Curcumin, the most active medical ingredient found in the spice tumeric, has recently gained attention for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Though relatively new to the supplement shelf, this compound has long been used in Asian countries for its medicinal value.
Increasing evidence from preclinical studies has shown that curcumin may help prevent or treat several types of cancers, including prostate, breast, skin, and colon cancer. In addition to acting as an effective scavenger of free radicals, curcumin aids immune function and supports healthy cell reproduction. Ongoing research is also evaluating the effect of curcumin in Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive function.
Numerous studies have also shown curcumin is able to block inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and even reduce neuro-inflammation. Inflammation is now believed to contribute to every major disease, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and depression, says Dr. Bharat Aggarwal, professor of medicine at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. “Wherever inflammation is a problem, curcumin may be helpful.”
So what is the difference between turmeric, curcuminoids, curcumin and the various available formulations?
While these three terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not synonymous. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a bright yellow spice of the ginger family (Zingiberacear) that has been used for thousands of years in Southeast Asia, China, and India for cooking and medicinal use. It is a primary component of curry powder. Within the turmeric plant is a family of active compounds (curcumin, demethoxycurcumin, and bisdemethoxycurcumin). Curcumin is the compound within turmeric that has been shown to exhibit the greatest health benefits and comprises the highest percentage of active compound in commercial products. (The typical ratio of curcuminoids is 77% curcumin, 17% demothoxycurcumin and 3% bisdemethoxycurcumin.)
Bioavailability is Key
Though curcumin performs a wide range of biological activities, absorption of this compound is very limited due to its low water solubility, intestinal instability and rapid elimination. In essence, it is difficult to consume enough curcumin for it to exert a bioactive effect. Several studies have demonstrated that oral administration of curcumin may not effectively deliver curcumin to tissues outside of the gastrointestinal tract. This has limited its therapeutic use and caused researchers to search for more effective means of delivery.
Companies are using several strategies in an attempt to improve curcumin’s bioavailability, with varying degrees of success. These include co-administration with adjuvants like piperine (a component of black pepper), complexes created with essential oils, and encapsulation into nanoparticles, liposomes, and phytosomes.