Turmeric Curcumin Put to the Test for Inflammatory Bowel Disease

My video Striking with the Root: Turmeric Curcumin and Ulcerative Colitis tells the story how this amazing discovery was made, and how curcumin stacks up against pharmacological interventions.

Despite evidence going back 40 years that the turmeric spice component curcumin possesses significant anti-inflammatory activity, it wasn’t until 2005 that it was first tested on inflammatory bowel disease. Why did it take so long? Well, who’s going to fund such a study? Big Curry? Even without corporate backing, individual physicians from New York decided to ask the next five patients with ulcerative colitis who walked through their office doors to start curcumin supplements.

“Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a debilitating, chronic, relapsing-remitting [i.e., it comes and goes] IBD [inflammatory bowel disease] that afflicts millions of individuals throughout the world and produces symptoms that impair quality of life and ability to function.” As with most diseases, we have a bunch of drugs to treat people, but sometimes these medications can add to disease complications, most commonly nausea, vomiting, headaches, rash, fever, and inflammation of the liver, pancreas, and kidneys, as well as potentially wiping out our immune system and causing infertility. Most ulcerative colitis patients need to be on drugs every day for the rest of their lives, so we need something safe to keep the disease under control.

So how did those five patients do on the spice extract? Overall, all five subjects improved by the end of the study, and four of the five were able to decrease or eliminate their medications. They had “more formed stools, less frequent bowel movements, and less abdominal pain and cramping. One subject reported decreased muscle soreness, commonly felt after his exercise routine.” This, however, was what’s called an open-label study, meaning the patients knew they were taking something so some of the improvement may have just been the placebo effect. In 2013, another small open-label pilot study found encouraging results in a pediatric population, but what was needed was a larger scale, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.

And, researchers obliged. They took a bunch of people with quiescent ulcerative colitis and gave them either turmeric curcumin along with their typical anti-inflammatory drugs, or a placebo and their drugs. In the placebo group, 8 out of 39 patients relapsed, meaning their disease flared back up. In the curcumin group, however, only 2 out of 43 relapsed, significantly fewer. And, relapse or not, clinically, the placebo group got worse, while the curcumin group got better. Endoscopically, which is objectively visualizing the inside of their colons, doctors saw the same thing: trends towards worse or better.

The results were stunning: a 5 percent relapse rate in the curcumin group compared with a 20 percent relapse rate in the conventional care group. It was such a dramatic difference that the researchers wondered if it was some kind of fluke. Even though patients were randomized to each group, perhaps the curcumin group just ended up being much healthier through some chance coincidence, so maybe it was some freak occurrence rather than curcumin that accounted for the results? So, the researchers extended the study for another six months but put everyone on the placebo to ensure the initial findings were not some aberration. The curcumin was stopped to see if that group would then start relapsing, too—and that’s exactly what happened. Suddenly, they became just as bad as the original placebo group.

The researchers concluded: “Curcumin seems to be a promising and safe medication for maintaining remission in patients with quiescent ulcerative colitis.” Indeed, no side effects were reported at all. So, “Curry for the cure?” asked an accompanying editorial in the journal of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. “Can curcumin be added to our list of options with respect to maintaining remission in ulcerative colitis? What is noteworthy about this trial is the fact that not only did the authors demonstrate a statistically significant decrease in relapse at 6 months, but a statistically significant improvement in the endoscopic index as well. Equally telling is the fact that upon withdrawal of curcumin the relapse rate quickly paralleled that of patients treated initially with placebo, implying that curcumin was, in fact, exerting some important biologic effect.”

Similarly, a Cochrane review concluded in 2013 that curcumin may be a safe and effective adjunct therapy. Cochrane reviews take all the best studies meeting strict quality criteria and compile all the best science together, which is normally a gargantuan undertaking. Not so in this case, however, as there is really just that one good study.


Turmeric is one of the most popular trending topics, and I encourage you to check out the most popular turmeric videos, including:

For more on ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Ginger Root for Migraines

Many successful herbal treatments start like this: Some doctor learns that some plant has been used in some ancient medical tradition, like ginger for headaches. Well, the physician has patients with headaches and so tries advising one with migraines to give it a try since it’s just some safe, common spice. At the first sign of a migraine coming on, the patient mixed a quarter teaspoon of powdered ginger in some water, drank it down, and poof! Within a half-hour, the migraine went away. It worked every time for them with no side effects. That’s what’s called a case report.

In my video, Ginger for Migraines, I show the remarkable case report, but case reports are really just glorified anecdotes. Case reports have played an important role in the history of medicine, though. AIDS was first discovered as a series of case reports. Some young guy walks into a clinic in Los Angeles with a bad case of thrush, and the rest is history. Reports of an unusual side effect of a failed chest pain drug led to the billion-dollar blockbuster, Viagra. Case reports may represent the weakest level of evidence, but they are often the first line of evidence, where everything starts. The ginger and migraine report isn’t helpful in itself, but it can inspire researchers to put the treatment to the test.

The problem is, who’s going to fund it? The market for migraine drugs is worth billions of dollars. A quarter teaspoon of powdered ginger costs about a penny. Who would fund a study pitting ginger versus the leading migraine drug?

No one… that is, until now. A double-blinded, randomized, controlled, clinical trial compared the efficacy of ginger to sumatriptan, also known as Imitrex, one of the top-selling billion-dollar drugs in the world in the treatment of migraine headaches. Researchers tried using only one-eighth of a teaspoon of powdered ginger versus a good dose of the drug.

They both worked just as well and just as fast.

Most patients started out in moderate or severe pain but, after taking the ginger or the drug, ended up in mild pain or completely pain-free. The same proportion of migraine sufferers reported satisfaction with the results either way. As far as I’m concerned, ginger won—not only because it’s a few billion dollars cheaper than the drug, but because there were significantly fewer side effects in the ginger group. People taking sumatriptan reported dizziness, a sedative effect, vertigo, and heartburn. The only thing reported for ginger was an upset tummy in about 1 out of 25 people. (As a note of caution, taking a whole tablespoon of ginger powder at one time on an empty stomach could irritate anyone’s stomach.)

An eighth of a teaspoon of ginger is not only up to 3000-times cheaper than the drug, but you’re also less likely to end up as a case report yourself of someone who had a heart attack or died after taking the drug—tragedies that have occurred due to sumatriptan.

These are my favorite kinds of posts to do because I can offer something that is immediately practical, cheap, safe, and effective to reduce suffering. If this kind of information helps you or someone you love, I hope you’ll consider making a tax-deductible donation to support the nonprofit organization that runs NutritionFacts.org. We have a growing staff and server costs to cover, and any help you could give would be much appreciated (and there are perks!).

For more on ginger root:

Avoiding aspartame (Aspartame and the Brain) and using lavender may also help (Lavender for Migraine Headaches). If you have cluster headaches, ask your physician about capsaicin (Hot Sauce in the Nose for Cluster Headaches?).

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: