Turmeric — A Popular Supplement, but is it Useful?
Betty Chaffee, PharmD, is owner and sole proprietor of BetterMyMeds, a Medication Management service devoted to helping people get the maximum benefit from their medications.
Turmeric is widely available as a dietary supplement. It seems to be getting more and more popular, and lots of my patients either take it or wonder if they should. The most common reason people use turmeric is pain from osteoarthritis, so that'll be the focus of this post. We'll explore the pros and cons of turmeric to help you decide if it's right for you. But first, some background.
What exactly IS turmeric?
Turmeric is a yellow powder, ground from the root of the plant pictured above, Circuma Longa. It's used as a spice in many Indian and Chinese foods, and has been used in traditional medicine in some Asian cultures for thousands of years. The major active components in turmeric are circuminoids. Circuminoids are a group of substances that are similar to one another but not identical. You'll often just see them referred to as "Circumin". Research suggests that circuminoids have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects in humans. That's led to research using turmeric to treat pain due to inflammation.
But does turmeric really work?
Here's the good news -- there's a fair amount of evidence to suggest turmeric might effective for improving discomfort from osteoarthritis. And more good news -- side effects are uncommon and generally mild, mostly digestive discomfort. There may be some drug interactions, but turmeric usually can still be used with monitoring (more on that later).
The bad news is that it's hard to know what dose of turmeric, or its component circuminoids, is effective in most people. Research studies have often used proprietary blends of ingredients, one of which is turmeric, but what effect other ingredients had on efficacy is unclear. And even those studies that used only turmeric used different doses, or products that had differing amounts of circuminoids. So it's hard to know exactly how much is needed to relieve joint pain.
The array of products on the pharmacy shelf can be confusing
This photo shows just a few examples of different turmeric products. These were at my local Meijer store, but you can probably find others at various pharmacies and nutrition stores. The point is that they all have different amounts of turmeric, different amounts of circuminoids, and some even have other additives.
And you can see from the labels pictured below that the products contain a wide variety of ingredients and amounts. Yet each label says to take one capsule daily.
So what did the research say about dose?
Interestingly, the research suggesting turmeric might be helpful for joint pain typically used twice daily dosing. Some studies used turmeric extract 500mg twice daily, some circumin 40 to 100mg twice daily, and at least one study used turmeric extract 500mg three to four times daily. Again, many of these studies used specific products that may or may not be similar to what you'll find on the shelf. But regardless, the doses were typically higher than what's recommended on the labels of these products.
So what's the bottom line?
If you have joint pain that interferes with your daily activities, you may be looking for a medication or supplement that'll provide relief. Many prescription and non-prescription medicines for pain are risky to take long-term, so if there's something that's relatively safe AND effective, you may want to try it. Turmeric may be a reasonable option.
But first, if you're taking other medications, be sure to check with your pharmacist about possible drug interactions. Most potential interactions wouldn't require you to "just say no", but may mean you need to be careful.
Then if you still decide to give turmeric a try, you may be in for some trial and error. A product that shows that it has 500mg turmeric extract or around 100mg circumin would be a good place to start. I'd suggest taking it twice daily though, instead of following the label directions. Watch for stomach or digestive discomfort, and see if your joint pain improves. You may need to make changes in the product or the dose if you have side effects or if you don't notice improvement. Contact us at BetterMyMeds if you'd like to discuss it!
As always, feel free to leave questions or comments in the space below, or send us a message directly. BetterMyMeds is here to help you get better value and health outcomes from your medicines and supplements!.