Studies are still in the early stages, and much more research is needed. “But when small studies reach clinical significance, it makes us want to take a closer look,” says Christopher Morris, MD, a rheumatologist with Arthritis Associates of Kingsport, in Tennessee. “Turmeric is not meant to replace methotrexate or biologics for RA by any stretch of the imagination,” he says. But in his patients who can’t take NSAIDs because of other health issues, or they can’t tolerate the side effects and want to try something “natural,” turmeric or curcumin can be considered to help treat symptoms.
How Curcumin Actually Fights Inflammation in Arthritis
Arthritis means you have inflammation in a joint — it’s chronic in RA, but also present OA. Your body makes inflammatory proteins (called cytokines), and a huge number of them are controlled by one molecule called NF-κB, explains Randy Horwitz, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, University of Arizona College of Medicine. “Think of it like an on/off switch for these genes,” says Dr. Horwitz, who also serves as the medical director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. Treating arthritis with corticosteroids and anti-inflammatories inhibits NF-κB; research shows turmeric can have the same effect. “Inhibit NF-κB, and you’re turning off a whole bunch of inflammatory molecules,” says Dr. Horwitz.
Research suggests curcumin also targets specific inflammatory cells and blocks certain enzymes that lead to inflammation.
Turmeric Spice vs. Supplement: What’s Better?
Though you might like the flavor, a sprinkle of turmeric in your smoothie or soup isn’t going get you much benefit for treating arthritis symptoms. Turmeric only contains about 2 to 9 percent curcuminoids, a family of active compounds that includes curcumin. Plus, curcumin is hard for your body to absorb.
Supplements are the more efficient choice. Look for turmeric supplements that say “standardized to 95% curcuminoids” on the label, advises Dr. Horwitz. And make sure it contains “piperine,” or black pepper extract. When combined in a complex with curcumin, it has been shown to increase bioavailability by 2,000 percent.
Both turmeric and curcumin are generally considered safe, without any serious side effects. The supplement may interact with certain prescription medicines, and may aggravate gall stone disease, cautions Dr. Horwitz.
Before you consider adding turmeric (or any supplement) to your regimen, talk to your doctor about dosing, potential drug interactions, and if it’s a safe option for you.