Is turmeric good for your health?
We Indians love our spices, and none more than turmeric. This essential yellow ingredient, in most Indian recipes, was discovered by Ayurveda, adopted by the West and now has come home once again in the form of alternative medicine, or even mainstream medicine, as doctors have started prescribing it. This is all because of a fascinating chemical that Turmeric contains – Curcumin. This molecule is making waves across the world and is being touted as a panacea of sorts that can heal almost anything you can think of – arthritis, diabetes, aches, pains, sore throats, baldness, obesity, heart disease and even cancer. But does curcumin work? If it does, will eating turmeric have the same effect? What are the side effects of turmeric? Is it medicine yet or still in the realm of alternative or complementary medicine?
We are getting to the bottom of this today.
How it all started
Turmeric has been described in Ayurvedic texts for hundreds of years (thousands maybe?). Only recently, relatively speaking, a French chemist called Pierre-Joseph Pelletier isolated the yellow colouring matter in turmeric and called it Curcumin. That was back in 1815.
Recently, it’s made a comeback, as things do. There’s no real knowing why. Trends come and go, but this one is sticking around. And because it’s said to be “eastern medicine” and a “natural remedy” it’s gained an all-new fervour in India too.
What curcumin does
One of the main reasons why curcumin has gained so much steam is because of the power of social media, and all the research that’s gone into it. Even doctors have been prescribing it to their patients. I’ve had two doctors recommend I try it saying there’s a lot of promising research supporting its anti-inflammatory properties.
I have family members and friends too who swear by it, saying it’s treated some ailments that even their doctors couldn’t fix.
In fact, people have been saying it can treat all sorts of ailments. Inflammatory diseases like chronic pain, like fibromyalgia, arthritis and psoriasis, are just the beginning. Many also claim that it cures baldness, helps with coughs, helps you lose weight, lowers cholesterol, prevents dementia and yes, even cancer.
All this is very exciting, of course, but we need to be careful. The first thing that comes to my mind when I see all these diseases it can cure is - how is that even possible?
Such remedies are called cure-alls or panaceas. And that’s a problem. Because panaceas can’t work. Let me explain why.
Every disease or disorder we experience is triggered by a different thing or presents in a unique way in the human body. Our physiology is super complex, and all its problems are not rooted in one place. Take a car, as an analogy. If you get a flat tire, putting fuel in the car isn’t going to fix the problem. You have to change the tire. Now imagine the breaks aren’t working or the steering wheel is stuck, or there’s a weird sound coming from the engine. A panacea is like putting fuel in the car no matter what the problem is and expecting it to get fixed. The truth is, it isn’t going to fix any of these problems. The only thing it’ll do is add fuel to the car. But how far are you going to drive on a flat tyre or a dead engine? You’re not going far at all.
It’s the same deal with medicines. You’re not going to take a Crocin for a stomach ache or a Digene for back pain. Every problem is different and needs different treatment.
So curcumin being a panacea is unrealistic and implausible. But there has been a lot of research done on it to find out what it really does.
The problem is, most of these research studies are of poor quality or done in vitro meaning “in glass” in science-speak. That means the tests have been done in Petri dishes and test tubes in a lab. That is the very first step in the research process. How things react in a test tube doesn’t even come close to how a chemical will work in a human body.
There have been a few studies on people though. These human trials are so small and of such poor quality that we can’t really rely on them for anything. These tests haven’t even been replicated by independent labs to corroborate the findings. A review in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry said this:
“The likely false activity of curcumin in vitro and in vivo has resulted in >120 clinical trials of curcuminoids against several diseases. No double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trial of curcumin has been successful. This manuscript reviews the essential medicinal chemistry of curcumin and provides evidence that curcumin is an unstable, reactive, non-bioavailable compound and, therefore, a highly improbable lead.”
The Essential Medicinal Chemistry of Curcumin, 2017, Journal of Medicinal Chemistry
So is there any good evidence for what curcumin does? Nope. At best, nothing concrete for sure. But supplement companies like to tell you how much research has gone into this product but don’t tell you what the study found or even how reliable the findings are. Because who would possibly want to do that and destroy all those sweet, sweet sales.
But there have been some valid research done, and it’s found some interesting stuff.
The Bioavailability problem
It so happens that curcumin is not easy for the body to absorb. Most of it goes in through one end and out the other. Makes your poop a bit yellow too. And if you have the whole turmeric, then you end up consuming even less curcumin because only 3% of the entire spice actually contains curcumin.
