The Impressive Brain Benefits of Curcumin Supplements

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Studies show that curcumin, a bioactive compound in turmeric, can treat depression, anxiety, brain aging & more. Enhanced curcumin supplements work best.

curcumin supplements and turmeric powder

Curcumin is the main bioactive compound in the Indian spice turmeric.

It’s responsible for turmeric’s brilliant gold color and most of its impressive health benefits.

Curcumin is most commonly taken to fight the pain and inflammation of arthritis, but it’s also a standout as a brain enhancer and protector.

Curcumin supplements can lift your mood, control stress and anxiety, and protect your brain against aging and neurodegenerative disease.

Here’s why this remarkable compound is nutritional gold for your brain and mental health.

The Mental Health Benefits of Curcumin Supplements

Curcumin exhibits a wide array of healthful properties.

It is naturally anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-cancer.

Over 300 compounds have been found in turmeric and curcumin isn’t the only beneficial compound, but it is the most promising and widely studied. (1)

Here are the notable mental health benefits of curcumin that have been discovered so far:

Curcumin Is a Natural Antidepressant

Curcumin shows great potential as a natural antidepressant.

In fact, it’s been found to be as effective for depression as the popular selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) Prozac. (2)

This is great news for the millions who have tried antidepressants without success, or for those who have experienced unacceptable side effects. (3)

Curcumin is believed to work by increasing two key neurotransmitters linked to depression, serotonin and dopamine. (4)

In one study, three groups of patients with depression were given either curcumin, Prozac, or a combination of both.

Curcumin supplements were found to be as effective as Prozac, and patients who took both curcumin and Prozac experienced the greatest relief from their depression. (5)

Another way curcumin impacts depression is by reducing brain inflammation. (6)

There’s now compelling evidence that depression may be one of many diseases caused by chronic inflammation. (78)

If you experience depression, even major depressive disorder, there is no downside to taking curcumin supplements. (9)

Curcumin is safe for most people to take indefinitely.

And unlike many other substances, curcumin can safely be combined with antidepressant medications and actually enhances their effectiveness. (1011) 

Curcumin can also be safely combined with other natural remedies for depression, such as St. John’s wort and SAM-e.

Curcumin Protects Against Brain Aging

Curcumin nourishes and protects the brain in a variety of ways.

It’s a potent antioxidant that readily crosses the blood-brain barrier to protect brain cells from free radical damage. (12)

It can improve memory and concentration by increasing blood flow to the brain. (13)

One study found that taking curcumin supplements improved blood flow as much as physical exercise! (14)

Impressively, another study found that one dose of curcumin significantly improved attention and working memory in healthy seniors within an hour. (15)

Curcumin raises the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates the creation of new brain cells. (16)

Additionally, it can boost neuroplasticity — your brain’s ability to change and grow throughout your lifetime. (17)

New research shows that curcumin increases the bioavailability of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 essential fatty acid that’s a fundamental building block of the brain.

DHA deficiency is implicated in mental health and neurological disorders including depression and anxiety. (18)

Curcumin enhances DHA synthesis and elevates its level in the brain. (19)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, curcumin is powerfully anti-inflammatory.

Chronic inflammation has been called a silent killer that contributes to eight of the top ten leading causes of death. (20)

Chronic inflammation of the brain shuts down energy production in brain cells, causing mental fatigue and slowing down the firing of neurons.

This, in turn, can lead to anxiety, depression, brain fog, ADHD, and memory loss, as well as serious neurological conditions such as stroke and Alzheimer’s. (21)

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Curcumin Shows Potential for Treating Alzheimer’s

One of the most exciting uses for curcumin is that it may help prevent Alzheimer’s.

Populations that consume turmeric as a regular part of their diet have low rates of this disease.

A senior in the US, for example, has a 4.4 times higher risk of developing this disease than a senior in India, due to the latter’s use of turmeric in cooking.

Preliminary studies show that curcumin breaks up the plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. (22)

It also reduces inflammation, oxidative stress, and metal toxicity — all believed to play a role in Alzheimer’s.

However, it’s widely agreed that more research is needed. (23, 2425)

Curcumin also shows promise for treating Parkinson’s disease by preventing the clumping of a protein found in the first stages of this disease. (2627)

It is currently being studied as a potential treatment by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. (28)

Curcumin Supplements Relieve Stress and Anxiety

There hasn’t been a lot of research done on curcumin for stress and anxiety, but here’s what a few studies show.

Curcumin, when taken alone or with the herbal antidepressant saffron (Crocus sativus), effectively minimizes both anxiety and depression symptoms in people with major depressive disorder. (29)

When curcumin is taken with the herb fenugreek, it reduces stress, anxiety, and fatigue, while increasing the quality of life in people suffering from extreme occupational stress. (30)

Curcumin can alleviate the anxiety experienced by women with premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

The severity of PMS-related emotional, behavioral, and physical symptoms has been shown to be significantly reduced with curcumin supplementation. (31)

There are also a few relevant animal studies to consider.

