-oxidants were the new hotness?
posted by spitbull at 9:41 AM on May 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

It’s damning in terms of short-term use following surgery in older patients. That’s all they tested.
posted by FencingGal at 10:12 AM on May 26, 2019

I do believe there is something of significance in heating/cooking the turmeric for it to be useful.
My personal experience with taking tumeric and black pepper (gradually worked up to 3T and 1/2t a day) added to a large pot of water and boiled 20 minutes then sipped throughout the day, for 90 days, was really quite disgusting, both to consume and the effects, the details of which probably not appropriate to share, but you should be forewarned that if you have any type of previously undetected internal parasites, they will come out of your body, and they will exit through whichever mucous membrane they see fit. It was the stuff of horror movies.
And yes to what other posters have noted: there is a definite blood thinning effect.
You will also smell strongly of tumeric.
As for health effects, I can't say I noticed any, but I was taking it alongside pretty anything else i could try at the time in desperation to get an antibiotic resistant systematic staph infection under control.
posted by OnefortheLast at 11:28 AM on May 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have joint inflammation issues and was told high doses of turmeric would help - that the amount you could easily eat in a day wouldn’t be enough. I decided to give it a try. I think I did it for maybe 6 months? No help. Just indigestion. Gave up and glad I did, as I really didn’t do enough research on it to begin with. I’m usually better about my research. There’s just not enough to show it does anything, or even if it is safe in high doses.
posted by greermahoney at 12:06 PM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

There is some evidence for curcumin's use for osteoarthritis:

I take curcumin and green-lipped mussel extract. One of those has helped me greatly but I'm not sure which.
posted by superelastic at 1:48 PM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

The generally accepted theory in the woo circles I occassionally run in are that curcumin is made bioavailable through heat and is fat soluble. Its uptake is improved with the addition of black pepper. So hearing some turmeric and fresh ground black pepper in some whole milk, or heating in coconut oil and then adding a nut milk if you're vegan, is what you do around here. I've checked the studies and while kind of true, the labs were working with isolated curcumin and pepper extracts so...

On the other hand, the above recipe (golden milk) with a bit of honey is quite palatable and makes a nice morning beverage, if nothing else.
posted by ananci at 2:37 PM on May 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Almost all the really solid research on curcumin have been done in vitro, i.e. in a test tube. And what happens to cells in a test tube frequently doens't happen to our bodies in real life because bodies are way more complicated than cells.

Furthermore, You have to take heroic amounts of tumeric to really get an appreciable quantity of it. I don't know if you've eaten that much tumeric before. Buckle up, if no.

As a delightful corollary to this, tumeric is regularly recalled because it's been contaminated with lead chromate (a yellow powder, basically, they are padding out the tumeric). If you're eating that much tumeric, you're may be copping an equally heroic amount of lead. And whilst the jury is out on tumeric, it's definitely in on the effects of eating lots of lead.

Eat a well balanced diet with lots of fruit and veg, and cop a bit (but not too much!) of sunlight, along with 20-50 minutes of vigrous exercise for your health. Most everything else is iffy.
posted by smoke at 4:26 PM on May 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

I don't know about curcumin, but whether it be placebo or medicine that has been used for thousands of years: turmeric is the wonderdrug that stops my migraines in their tracks.
posted by aniola at 4:52 PM on May 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I took one bottle (30 days? 60 days? I don't remember). No noticeable improvement of anything, but I did notice that I *strongly* smelled of curry all the time. Which I did not enjoy and was the primary reason I stopped taking it.
posted by vignettist at 9:21 PM on May 27, 2019

I tried it for 2 months. I had high hopes for it helping with my chronic pain, but it did nothing. Some people swear by it. YMMV.
posted by Gordafarin at 3:57 AM on May 28, 2019

Thanks to everyone who answered. I have decided not to buy the supplement but take golden paste every day at levels comparable to normal culinary uses (not more than a teaspoon).

I have been stirring golden paste into my morning beverage these past three days. The smell/taste is truly vile and I have been masking it with cocoa powder. I also made way too much golden paste in my first attempt because I was too ambitious about how much golden paste I thought I could consume in a week.

It's early days yet and I'm not sure if it's some kind of placebo effect but my skin seems unusually clear and well-behaved these few days. While older pimples are still there, there seem to be no new angry, red and inflamed ones. Would report back in a week to say if my skin continues to improve and if I feel it is worthwhile to continue.
posted by whitelotus at 8:33 AM on May 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Update: I have been taking the golden paste for a week now. I do think there is some kind of effect so I shall persevere but I smell of turmeric and am heartily sick of the stuff.
posted by whitelotus at 8:51 PM on June 3, 2019

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