Turmeric Probably Won’t Help Your Arthritis — But Curcumin Might

Learn more about how curcumin, a chemical in the spice turmeric, may help reduce arthritis symptoms.

By Linda Rath | Updated March 1, 2023

Turmeric has moved to the top of the healthy food chain. The 4,000-year-old staple of Southeast Asian cooking is showing up everywhere, including ballpark snacks and Starbucks lattes. It’s easy to understand why; turmeric’s most active component, curcumin, is a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant that may help treat or prevent diseases ranging from arthritis to ulcerative colitis and cancer. But does adding turmeric to your latte or plate of chicken masala do these things?

Not likely, says Randy Horowitz, MD, medical director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson.

“Turmeric only contains about 2 to 6% curcumin, so you’re not getting much [of the anti-inflammatory effect],” he says.

Ground turmeric has other strikes against it. Ezra Bejar, PhD, a San Diego-based expert in botanical research, warns that with turmeric’s increasing popularity, unscrupulous manufacturers are adding synthetic turmeric to the real thing. Some additives, like vibrantly yellow lead chromate, are toxic. In the last few years, 13 brands of turmeric have been recalled for lead contamination.

How Curcumin Works

Curcumin seems to target specific molecules or pathways that control the cell cycle. It also blocks inflammatory cytokines and enzymes, including cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), the target of the pain reliever celecoxib (Celebrex). That’s why studies have shown that it can be helpful for people with osteoarthritis (OA). For example, a 2021 review of 15 randomized controlled trials found curcumin relieved OA pain and stiffness as well or better than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and celecoxib –  minus potentially serious side effects. Doses ranged from 40 mg of a highly bioavailable form of curcumin to 1,500 mg. 

Other research suggests that low doses of curcumin may help restore a normal balance between T cells that cause inflammation (Th17 cells) and those that protect against it (regulatory T cells). An imbalance in these cells is believed to drive lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases. In one small randomized controlled trial, twice daily doses of either 250 or 500 mg of curcumin were compared to placebo. Both doses significantly outperformed placebo on all measures. They reduced disease activity and significantly lowered inflammation markers and rheumatoid factor (RF) values.

Stick With Supplements

Experts say to stick with curcumin supplements, preferably the high-quality extracts used in clinical trials, which contain up to 95% curcumin. Look for brands using black pepper (piperine), phospholipids (Meriva, BCM-95) antioxidants (CurcuWIN) or nanoparticles (Theracurmin) for better bioavailability. Curcumin is hard for your body to absorb; only about 2 to 3% may end up in your bloodstream. To increase absorption even more, take curcumin with a meal where you consume some fat. Experts recommend 500 mg of high-quality curcumin twice a day for both OA and RA. Good choices include medical grade products by Thorne or Pure Encapsulations. Be sure any curcumin supplement you take has been independently tested for authenticity and toxic metals by a third party, such as ConsumerLab.

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