With so many positive blogs and articles in print and online, why would anyone believe that curcumin, the active ingredient of turmeric, is anything but a wonder drug? More than 15,000 articles have been published on the biological interactions of curcumin, and over 120 clinical trials have studied its effect on a number of diseases. The government has also taken an active part, expending more than $150 million federal funds for the exploration of curcumin. Turmeric is now one of the most well studied plants in the world and numerous scientific studies explain how curcumin targets inflammatory pathways. Even I wrote an extensive review, describing the specific mechanisms by which it reduces inflammation.
Why then should we question curcumin’s amazing abilities? The authors of a new review article in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry state (1):
“To our knowledge, compound 1 [curcumin] has never been shown to be conclusively effective in a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial for any indication. Curcumin is best typified, therefore, as a missile that continually blows up on the launch pad, never reaching the atmosphere or its intended target(s).”
Whaat? No reliable positive clinical results? None? The study reported that curcumin received two unfavorable classifications as PAINS (pan assay interference compounds) and as an IMPS (invalid metabolic panaceas) candidate. These acronyms mean that curcumin is biologically active but does not produce clinical results. It is “pharmacodynamically fierce” (hits many targets) yet it is “pharmacokinetically feeble” (does not get to its targets). The article also speaks about the potential “dark side of curcumin,” referring to toxic effects under certain testing conditions.
How could scientists and investors have gotten it so wrong? There are several possible explanations. The most obvious is that isolating the active ingredient of turmeric may not be the best approach. Most herbal preparations (in Ayurveda or Chinese Traditional Medicine) are complex combinations of several active chemical ingredients that act synergistically. If you ask an Ayurvedic physician how much turmeric you should take, he or she will give you very specific instructions based on your individual body type and your present state of health. The expert will also warn you that too much turmeric has a heating and drying effect on the liver.
Western science is either unable to comprehend such knowledge, or has paid no attention to it. Researchers have relied on findings from cell cultures and animal studies, which show that a great deal of curcumin is required in order to kill cancer cells or reduce inflammation. The same equation does not work in humans because the gut cells in our small intestine does not absorb curcumin very well. In an attempt to compensate for this inconvenient reality, scientists came up with all kinds of new, patented ways of getting more and more curcumin into the body. The problem is that none of these procedures, no matter how sophisticated, actually work.
There are lessons to be learned from this experience. First, it is important to pay attention to the time-tested wisdom of traditional medical practices. Second, science has made mistakes in the past and will probably continue to make them, especially when financial motivation conflicts with the integrity of scientific research.
Although most research relies on an old model of how medicinal plants work, a new model is emerging, which provides an entirely new approach by taking the microbiome into account. If our small intestine is, in fact, not designed to absorb large quantities of turmeric or curcumin, it makes perfect sense that excess curcumin, along with other active ingredients of turmeric, would reach the gut bacteria in our large intestine in the process of excretion. Why this is important?
New research supports the hypothesis that one of the primary beneficial effects of turmeric and its active components is to nourish the friendly bacteria in our gut. Findings show that turmeric and curcumin can improve intestinal permeability (i.e. cure leaky gut), help gut motility, and reduce gut inflammation (2-5).
Used for millennia, turmeric is indeed a golden spice, but its modern application in the form of curcumin has gone astray in the effort to make a money producing miracle drug. It is time for us to more deeply examine the medicinal uses of turmeric, and to fully understand its many ingredients and how they combine to improve our health.
- Nelson KM et al., The Essential Medicinal Chemistry of Curcumin Med. Chem. 2017; 60, 1620−1637
- Shen L et al., Regulative effects of curcumin spice administration on gut microbiota and its pharmacological implications, Food & Nutr Res. 2017; 61 (1):1361780
- McFadden, RMT et al., The Role of Curcumin in Modulating Colonic Microbiota During Colitis and Colon Cancer Prevention. Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2015; 21(11):2483–2494
- Dey N et al. Regulators of gut motility revealed by a gnotobiotic model of diet-microbiome interactions related to traveling. 2015; 163(1):95-107
- Lopresti AL.The Problem of Curcumin and Its Bioavailability: Could Its Gastrointestinal Influence Contribute to Its Overall Health-Enhancing Effects? Adv Nutr. 2018; 9(1):41-50.
ROBERT KEITH WALLACE is a pioneering researcher on the physiology of consciousness. His work has inspired hundreds of studies on the benefits of meditation and other mind-body techniques, and his findings have been published in Science, American Journal of Physiology, and Scientific American. After receiving his BS in physics and his PhD in physiology from UCLA, he conducted postgraduate research at Harvard University. Dr. Wallace serves as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Physiology and Health, Director of Research, and Trustee of Maharishi University of Management (MUM) in Fairfield, Iowa. He helped create the first fully accredited Masters of Science degree in Maharishi AyurVeda and Integrative Medicine in the US. Dr. Wallace is the author of several books, including Gut Crisis: How Diet, Probiotics, and Friendly Bacteria Help You Lose Weight and Heal Your Body and Mind with his wife Samantha Wallace. See Gut Crisis website and Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/gutcrisis/).
SAMANTHA JONES WALLACE is a former model, featured in Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Look Magazine. A lifelong practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, she has a deep understanding of Ayurveda and its relationship to health and well being. The coauthor of Quantum Golf, Samantha is an editor of Dharma Parenting, and coauthor of Gut Crisis. She is now finishing a book called Real Deep True Beauty, which emphasizes Essential Oil Skincare, and Ayurveda.