The Wall Street Journal
Turmeric is gaining scientific interest as a natural alternative to arthritis medications.
Curcumin, an organic chemical that gives turmeric its yellow colour, has been found in two recent studies to benefit arthritis patients at least as much as commonly used anti-inflammatory drugs, which can harm the liver and increase risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, heart disease and stroke. Scientists say the studies—one of which is funded by a company that sells curcumin—are preliminary and larger, better-designed studies are needed.
Taking curcumin capsules is unlikely to hurt you, scientists say. “It might be something reasonable to try as a complement to other therapies,” says Grant Cooper, co-director of Princeton Spine and Joint Centre in New Jersey.
Turmeric, ground from Curcuma longa , a knobby root that looks similar to fresh ginger, has been used as an anti-inflammatory in India for thousands of years, says Shailinder Sodhi, who teaches ayurvedic, or traditional Indian, medicine, at Bastyr University, in Kenmore, Wash. It can be used for any type of pain, whenever an anti-inflammatory is needed, he says. Traditionally, "Turmeric is mixed with milk or butter and eaten", says Dr. Sodhi, who is also president of Ayush Herbs Inc., an ayurvedic-medicine company. It can be combined with oil and applied topically to injured areas to reduce swelling and pain, he adds.
In the US, curcumin is popping up in a growing number of dietary supplements, but quality can vary. A report by ConsumerLab.com, last updated in February, found two out of 10 curcumin products tested had fewer active compounds, called curcuminoids, than promised on the label.
Another issue with curcumin is that it isn’t very “bio-available,” meaning many of the curcuminoids are altered during digestion, reducing potency, this is where bioavailable curcumin becomes necessary so that the benefits of curcumin can be absorbed by the body. A special form of curcumin, which is bioavailable curcumin called BCM-95, sold by Arjuna Natural Extracts Ltd. in Kerala, India, is made with an essential oil that enhances its bioavailability and makes it seven to eight times more potent, says organic chemist and technical director of Arjuna, Benny Antony, the inventor of the bioavailable curcumin, BCM-95.
Another study, published in the journal Phytotherapy Research in March, tested BCM-95 in 45 patients at a medical center in India and found two capsules daily had “comparable” efficacy to diclofenac sodium, a prescription anti-inflammatory, on two separate rating scales for pain, tenderness and disease severity.
“Curcumin, no matter how we measured it, was either comparable to sodium diclofenac or slightly better,” says co-author Dr. Ajay Goel, director of the Department of Epigenetics and Cancer Research at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
Some arthritis specialists are skeptical. The curcumin arthritis studies have a major flaw: Neither included a placebo, or control group, says rheumatologist David Felson, who directs an arthritis research team at Boston University School of Medicine. Patients tend to sign up for clinical trials when arthritis is at its most painful, he adds, and improvement in a trial may simply be random improvement over time, he says. Dr. Goel, co-author of the March study, agrees that including a placebo arm “would have been better” but says his study was an essential preliminary to larger trials.
Curcumin is also being studied for possible anti-inflammatory effects in other diseases. Curcumin may stimulate gall bladder contractions, so caution is suggested in people with gallstones.
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