So you barely absorb any of it anyway. Unless you eat it with pepper, which contains a chemical called piperine, which helps more curcumin gets absorbed into the body. But the problem still remains - we yet don’t know for sure what happens once it gets absorbed.
Dr Harriet Hall, MD, has described it quite well in her article on ScienceBasedMedicine.org:
“Turmeric is generally considered safe, but high doses have caused indigestion, nausea, vomiting, reflux, diarrhoea, liver problems, and worsening of gallbladder disease. The NMCD warns that it may interact with anticoagulants and antiplatelet drugs to increase the risk of bleeding, that it should be used with caution in patients with gallstones or gallbladder disease and in patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease, and that it should be discontinued at least 2 weeks before elective surgery. Purchasers of supplements are not given that information.”
Why are doctors prescribing it?
Doctors are humans too. And a lot of the studies that have been published about curcumin that have a sheen of credibility to them, but they are all still small and low-quality studies. And a large number of them doesn’t change the fact they are bad. Bullshit is still bullshit, regardless of the quantity of bullshit you have. But this too has a role to play in the doctor’s mind.
So, doctors are also subject to the same biases and fallacies as everyone else. If some of their trusted colleagues say it’s helped their patients (even if it’s due to confirmation biases everywhere) the chances are that they will prescribe it their own patients too. Depending on how convinced they and their patients are of the effect, it’s not inconceivable that they’ll see some positive trends here and there.
The doctors that prescribed it to me, for example, said I could give it a shot as some of their patients felt relief from inflammation and pain. I had minor surgery for sleep apnoea, in this case. The pain and swelling was getting better a little every day anyway, as I am sure it would have been for other patients. I was also taking pain meds to manage it. Taking an extra supplement on top of it could have helped if the remedy was reliable. But then, how would my doctors or I figure out which medicine was having a beneficial effect?
In such a situation, it’s easy to give credit to the wrong treatment, especially when there is a slew of other medicines and the body’s natural healing processes already at work. Plus, if I were fond of alternative medicine, I would have been more than willing to overlook everything else and give credit to curcumin. And that goes back to the doctor, who is always happy to see the patient feeling better, which, in turn, drives him to prescribe it to future patients. It’s a positive feedback loop. At least, this is how I see things. There’s no science behind this, but to me, it seems like a plausible hypothesis.
In my case, I refused the curcumin pills and have since recovered fully.
So, should you take curcumin?
Honestly, that’s totally up to you. All I can do is give you the facts, and those are that we just don’t know how curcumin affects the human body, if at all. Right now, we just don’t know for sure what beneficial effects it’ll have if you eat it. But I do recommend you go ahead and put in your cooking. If you’re Indian, you probably already do that. I would just recommend you stay sceptical of people’s claims about what curcumin does until we have some substantial evidence to support its usage.
There’s something odd about all this hype about this remedy. Turmeric, or rather curcumin, being so widely consumed in this country, should have a profound positive effect on the health of the general population, if all the claims about the benefits of turmeric are valid. However, we don’t seem to be an extraordinarily healthy nation. We have the same problems here that plague the rest of the world. We may even be a bit worse off in some cases as compared to first world countries because our population is so vast and our medical infrastructure is struggling to meet all our needs. But we still have heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes, along with all the infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders one can imagine.
One can argue that we need to consume larger doses of this stuff then. But how can that be substantiated? There’s no evidence to support it. But we do have findings telling us what the side effects will be.
We also know what happens when such hype goes too far and when unlicensed naturopathic practitioners try to use it to make their own concoctions and end up takes lives. Take the story of Jade Erick, a 30-year-old woman with eczema. She went to a naturopathic doctor, Kim Kelly who then gave her an intravenous dose of curcumin mixed with castor oil that wasn’t even treated for medical usage. She died very quickly of a cardiac arrest. It was the castor oil that killed her, to be honest. But curcumin was promoted as some kind of magical cure-all on Kelly’s website, as is the case with many naturopaths. It’s just that he went a step too far.
Naturopathy is for another article though.
Reliable Sources: For this topic, I just had to find as many articles from reliable sources as I could find. I’ve tried reading through some of the medical literature, but my scientific paper reading skills aren’t up to the mark yet. For that, I depended on Examine.com, Skeptoid.com, Sciencebasedmedicine.org and others listed below. Read them when you get some time.