Turmeric continues to be all over headlines with claims that the ‘powerful antioxidants’ in it will protect our bodies from any number of problems. Traditionally used in South Asian cooking, it’s being added to foods like coffee and sold as supplements with the promise to give our health a boost.
But is there any truth to the hype for people with arthritis?
The short answer is it might. So the bigger question is actually about how to take turmeric.
Why do people think turmeric will help arthritis pain?
Health messages are making promises that the anti-oxidants in turmeric help with the swelling (inflammation) and joint pain that comes with arthritis.
This comes from the idea that anti-oxidants lower inflammation in the body in general. Therefore, the thought is that anti-oxidants should help any condition related to inflammation. This includes heart diseases, arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases, diabetes, arthritis, etc.
What are the differences between turmeric and curcumin?
Before we talk about if turmeric will actually help arthritis pain or how to take it, let’s first find out what it is.
This is especially important since it will make a difference in what you look for at the store!
Turmeric powder is a spice that comes from the turmeric root and looks similar to ginger root from the outside. It’s most well-know as being used in curries for a woodsy, bitter flavor and bright yellow colour.
Curcumin is the part in turmeric that gives its colour. There are multiple anti-oxidants within turmeric but curcumin is thought to be the most helpful for our health. It’s also commonly used to colour foods and cosmetics as well as to make medicines.
Can turmeric help arthritis symptoms?
Through the years there have been many different anti-oxidants in the spotlight to help with inflammation, such as vitamins A, C and E. As a side note, with more research we’ve learned that high doses of these particular vitamins might be doing more harm than good.
The good news for turmeric? There have been some convincing reports about curcumin benefiting people with Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Different results for Osteoarthritis than Rheumatoid Arthritis
As you’re well aware, there are many different types of arthritis. Two of the most common are Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis. Because they affect our bodies differently, they need to be treated differently.
Let’s take a look at what the research says about each one separately.
Curcumin to help Osteoarthritis:
- ‘possibly effective’ according to The Natural Medicines Database(subscription required)
- A specific product called Meriva (by Indena) was studied, which is made with a combination of curcumin with other ingredients that boost absorption
- dose of 500mg two times a day
- findings suggested long-term improvements for pain and function in people with knee osteoarthritis after 2-3 months of using
- also showed that participants used less pain medications (such as ibuprofen), however it didn’t work as well as diclofenac (ie Voltaren) for improving pain or function
- Another study with a product called CuraMed:
- dose of 1500mg/day for 3 months
- improved function but not less pain
Curcumin to help Rheumatoid Arthritis:
- labeled as ‘not enough information to make a recommendation at this time’ according to
- The Natural Medicines Database(subscription required)
- there is some clinical evidence that curcumin might reduce some rheumatoid arthritis symptoms including pain, morning stiffness, walking time and joint swelling when compared to the person’s usual symptoms before taking the supplement
- A small pilot study with a curcumin product called BCM-95:
- dose of 500mg two times a day
- showed reduced joint pain and swelling in participants with active rheumatoid arthritis better than diclofenac (ie Voltaren) after 2 months
How much curcumin to take
Typical doses, according to what has been studied and showed some benefit are:
- Osteoarthritis: capsules of 400-600mg curcumin, three times a day
- Rheumatoid Arthritis: capsules of 250-500mg curcumin, twice a day
- any benefits seen were usually after 2-3 months of taking the supplement
- the dose recommendations remain general and not specific. There are warnings that long-term use of high doses could be dangerous. However, how much is considered a high dose is still unclear.
In general, turmeric is considered likely safe if taken by mouth or applied to skin, in appropriate doses, for up to 12 months.
How much curcumin is in turmeric?
Eating turmeric powder probably won’t give you the same benefit for arthritis symptoms as taking a supplement, since curcumin only makes up about 2-6% of actual turmeric.
Curcumin is found in other Middle Eastern and Asian spices, including ginger and curry. But, pure turmeric powder has the highest concentrations. It’s been found that 3.14% of turmeric’s dry weight is curcumin, on average (PubMed).
Can I just drink turmeric tea?
This could be one way of how to take turmeric. If you enjoy the taste, there is likely nothing to be concerned with about having up to 1 1/2 tsp of powdered turmeric in a tea or with milk.
As for managing arthritis pain? Turmeric tea can be anti inflammatory for general health. It’s important though that the turmeric powder you use is fresh and high quality to be sure the ani-oxidants have not degraded.
Some organizations have said that 1/2 to 1 1/2 tsp of powdered turmeric is the right dose, however it appears this is geared more toward general health and well-being. It won’t likely be enough though to help specifically with your arthritis symptoms.
