If you have ever shopped for supplements online, you may have wondered if you are wasting your money. Ever since 1994, when Congress passed the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act (DSHEA), FDA has had limited power to regulate dietary supplements. The agency has appeared somewhat reluctant even to use the little power it has. As a result, the supplements market is a lot like the Wild West. With increasing interest in natural products from other places, consumers may well wonder whether the benefits being touted are real.

What Is the Story on Curcumin?

Q. You occasionally receive letters about the alleged benefits of turmeric and its active ingredient, curcumin. There is a lot of nonsense out there about turmeric, and lots of money is being made selling it to gullible people.

Attached is a link to a paper in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. It is an exhaustive review of curcumin studies that, in summary, finds no benefit at all to curcumin use. I suggest you read it and broadcast these findings in your column.
The supplement industry is a mess and you do some good by relying on data. This makes you a rarity.

The Research on Curcumin:

A. We found the article you sent fascinating (Nelson et al, Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, Jan. 11, 2017).  The authors conclude that curcumin is not a promising compound to be developed into a drug. That is partly because it is chemically unstable and poorly absorbed. They contrast these properties to those of drugs developed from other natural products, such as the cancer drug paclitaxel (Taxol) from the Pacific yew or the malaria drug artemisinin from sweet wormwood, Artemisia annua.

Are You Wasting Your Money on Turmeric Pills?

The problem of poor absorption is well known and may be difficult to get around. When we learn about a product that has been designed for better absorption, we often recommend that people try that form if they want to experiment with using the supplement. One form that has been shown to be better absorbed is called BCM-95. This trademarked compound is found in a number of different brand-name supplements.

Are Curcumin and Turmeric a Complete Bust?

The suggestion that scientists are wasting their time on curcumin or turmeric might be premature, however. Turmeric is a plant that contains a wide range of active compounds in addition to curcumin.

Some animal studies appear promising, such as one demonstrating that turmeric oils added to curcumin ease the inflammation of experimentally-induced colitis (Toden et al, Scientific Reports, Apr. 11, 2017).  A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials in people with ulcerative colitis concluded cautiously that curcumin might be able to help maintain remission (Simadibrata et al, Acta Medica Indonesiana, Oct. 2017). For such conditions, a compound that stays in the digestive tract rather than being absorbed into the blood stream would not be inappropriate.

Farther afield, a recent placebo-controlled trial suggests that curcumin slows bone loss in people with spinal cord injury (Hatefi et al, World Neurosurgery, March 19, 2018). Of course, with further research these possible benefits may not hold up. On the other hand, they just might. It is important to keep tabs on the research that is happening to be sure you are not wasting your money.

Turmeric as a Spice:

Trying to turn turmeric into a drug might be challenging. Perhaps people should try adding it to their food instead, as people in India have been doing for thousands of years. You can learn more about how to do that in our book, Spice Up Your Health.

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