Are the health claims about this super food simply inflammatory?
I am a huge fan of the millennial trend sweeping the internet: the turmeric latte. Whisk some grated ginger, a dash of cinnamon and a teaspoon of ground turmeric spice in boiling water. Top it with your steamed non-dairy alternative of choice, sweeten the deal with a dash of maple syrup, and voilà! You have yourself a tasty, health drink known for its “amazing flavour, beautiful colour, and incredible anti-inflammatory qualities.” At least you do according to the plant-based, holistic health blogs I follow.
Turmeric lattes are delicious. Unfortunately, they also leave neon yellow stains on my shirts that are even more noticeable than the coffee stains I’m accustomed to. But laundry is not my issue – what I wanted to understand was the science behind the supposed health benefits of the star ingredient of my new comfort drink of choice – turmeric.
Turmeric: A superhero?
If you Google the health benefits of turmeric, there are about a bazillion news articles, blog posts and health websites claiming that turmeric has all sorts of health benefits, from getting rid of muscle soreness to improving sleep and reducing risk of cancer.
The theory behind these claims boils down to turmeric’s reputation as an anti-inflammatory. It’s true; turmeric contains a tiny molecule called curcumin that has “anti-inflammatory properties that help boost immunity”. Sounds great, right? A tasty spice that will stop inflammation, ramp up your immune system, and solve all of your health worries!
The immune system is basically the emergency services team of your body: it is the ambulance, police, and fire response to any injury.
Sorry to disappoint, but that isn’t quite the whole story.
Yes, one-to-two percent of the turmeric root that is curcumin has anti-inflammatory properties. But, inflammation isn’t always the bad guy that we want to fight with an iron fist. On top of that, when we eat (or drink) turmeric, we end up pooping out most of it the curcumin before we even have a chance to absorb it. Plus, the long-term health effects of eating turmeric daily aren’t exactly proven to prevent illness.
The ultimate purpose of inflammation is healing
When scientists say that turmeric, or more precisely curcumin, has anti-inflammatory properties, they mean that it reduces inflammation – our immune system’s first response to repairing damaged cells.
The immune system is basically the emergency services team of your body: it is the ambulance, police, and fire response to any injury. When a cell gets injured or attacked (whether from a hit in the shin with a soccer ball or a bacterial infection in a cut) it calls the immune system to action. Immune cells respond with sirens blaring. Then they get to work repairing the damage.
This acute inflammation is crucial to a strong and effective immune system. It’s key to the body’s ability to heal itself. Once its work is done, the immune system turns off the sirens, and the body goes back to a state of normalcy. Or so it should…
The not-so-bright side of the immune system
Sometimes the body doesn’t shut off the immune response. That leads to chronic inflammation which can damage cells and is associated with a lot of age-related diseases like heart disease, Alzheimer’s and lifestyle diseases like obesity and Type 2 diabetes.*
Since the mid 90s, there have been lots of studies that have found that curcumin interacts in our cells to reduce the inflammatory response, which is why people tout the anti-inflammatory nature of turmeric. When scientists inject a whole bunch of curcumin into cells in a petri dish, rats, or even into humans with chronic inflammation, the sirens and emergency response of the immune system seems to slow itself down. This means that the curcumin molecule has very promising benefits as a therapeutic agent in people with chronic inflammation.
How do scientists even measure inflammation? Our immune cells have markers called cytokines that recruit more and more immune cells. These markers are like the road signs and street names, guiding ambulances and police officers to the scene of the accident. Scientists can measure the quantity of cytokines to see how much inflammation there is in the body, or in a specific area of the body.
Two cytokines in particular, IL-6 (short for interleukin-6) and TNF- α (Tumor Necrosis Factor α) are pro-inflammatory cytokines, meaning they recruit and flag down a whole whack of other immune cells to cause a great deal of inflammation.*
The reason that turmeric is thought to reduce inflammation is because scientists have found that there are less of these cytokines – the road signs and street names of immune cells – when cells are fed curcumin. The idea is that the curcumin molecule inside turmeric can interact with the machinery in the immune cells and stop the production of the immune attracting flags, which slows down the whole trafficking of immune cells and reduces inflammation.
But how does curcumin actually cause less inflammation? This fairly new research is actually SUPER rad. I’m going to have to take a few steps back in order for this to make sense.
One of the roles of our liver is to take apart and change the structure of unknown or foreign molecules in our body to try to make them less dangerous or improve the molecules to make them useable in our body (this is why we don’t stay drunk forever – our liver modifies the alcohol molecules so they no longer act as a drug on our brains). We’ve known for a long time that the liver takes curcumin and oxidizes (which means it steals a couple of electrons) the molecule really quickly. Up until recently, it was thought that this modified version of curcumin was unreactive in the body, and that we just peed it out.
