Studies show that curcumin, a bioactive compound in turmeric, can treat depression, anxiety, brain aging and more. Enhanced curcumin supplements work best.
What you’ll learn about curcumin supplements in this article:
- The many notable benefits of curcumin for mental health
- How curcumin protects against brain aging and cognitive decline
- Clearing up the confusion between curcumin and turmeric supplements
- The best sources, as well as dosages, side effects, and interactions, of curcumin supplements
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.
But curcumin really shines as a brain health enhancer and protector.
Curcumin supplements can lift your mood, tame stress and anxiety, and protect your brain against aging and neurodegenerative disease.
Here’s why this remarkable compound is nutritional “gold” for your brain, mental health, and general well-being.
How Curcumin Benefits the Brain
Curcumin exhibits a wide array of healthful properties.
It is naturally anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-cancer. (1)
Curcumin isn’t the only beneficial compound in turmeric, but it is the most promising and widely studied.
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’ve experienced unacceptable side effects. (3)
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 most relief from their depression. (6)
Another way curcumin impacts depression is by reducing brain inflammation. (7)
If you experience depression, even major depressive disorder, there is no downside to taking curcumin supplements. (10)
Curcumin is safe for most people to take indefinitely.
Curcumin can also be safely combined with other natural remedies for depression such as St. John’s wort and SAM-e.
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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. (13)
It can improve memory and concentration by increasing blood flow to the brain. (14)
One study found that taking curcumin supplements improved blood flow as well as physical exercise did! (15)
Impressively, another study found that one dose of curcumin significantly improved attention and working memory in healthy seniors within an hour. (16)
Curcumin increases the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates the creation of new brain cells. (17)
Additionally, it can increase neuroplasticity — your brain’s ability to change and grow throughout your lifetime. (18)
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.
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DHA deficiency is implicated in mental health and neurological disorders including depression, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s. (19)
Curcumin enhances DHA synthesis and elevates its level in the brain. (20)
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. (21)
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 diseases such as stroke and Alzheimer’s. (22)
Related article —
Brain Inflammation May Be the Cause of Your Depression
Curcumin Shows Potential for Treating Alzheimer’s
One of the most exciting benefits of 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 getting this disease than a senior in India, believed to be due to their use of turmeric in cooking.
Preliminary studies show that curcumin breaks up the plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. (23)
It also reduces inflammation, oxidative stress, and metal toxicity — all believed to play a role in Alzheimer’s.
It is currently being studied as a potential treatment by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. (29)
Curcumin Supplements Relieve Stress and Anxiety
There hasn’t been as much 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. (30)
When curcumin is taken with the herb fenugreek, it reduces stress, anxiety, and fatigue while increasing quality of life in people suffering from extreme occupational stress. (31)
Curcumin can alleviate the anxiety experienced by women with premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
The severity of PMS-related emotional, behavioral, and physical symptoms was significantly reduced with curcumin supplementation. (32)
There are also a few relevant animal studies to consider.
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When curcumin is given to rats under stress, it helps to normalize cortisol balance, adrenal gland function, BDNF levels, and behavior. (33)
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. (34)
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is common anxiety disorder characterized by compulsive behavior.
Curcumin supplementation has resulted in significant improvement in the compulsiveness and associated memory loss of OCD. (35)
Other Notable Benefits of Curcumin Supplements
So far we’ve focused on the ways curcumin supplements can benefit your brain.
But there are many other excellent reasons to take curcumin.
Here’s a quick summary of the major curcumin benefits for your physical health.
Notice that inflammation is a common thread between many of these conditions and the mental health conditions discussed above.
Allergies and Asthma
Curcumin can help alleviate the symptoms of allergies by inhibiting histamine release from mast cells. (36)
It reduces the inflammation and bronchospasms experienced by asthma sufferers. (37)
Curcumin’s natural anti-inflammatory properties rival those of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
When tested against drugs used to moderate the pain and inflammation of arthritis, curcumin holds its own.
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It performs as well as or even better than over-the-counter and prescription NSAIDs. (38)
And curcumin is more effective than anti-inflammatory drugs for rheumatoid arthritis. (39)
Curcumin’s ability to selectively kill tumor cells while not harming normal cells makes it an attractive candidate as a cancer treatment. (40)
Curcumin works synergistically with both chemotherapy and radiation treatments, increasing their effectiveness. (43)
Dr. Saraswati Sukumar, a medical oncologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has been involved in over 300 of studies on turmeric and cancer. (44)
She has gone on record saying that curcumin is “arguably the most potent anti-cancer nutrient in existence.” (45)
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Diabetes and Pre-Diabetes
It can mitigate diabetic complications including neuropathy.