If you choose to start with turmeric tea, check in after a couple of months and if you don’t find any differences with pain, function or swelling, you might consider trying the supplement form.
Is turmeric safe?
Turmeric and curcumin typically don’t have serious side effects for most people. Some people may have dizziness, upset stomach, nausea or diarrhea.
However, taking turmeric may make some problems worse including gallbladder, GERD / reflux, stomach ulcers and kidney stones. This is especially true if you’re eating large amounts of powdered turmeric.
Curcumin can have interactions with some medications or health conditions – if you have any of the below, it’s important to speak with your doctor and/or pharmacist before starting:
- diabetes: turmeric extracts can decrease blood sugars and might lower them to an unsafe level for some people, especially if taking medications for diabetes
- anemia / low blood iron: high amounts may decrease or prevent iron absorption leading to worsened iron levels, especially important for people who already have anemia. Amounts usually used in cooking have not been a problem.
- surgery or taking medication to slow blood clotting (ie Warfarin, Coumadin): turmeric may slow your blood’s ability to clot even more leading to risk of bleeding
- other medications: it may also change the way other medication is absorbed by the body meaning that you could have too much or too little of that medication in your blood stream which could present other serious problems
What else should I know about curcumin supplements?
Regulation of supplements
Herbal products, vitamins and minerals, natural health products are not regulated in the same way that prescription medications are. This means they could contain fillers, less active ingredient and maybe even heavy metals.
For more information, visit ‘Natural Health Products’ on the Health Canada website.
Go with reputable brands
They may cost more but they also have stricter monitoring about what is in the product you’re buying. This means more consistent amounts of the product you’re buying, less fillers, closer monitoring for quality and safety.
Be aware of the different forms that turmeric is sold
When looking at labels, you will see raw herb, curcumin, turmeric powder, etc. These will therefore have different dosing and contain different amounts of curcumin.
Labels and numbers can get very confusing with this. Speak with your pharmacist if you have any questions about how much curcumin you’re actually getting and if it’s 1) appropriate and safe 2) the amount to help your type of arthritis.
As you probably have already read online, curcumin isn’t well absorbed into our body on it’s own
- supplements of curcumin have been created to include other ingredients, in the right amounts, to help our bodies absorb it
- pipeline is one part of black pepper that’s is known to help with curcumin absorption
- and again, eating black pepper with powdered turmeric probably won’t give you enough to have a benefit for your arthritis
The bottom line about turmeric and curcumin
It’s rare that any research will make a statement that the results are meant for everyone, with 100% certainty. There will always need to be more studies to make sure it’s always safe, at what dose, for how long, and for what people and what conditions. I like to talk pros and cons with people. What are the possible harms?
At this point in time, turmeric and curcumin look like fairly safe options for people who are dealing with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
For turmeric and curcumin, it seems like the benefits may outweigh the possible risks, assuming:
- you are not taking other medications that may interact
- do not have health conditions described above
- that you take doses in the ranges known to be safe
- you are willing to pay for this product, as it is not a prescription medication that could be covered by medical benefits
- Always check with your doctor and/or pharmacist before starting any supplements, vitamins or minerals or other natural health remedies to be sure there are no interactions with your current medications.
- Please also be aware that information presented in this article is for general purposes. It’s a good idea to have professional guidance when introducing supplements to your diet or drastically changing your eating patterns.
Best anti inflammatory foods
There are other nutrition-related strategies that might also help with symptoms of arthritis if you’re not interested in trying turmeric supplements.
I know there’s a lot of whacky and confusing information out there about the best anti inflammatory foods. When you’re dealing with arthritis pain, it’s easy to want to try anything and maybe everything.
If you’re feeling confused about where to start, I can help.
If you want to learn more about the Best Food for Rheumatoid Arthritis, consider signing up for a First Visit with me. We’ll review any supplements you’re taking or considering taking and talk about your eating patterns. We’ll then talk about my suggestions and ways you can get started immediately.
Take the guesswork out of all the good things you are trying to do for your health.
I also offer free Q & A calls so you can meet me before deciding to book a session. This is a great time to test out how working with me online will go (hint: it’s easier than Skype or FaceTime!). You’ll also get a chance to find out everything you wanted to know about working with a dietitian.
Reserve your free Q & A call here. Once you sign up, you’ll receive a confirmation email with all the instructions and info you’ll need before we meet!
Angela Hubbard is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) with 10 years experience working in the field of nutrition. Her work focuses on empowering people with young minds and aging bodies as they enter their retirement years and beyond. In her off time she loves swapping recipes, creating and exploring Northern BC life with her young family.