When curcumin is given to rats under stress, it helps to normalize cortisol balance, adrenal gland function, BDNF levels, and behavior. (32)

Dietary deficiency of DHA is linked to several mental health disorders, including anxiety.

Curcumin boosts DHA levels in the brain and reduces symptoms of anxiety. (33)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common anxiety disorder characterized by compulsive behavior.

Curcumin supplementation has resulted in significant improvement in the compulsiveness and associated memory loss of OCD. (34)

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Curcumin vs Turmeric: What’s the Difference? Which Is Better?

Understanding the difference between curcumin and turmeric supplements is not as straightforward as you’d expect.

First, many websites, even authoritative medical sites, incorrectly use the terms turmeric and curcumin interchangeably.

Let’s clear up any confusion.

Turmeric is a root that comes from a tropical plant (Curcuma longa).

Dried turmeric root powder is usually used as a spice or sometimes as a tea.

Fresh turmeric root can be used in cooking.

Turmeric is also put in capsules and sold as a supplement.

Curcumin, on the other hand, is the main bioactive ingredient in turmeric.

It is extracted from turmeric and sold as a supplement.

Curcumin is not unique to turmeric — it is also found in ginger, another spice with a long history of medicinal use.

Proven Benefits of Curcumin Over Turmeric

Many websites make unrealistic claims about turmeric.

A few natural health websites boldly state that turmeric has been proven beneficial for over 600 ailments.

But the vast majority of research studies have been done using isolated curcumin, not turmeric.

At the very least, it’s not known whether turmeric offers the same health benefits as curcumin because studies have yet to be done.

There are two practical reasons why more studies have been done on curcumin than turmeric.

It’s much easier to study a compound like curcumin which can be isolated and standardized.

And, of course, there is little monetary incentive to research a spice that’s already found in millions of kitchens worldwide and cannot easily be turned into a profitable product.

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Potential Benefits of Turmeric Over Curcumin

However, not everyone is convinced that curcumin is superior to turmeric.

Johns Hopkins University medical oncologist Dr. Saraswati Sukumar contends that cooking with turmeric provides more benefits than taking curcumin supplements which are less bioavailable and generally less effective. (35)

Many experts believe that whole plant supplements are usually more beneficial than supplements created from just a certain part of the plant.

By way of analogy, think of curcumin as a single musical note and turmeric as a symphony.

The theory is that all the organic chemicals in turmeric work together for greater effect. (36)

For example, another promising compound in turmeric is turmerone.

Studies show that it stimulates the production of new neurons, making it useful in treating degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, and stroke. (3738)

By singling out curcumin, you’d be missing out on this important benefit.

Dr. Andrew Weil, a world-renowned pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, differentiates between curcumin and turmeric in this way:

“… until proven otherwise in head to head studies, whole plants are usually a better choice than isolates. On the other hand, curcumin appears to have a more rapid and dramatic effect, and may be the better choice as a therapeutic (rather than a preventative) preparation.” (39)

In other words, it may be helpful to use a curcumin supplement for its short-term therapeutic effects and to add turmeric to your diet as a long-term prevention strategy.

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Turmeric vs Curcumin Safety

Another consideration is the safety of curcumin compared to turmeric.

Turmeric consumed in food is extremely safe, but like most supplements, curcumin has potential side effects and should not be mixed with some medications, which we’ll discuss shortly.

This means that not everyone can safely take a curcumin supplement.

A surprising way that turmeric powder can be hazardous is as a source of lead. (40)

This is true whether you buy turmeric as a spice or as a supplement.

Brands that have been found to be adulterated come from India or Bangladesh.

Disturbingly, some experts believe that turmeric is being intentionally adulterated with lead to enhance its weight and/or color. (41)

The Curcumin vs Turmeric Dilemma Solved

“Curcumin vs turmeric” does not have to be an “either/or” situation.

There’s no reason you can’t take a curcumin supplement and make turmeric a regular part of your diet.

In fact, there’s evidence that turmeric and a curcumin supplement work together, enhancing each other’s effects. (42)

Read more —
Turmeric is a top brain food. That’s why it’s #9 in our list of 12 Brain Foods That Supercharge Your Memory, Focus & Mood.

Why Your Curcumin Supplement Must Be Enhanced

Curcumin makes up only about 3% of most turmeric powders and is very poorly absorbed. (43)

And up to 85% of the curcumin in a supplement passes through the intestines unused! (44)

For these reasons, it only makes sense to take a supplement that has been enhanced to increase its absorption.

Scientists are working on high-tech ways to make curcumin more bioavailable by using nanoparticles or by combining it with phosphatidylserine, a potent brain booster in its own right. (4546)

But it turns out that one way to get greater curcumin benefits was discovered thousands of years ago.

