Dear Doctor: I have heard that turmeric supplements work quite well in an anti-inflammatory capacity, with less risk than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. What are your thoughts on turmeric as an anti-inflammatory supplement?
Dear Reader: The turmeric powder found in spice racks — and the component of it found in supplements — comes from the underground stem of a plant native to India and southeast Asia, which is cooked and then ground to create an orange-yellow powder. Long used in Ayurvedic medicine to control inflammation and pain and to treat upper respiratory infections, turmeric contains compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents. The best-known and most-studied is curcumin.
One big problem with assessing the impact of curcumin is that, in its pure form, the compound is poorly absorbed by the body and is quickly eliminated. A 2016 study reviewed six studies that used turmeric or curcumin specifically for arthritis pain, comparing them to either a placebo, glucosamine or the NSAIDs ibuprofen or diclofenac. The dosage of curcumin in the studies varied from 100 milligrams to up to 2,000 milligrams per day.
The studies found that curcumin decreased pain significantly compared to placebo and that it was comparable to ibuprofen and diclofenac in decreasing pain and stiffness. Side effects of curcumin included sore throat, gastrointestinal bloating, swelling around the eyes and itching. These side effects were more frequent at doses higher than 1,200 milligrams. The authors noted that, while the benefits seen with curcumin were encouraging, the number of people involved was small and the studies had methodological flaws. Further, the longest study in this group lasted only four months, so long-term side effects or benefits couldn’t be assessed.