Turmeric (But Really Curcumin) for Inflammation: How and Why It Works

The prevalence of turmeric shots everywhere from grocery stores to gas stations begs an interesting question: What’s turmeric and why is it suddenly everywhere?

Why is it everywhere? That’s easy. For one, it’s beautiful. Few things are more social media friendly than a drink that can be referred to as “sunshine in a cup.” But it wouldn’t be so wide-ranging if it wasn’t impactful.

After describing its beauty, the first thing anyone you ask about turmeric is going to tell you is that it’s great for inflammation. The turmeric brand has gripped the fight against inflammation niche and it is firmly planted there.

And really, it’s been planted in that niche for thousands of years even if that benefit wasn’t always clear. Turmeric has been used medicinally by South Asian cultures as far back as the the 1200s. But as is the case with many herbs and spices, the way it worked, how it worked and why it worked was not well-defined. Everyone just knew it worked and used it in a wide variety of manners.

The marrying of traditional medicine and modern medicine has helped define the best usages of turmeric in the past twenty years.

Turmeric for Inflammation

Turmeric has been clinically studied dozens of times in the 21st century and the results overwhelmingly indicate that main source of turmeric’s medicinal properties is curcumin.

Curcumin is a polyphenol - a word you’re going to want to get to know if plant-based alternatives in the medicinal world interest you. Polyphenols are a class of compounds found in plant foods - they’re typically the antioxidants you hear about when you hear about the benefits of antioxidants. Blueberries, spinach, matcha, cacao: all rich in polyphenols. Remember this word.

And so is turmeric. Curcumin specifically. Among the polyphenols, curcumin ranks high in its ability to combat inflammation. Additionally, curcumin has shown promising potential in uses for cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, arthritis, neurological diseases and Crohn's disease - the therapeutic benefits are wide-ranging and, frankly, staggering.

Why Curcumin in Turmeric Is Anti-Inflammatory

Within the body, there’s a very close relationship between what’s called oxidative stress and inflammation. They can easily induce one and other. Oxidative stress is an imbalance in “free radicals” (also known as reactive oxygen species) and antioxidant defenses. Curcumin - remember polyphenols? - works to re-balance the count of free radicals and antioxidant defenses. On top of that, curcumin down-regulates the most potent mediator of inflammation within the body that’s increased by different inflammatory stimuli.

So it balances out the fight between free radicals and antioxidants and turns down the volume on the inflammation controller in a way that few other natural or pharmacological supplements can match.

But there’s a catch - bioavailability. That’s a very sciencey word, so the simple definition of bioavailability is how much of an initial dose of any ingredient successfully reaches the intended target. In this instance, if 100% of curcumin ingested enters your body, only a small fraction of it gets where it needs to go. A tragedy.

Re-enter turmeric.

The Best Way to Take Turmeric for Inflammation

By heating turmeric, the solubility of curcumin improves 12-fold! As solubility improves, so does bioavailability. It turns out that heating a golden milk latte is not only great for the taste, but the efficacy of its superstar ingredient too. Bioavailability is also why many people refer to black pepper as something of an activating agent for turmeric. It enhances the bioavailability of curcumin.

On average, even as little as 35mg of curcumin can have a positive impact on the body each day - but an 150mg - 500mg if absorbed properly is even more beneficial. On average, a gram of turmeric has around 50mg of curcumin, with turmeric extra having even more curcumin. Most studies focus on turmeric extract.

But whether you’re focusing on turmeric extract, turmeric the plant, turmeric powder, turmeric in food or golden milk lattes packed with turmeric evidence suggests you’re doing yourself a favor the more you ingest it. Without question, turmeric, thanks to curcumin, is one of the most therapeutic natural ingredients you can enjoy on a daily basis.