In traditional southwest Asian cooking, turmeric is used with black pepper.

Both are key ingredients in curry powder, more correctly known as garam masala, a staple in this type of cuisine.

This greatly increases the bioavailability of curcumin.

It’s now known that the compound piperine found in black pepper is responsible — it increases curcumin absorption 20-fold. (47)

One study on curcumin bioavailability found that it readily enters the brain even when the only “enhancement” is to take it with food. (48)

This makes sense considering that the presence of oil greatly enhances the absorption of fat-soluble curcumin as well. (49)

When shopping, you will come across curcumin supplements that contain trademarked ingredients such as BioPerine™, Longvida™, Theracurmin™, Meriva™, or BCM-95™.

These ingredients claim to increase absorption and/or bioavailability many times more than unenhanced curcumin:

  • BCM-95 — 7x (50)
  • BioPerine — 20x (51)
  • Theracurmin — 27x (52)
  • Meriva — 29x (53)
  • Longvida — 67x (54)

Our advice is to pick a curcumin supplement that’s been enhanced, but not to worry about the numbers since there is no way to know the actual amount entering your brain.

Curcumin Supplement Dosage

It’s hard to get an authoritative answer concerning the amount of curcumin to take.

There is no Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for curcumin, nor is there universal agreement on how much curcumin constitutes a therapeutic dose. (55)

And frustratingly, many websites confuse turmeric with curcumin.

Suggested dosages for curcumin range from 80 mg to 500 mg, provided the supplement manufacturer has taken steps to enhance bioavailability. (56)

A typical curcumin supplement will be in the range of 400 to 600 mg per serving.

Absent the conditions discussed below, you rarely have to worry about taking too much curcumin though.

Studies have found curcumin to be safe at doses as high as 12 grams per day. (57)

Curcumin Supplement Side Effects and Interactions

Since curcumin is a naturally occurring compound, you might assume it’s completely safe.

But curcumin supplements have a surprising number of possible side effects, interactions, and warnings.

While clearly turmeric and curcumin are not the same thing, their side effects and interactions are confusingly treated the same on sites like Drugs.com and RxList.com.

According to the above sources, you should not take either turmeric or curcumin supplements if you have these conditions or issues:

Pregnancy

Curcumin stimulates the uterus and increases the risk of a miscarriage.

You should also avoid it if you are trying to conceive.

Note that its safety while breastfeeding has not been established.

Hormone Sensitivity

Curcumin can act like estrogen so it should be avoided if you have reproductive cancer, endometriosis, or uterine fibroids.

Gallstones

If you currently have gallstones or gallbladder disease, avoid curcumin.

Scheduled Surgery

If you are scheduled for surgery in the next two weeks, do not take curcumin since it increases the risk of bleeding.

Blood Thinners

User of prescription blood thinners should know that curcumin increases the risk of bruising and bleeding.

Stomach Conditions

If you have GERD, curcumin can make it worse and cause gastric irritation, stomach upset, nausea, and diarrhea.

Using curcumin for digestive problems shows mixed results.

While it can help ulcerative colitis, curcumin can aggravate conditions like GERD and ulcers. (58)

Stomach Acid Issues

If you take drugs to reduce stomach acid, curcumin can interfere with the actions of medications like Zantac, Tagamet, and Nexium, increasing the production of stomach acid. (59)

Diabetes

Users of diabetes medication are advised to talk to your doctor first since curcumin can increase your risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Iron Deficiency

Curcumin can prevent the absorption of iron.

According to Drugs.com, more than 80 drugs interact adversely with turmeric and curcumin supplements, including seemingly innocuous over-the-counter remedies as aspirin and acetaminophen.

You can find a complete list of interactions here.

Lastly, the piperine added to some curcumin supplements can also amplify the effects of a number of drugs.

If you take any medication for high blood pressure, asthma, allergies or seizures, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before mixing it with a curcumin supplement that contains piperine or BioPerine. (60, 61)

A safer choice would be to take a curcumin supplement enhanced with either Theracurmin™ (which uses nanoparticles) or Meriva™ (which uses phospholipids) instead.

Curcumin Supplements: Take the Next Step

Curcumin is a bioactive compound that is part of the traditional healing spice turmeric.

Both curcumin and turmeric exert anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antifungal, and antiviral effects.

However, most research studies have used curcumin, rather than turmeric, in showing benefits for mental health problems like depression, anxiety, brain aging, and neurodegenerative diseases.

Because curcumin and turmeric have potentially different and valuable benefits, there’s no reason not to take a curcumin supplement and include turmeric as part of a brain-healthy diet.

Be sure to use an enhanced curcumin supplement to increase curcumin’s naturally low bioavailability.

This is the only practical way to get the desired therapeutic benefits.

READ NEXT: Top 15 Brain Supplements for a Mental Edge