Fatigue is such a common problem, you might think it’s normal to need caffeine to get through the day, but it’s not.
Taking curcumin supplements can dramatically decrease fatigue, particularly among the elderly. (48)
The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of curcuminoids protect against atherosclerosis. (51)
Curcumin reduces post-bypass heart attack risk by 56%. (52)
The usual medical treatment for this chronic, inflammatory skin condition is topical corticosteroids and sometimes phototherapy.
Curcumin supplements have been found to be a safe and effective adjunct to topical treatment.
Twelve weeks of curcumin have improved inflammatory markers by 48%.
Results have been so encouraging that researchers recommend that curcumin be considered for treating psoriasis in the future. (53)
Turmeric ointment can also be applied topically. (54)
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 available only 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.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says this about turmeric:
“… there is little reliable evidence to support the use of turmeric for any health condition because few clinical trials have been conducted.” (55)
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 be easily 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 has found in her research that cooking with turmeric provides more benefits than curcumin supplements which are less bioavailable and generally less effective. (56)
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. (57)
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For example, another promising compound in turmeric is turmerone.
By singling out curcumin, you’d be missing out on this important benefit.
Dr. Andrew Weil, founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, differentiates 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.” (60)
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.
Turmeric vs Curcumin Safety
Another consideration is the safety of turmeric compared to curcumin.
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 I’ll discuss shortly.
This means that not everyone can safely take a curcumin supplement.
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.
That’s what I do. 😉
In fact, there’s evidence that turmeric and a curcumin supplement work together, enhancing each other’s effects. (61)
Related article —
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
And up to 85% of the curcumin in a supplement passes through the intestines unused! (64)
For these reasons, it only makes sense to take a supplement that has been enhanced to increase its absorption.
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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. (67)
Interestingly, one study on curcumin bioavailability found that it readily enters the brain even when the only “enhancement” is to take it with food. (68)
This makes sense considering that the presence of oil greatly enhances the absorption of fat-soluble curcumin as well. (69)
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 over unenhanced curcumin:
My 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
There is no Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for curcumin, nor is there universal agreement on the amount of curcumin that constitutes a therapeutic dose. (75)
But here’s a look at what some experts recommend.
University of Maryland’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide recommends taking 400 to 600 mg three times per day. (76)
The Arthritis Foundation, which reports that curcumin can provide long-term improvement in pain and function, also recommends one capsule (400-600 mg) three times per day.
So this seems like a good place to start.
You rarely have to worry about taking too much curcumin.
Dose-escalating studies found curcumin to be safe at doses as high as 12 grams per day. (77)
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.
According to these sources, you should not take either turmeric or curcumin supplements if:
- You are pregnant. Curcumin stimulates the uterus and increases the risk of a miscarriage. You should also avoid them if you are trying to conceive. Note that its safety while breastfeeding has not been established.
- You have a hormone-sensitive condition. Curcumin can act like estrogen so should be avoided if you have reproductive cancer, endometriosis, or uterine fibroids.
- You have gallstones or gallbladder disease.
- You are scheduled for surgery in the next two weeks. Curcumin increases the risk of bleeding.
- You take blood thinners. Curcumin increases the risk of bruising and bleeding.
- You have GERD, ulcers, or other stomach problems. Curcumin can make GERD worse and cause gastric irritation, stomach upset, nausea and diarrhea. Using curcumin for digestive problems shows mixed results.While it can help ulcerative colitis, it can aggravate conditions like GERD and ulcers. (78)
- 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. (79)
- You take diabetes medication. Talk to your doctor first in this situation since curcumin can increase your risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
- You have an iron deficiency. Curcumin can prevent the absorption of iron.
According to Drugs.com, 70 drugs interact adversely with turmeric and curcumin supplements, including seemingly innocuous over-the-counter remedies such as aspirin and ibuprofen. (80)
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. (81, 82)
A safer choice would be to take a curcumin supplement enhanced with either Theracumin™ (which uses nanoparticles) or Meriva™ (which uses phospholipids) instead.
Curcumin Supplements: The Bottom Line
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.