The Downside of Curcumin Supplements

Supplement manufacturers often fall into the same reductionist trap as the drug companies. Herbs are assumed to have only one main active ingredient, so, as the thinking goes, if you can isolate and purify it into a pill, you can boost its effects. Curcumin is described as the active ingredient in turmeric, but is it the active ingredient or just an active ingredient? It is just one of many different components—more than 300, in fact—of the whole food spice.

“Only limited studies have compared the potential of turmeric with curcumin.” Some, however, suggest turmeric, the whole food, may work even better—and not just against colon cancer cells. As I discuss in my video Turmeric or Curcumin: Plants vs. Pills, researchers at the Anderson Cancer Center in Texas pitted both curcumin and turmeric against seven different types of human cancer cells in vitro.

The study found that curcumin kicks tush against breast cancer cells, but turmeric, the whole food, kicks even more. In addition to breast cancer, the researchers found that turmeric was more potent compared to curcumin against pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, multiple myeloma, myelogenous leukemia, and colorectal cancer cells, “suggesting that components other than curcumin can also contribute to anti-cancer activities.”

Most clinical studies treating diseases in people have used curcumin supplements, as opposed to turmeric, but none has tried using turmeric components other than curcumin, even though curcumin-free turmeric exhibits anti-inflammatory and anticancer activities.

“Although curcumin is believed to account for most activities of turmeric, research over the past decade has indicated that curcumin-free turmeric”—that is, turmeric with the so-called active ingredient removed—“is as effective as or even more effective than curcumin-containing turmeric.” There are turmerones, for example, in turmeric, which may exhibit both anticancer activities, as well as anti-inflammatory activities, but these turmerones are processed out of curcumin supplements. So, I assumed this review would conclude by stating we should stop giving people curcumin supplements and instead just give them the whole food spice turmeric, but instead the researchers proposed that we make all sorts of different turmeric-derived supplements!


That’s quite a rebut to reductionism. For more on this flawed nutritional philosophy, see my video Reductionism and the Deficiency Mentality.

Similar videos in this vein include:

Interested in learning more about turmeric and cancer? See:

And for more on turmeric and everything else:

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:

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:

How to Treat Lupus with Turmeric

Different autoimmune diseases tend to target different organs. If our immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in our pancreas, we can end up with type 1 diabetes. If it attacks our thyroid gland, we can end up with hypothyroidism. But, in the autoimmune disease lupus, our immune system attacks the very nucleus of our cells, often producing antibodies and attacking our DNA itself. So, lupus can damage any organ system and result in almost any complication. Women are nine times as likely to get it, and the peak age of diagnosis is too often at the peak of life. Hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of Americans suffer from this dreaded disease. One of the most common organ-threatening manifestations is kidney inflammation, occurring in as many as half of the patients.

Kidney inflammation is also one of the most serious effects of lupus, caused by the disease itself “or as a result of intense immunosuppressive drug toxicity.” Chemotherapy drugs like Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide), for example, can have severe, life-threatening side effects that may include leukemia and bladder cancer, and many women lose their hair and become permanently infertile. There is a desperate need for better treatment options.

As I show in my video Fighting Lupus with Turmeric: Good as Gold, oral supplementation of turmeric decreases proteinuria, hematuria, and systolic blood pressure—the cardinal clinical manifestations in patients suffering from relapsing or refractory (meaning, untreatable) lupus kidney inflammation––according to a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. The study looked at proteinuria, the spilling of protein into the urine, “an ominous prognostic sign.” In the control group, three people got better, three people got worse, and the rest pretty much stayed the same. In the turmeric group, one got worse, one stayed the same, but the rest all got better.

Note that the researchers used turmeric, the whole spice, and not curcumin, which is an extracted component often given in pill form. They took women with out-of-control lupus and had them take a quarter teaspoon of turmeric with each meal for three months. From my local supermarket, that would come out to be about a nickel a dose, compared with $35,000 a year for one of the latest lupus drugs. Which of the two treatments do you imagine doctors are more likely to be told about?


For more on the anti-inflammatory effects of turmeric, see:

What about its anti-cancer effects?

For practical considerations, see Boosting the Bioavailability of Curcumin and Who Shouldn’t Consume Curcumin or Turmeric?.

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: