As spices go, turmeric is pretty hard to miss. Its blazing yellow color truly stands out in the spice aisle. Anti-inflammatory properties also make this spice a popular dietary supplement. It’s even found its way into teas, smoothies, facials, wound creams and band aids, plus beauty products like face masks. Hungover? Turmeric gummies can supposedly ease those binging woes.

You may have also seen supplements containing curcumin, a major component of turmeric, and one of its most biologically active compounds. Both turmeric and curcumin are marketed as antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties. But there may be a difference between using the whole form of turmeric rather than curcumin alone.

The Appeal of Natural Medicine

Turmeric is the powdered form of the underground stem (or rhizome) of Cucurma longa, a member of the ginger family. Like ginger, you can peel and chop the fresh root, or use it dried in spice form. The vivid-colored stem gives yellow mustards and curry their bright colors, and boosts their flavors. This spice is used both orally and topically, to treat things like bruises and wounds, in traditional medicine in Southeast Asia, China and India.

For many, the traditional and natural designation adds appeal to turmeric. In a push toward better health, dietary supplements are tempting little shortcuts. Natural health products are easy to find in the grocery or drugstore. They’re accessible, whereas visiting a doctor for a prescription takes money and time. They also pose a potentially way to soothe achy knees or other ailments, without the side effects of aspirin and other Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). Combined with high health care costs today, people look for promising ways to prevent cancer, dementia and heart disease, or find a path toward a restful night’s sleep.

The term natural has its own appeal, too, when it comes to the realm of minerals, vitamins or dietary supplements. But researchers advise to approach with caution. “People make a mistake in thinking something is safe because it’s natural. Remember, all poisons come from nature,” says Ikhlas Khan, director of the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi.

Another issue to consider: Dietary supplements and their ingredients are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration like a special food category rather than a drug, as established by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. This means they do not require approval as safe or effective before hitting the market.  

Today, companies are enriching or synthesizing a single component of spices, and selling them in doses as high as several hundred milligrams. This means that capsules of curcumin don’t resemble the whole, natural spice or its full benefits. Sprinkling turmeric into your favorite curry is one thing. But turning turmeric, or any other spice with beneficial properties, into a single component, high-dose capsule, is a “totally new ballgame,” Khan says.

Dietary supplements, by definition, are supposed to boost an already healthy diet. And maybe our diets could be healthier, but “home remedies aren’t meant to cure everything,” Khan says.

Research Challenges

Because turmeric has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidative actions, researchers have been zeroing in on curcumin, which makes up about 5 percent of turmeric by weight. Curcumin is being studied as a remedy for many conditions, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, erectile dysfunction, baldness, and as both contraception and a fertility booster.

In laboratory cultures and animal models, curcumin has worked against bacteria, fungi, parasites, cancer cells and viruses, such as HIV and HPV. In people, topically, it has boosted wound healing. Some of these methods are currently being tested in clinical trials. But to date, curcumin hasn’t seen much, if any, success in human trials.

In a small, recent clinical trial published in Annals of Internal Medicine, turmeric did seem to help pain relief for people with knee osteoarthritis, a painful and irreversible condition in which cartilage wears down to the bone. Researchers at the University of Tasmania, Australia, randomly assigned 70 people to either a turmeric extract or placebo for 12 weeks. People in the treatment group reported less pain than the placebo group on a questionnaire. The extract did not reduce swelling, or build healthy cartilage.

A 2018 clinical trial published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, studying curcumin alone, showed different results. The team enrolled 606 participants having major vascular surgery, at one of 10 hospitals across Canada. Participants either received placebo or 2000mg of oral curcumin twice a day for four days. Researchers measured four biomarkers of inflammation and found no difference in the groups, or in perioperative complications, or length of hospital stay.

These findings don’t surprised Katheryn Nelson, a medicinal chemist at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. In 2017, Nelson and her colleagues reviewed some of the studies on curcumin, including double-blinded placebo-controlled clinical trials, and published their results in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. While not a comprehensive meta-analysis, their findings cast doubt on curcumin’s ability to treat a wide range of diseases.

That doesn’t mean researchers should abandon turmeric as a potential therapy, says Nelson and her team. Curcumin is only one of the hundreds of active components found in turmeric, and the biological activity of those chemicals still need to be sorted out. “There may very well be something beneficial about turmeric. A lot of traditional medicines have staying power because they do something,” she says.

But Nelson doubts that curcumin is the component in turmeric that’s driving this spice’s benefits. “I don’t believe it’s doing anything, based on the data,” she says.

One option for researchers, says Nelson, is to take a more holistic approach to turmeric, by considering all of the parts of the plant and also the broad applications it has found in traditional medicines. A complex mixture, for example, will have different chemical and pharmacological properties, as compared to a single, isolated molecule that can have very different effects. 

A Supplement, Not a Cure

People often lump dietary supplements and traditional medicine together. But traditional medicine was designed to treat a specific health problem for a limited time by targeting the cause of the disease. “They were given for a couple of weeks and stopped,” says Khan. “Traditional medicines are not meant to be taken every day for the rest of your life.”

While it’s good to add spices and herbs to our food, moderation is important. Turmeric is generally considered safe, and the spice’s anti-inflammatory properties might ease your achy joints. Just don’t expect turmeric to cure your osteoarthritis, since dietary supplements are not meant to cure anything, says Khan.

It’s also important to know that not everyone can tolerate turmeric, which can cause an upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea or dizziness. It may also change how the liver breaks down some medications. A detailed list (as well as additional details on the spice) can be found on Rrxlist.com.

The best strategy, says Khan, is to take in healthy food, every day. Cook with spices and herbs, including turmeric, because they taste good, and also bring some health benefits.