BUT, in 2017, a research group at Vanderbilt University proposed (and provided some solid evidence) that the curcumin molecule itself doesn’t interact with the immune cells – it’s the degraded molecule that the liver made from curcumin can bond with the cellular machinery and reduce inflammation. This is really exciting because it means that our bodies may be getting a lot more of the anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin to our cells than we originally thought.
But turmeric’s story doesn’t end there. Injecting a mouse with the curcumin molecule every day for a month isn’t the same thing as drinking a turmeric latte when you’re feeling a little run down.
Absorbing curcumin: a bigger feat than you’d think
If cells are curcumin’s destination, the bloodstream is the highway. But for curcumin (or any molecule we eat) to get on the highway, it has to make it past the ultimate gatekeeper: the intestine. It turns out that curcumin does a really bad job of getting past the intestinal lining into the blood, meaning we just poop most of the turmeric and its active ingredient out.
So, why so much hype about turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties? Probably because the claims about turmeric are based on studies that aren’t really applicable to real life for a couple of reasons.
First, most studies of the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin are conducted by injecting the curcumin directly into the bloodstream (conveniently skipping the very real obstacle of getting past the intestine), or by feeding the cells an absurd amount of turmeric. I’m talking one-to-two-2 grams of curcumin a day – equal to eating 100 grams (or 50 teaspoons) of turmeric every day!
While there are ways to increase how much turmeric gets past the bridge into our cells (like by eating it with pepper or in fatty foods), it would be extraordinarily difficult to eat enough turmeric to reap the proven benefits.
What about healthy people?
The second problem with the studies is that they look at people who have diseases associated with chronic inflammation. So while the results might show that turmeric is great at treating such diseases, that doesn’t mean it can or will prevent them.
There is very little evidence to show that people without a condition related to chronic inflammation stay healthy when they regularly eat turmeric. That’s not to say eating turmeric isn’t good for you, it just means there isn’t evidence that healthy people who eat turmeric more often suffer less chronic inflammation.
When inflammation isn’t bad: exercising your right to avoid turmeric
Let’s go back to our old friend, acute inflammation – the kind of inflammation that’s an essential part of your immune system. You know that sore achy feeling you get in your butt after you go to the spin class your friend convinced you to try? The kind that makes it impossible to lower yourself onto the toilet or walk up the stairs for the next three days? That is called delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS). The reason your muscles get sore is in part because your immune system sets off an inflammatory response to repair the tiny tears your muscles get when they are worked harder than they’re used to.
“Eating turmeric… would probably slow your muscle recovery, and it likely wouldn’t even reduce muscle soreness.”
As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This goes for muscles too. When the immune system comes in to repair the little tears, they build ‘em stronger than before – that’s how you build bigger muscles!
So after exercise, your muscles get sore and inflamed, and the inflammation is what repairs the muscles and helps you heal. And guess what? Curcumin, in really high doses, has ability to reduce inflammation caused by exercise.* Whether this is a good thing or not is another can of worms.
Because we want our muscles to heal after we exercise and reducing inflammation slows recovery time. Like I said earlier, inflammation = the body healing itself.
However, there are no studies to date that show that eating a turmeric-supplemented diet slows muscle recovery time, likely because we simply wouldn’t be able to absorb enough curcumin to have an impact on muscle recovery.
ON TOP OF THAT, turmeric may not even reduce the soreness associated with muscle recovery! A research group at the University of North Texas did an experiment where they fed athletes tons of curcumin – enough to have a physiological effect after a strenuous weight-training activity. They found that even though the curcumin reduced muscle inflammation there was no reduction in DOMS!
The long and short is that eating turmeric probably won’t make all that much of a difference in muscle recovery. If it did, however, it would probably slow your muscle recovery, and it likely wouldn’t even reduce soreness. Probably not the best post-workout supplement, if you ask me.
Some exercise physiologists argue that inflammation is an important part of recovery and yes, taking anti-inflammatory supplements slows muscle recovery. Others argue that inflammation reduces performance so you want to avoid it. There is, however, strong evidence that supports the notion that anti-inflammatory over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen does slow muscle recovery. *
The final verdict
So what’s the deal with turmeric and inflammation? Well, it can reduce inflammation when it is taken in very high doses, and it has promising effects to help people with certain inflammatory conditions. But otherwise healthy people don’t always want or need to reduce inflammation. Does that mean turmeric is bad? No. Turmeric definitely isn’t bad.
“Drinking one turmeric latte a day isn’t going to save your life or make you less sick”
The reality is that you can’t absorb enough curcumin from turmeric in one day to really affect your acute inflammation response anyway. If you ate turmeric every day for your whole life, there is a possibility that it actually could do some good for your health, but the jury is still out on that one.
drinking one turmeric latte isn’t going to save your life, or make you less sick, and if you’re me, it’s going to leave a fat yellow stain on your white tablecloth when you spill. But consuming a certain amount of turmeric every day for a long period of time could help chronic inflammation and help treat diseases such as Type 2 diabetes! And it’ll still taste good and warm you up on a rainy autumn day.