What if I told you that there’s a spice from India that scientific studies have demonstrated:
1. Is as effective as Prozac at relieving depression symptoms
2. Reduces social anxiety*
3. Increases your long-term memory
4. Protects your brain from alcohol-induced neurodegeneration
5. Increases neurogenesis
These effects are just a small fraction of the overall effects of this spice. In addition it has been shown to aid in healing and recovery with the following:
1. Inflammatory diseases
7. Skin conditions
8. High cholesterol
At this point you’re probably wondering: “So, what is this magical, mythical spice that has all these benefits? How does it work? And how do I get some of it into my belly?!”
Patience, young apprentice. We will explore all of this in this article.
But to answer your first question, this magical spice is turmeric and its co-conspirator curcumin.
The darling of the health world
If you have had internet access in the last couple of years, you have most likely heard of turmeric and curcumin. Log on to Instagram or Pinterest for a few minutes and you will likely see pictures and recipes for a bright orange turmeric latte (“golden milk”), or briefly peruse the supplement section in any store, and you will see dozens of bottles with the word “curcumin” written somewhere on them.
And, if you’ve ever made curry at home, then you’re most definitely familiar with the stuff, as are your aprons and towels which may have been stained with its golden glow.
If you’ve never heard of turmeric, welcome to the cult of the golden powder.Your initiation begins below. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to evangelize with the best of them, as we explore this mysterious spice.
Even if you’ve been drinking, taking, or cooking with turmeric for years, you’ll likely be surprised at just how many positive health effects it can have. I fall into this latter category and learned a lot through the process of researching the scientific journals on the health benefits of turmeric and curcumin. This article will primarily focus on the impacts on mental health, though the positive health effects extend far beyond just our brains.
Shall we begin?
Turmeric vs. Curcumin: What’s The Difference?
Turmeric (curcuma longa) is a deep orange root that is most often found in ground powdered form, and is associated with delicious Indian curries (and stained dishes, towels, etc. if you’re a messy cook like me).
Curcumin is the main compound found in turmeric, and is heavily studied in the scientific community. In the health world, the terms are often used interchangeably, but just remember that:
Turmeric = whole spice
Curcumin = active compound
Essentially, it’s the difference between tylenol and acetaminophen (that is, curcumin is the thing in turmeric that gives us the health benefits we’re aiming for).
Turmeric: A Natural Antidepressant
Turmeric has been proven over and over in clinical studies to be an effective treatment for depression. In a meta analysis of curcumin as an antidepressant, it was concluded that “Curcumin appears to be safe, well-tolerated, and efficacious among depressed patients.”
In a 2014 study, people who took 500 mg of curcumin a day experienced a significant improvement in their depression symptoms after only 8 weeks.
It has also been shown to be more effective than Prozac by itself in treating severe depression . Quoting from the study authors, “This study provides first clinical evidence that curcumin may be used as an effective and safe modality for treatment in patients with MDD without concurrent suicidal ideation or other psychotic disorders.” This is pretty cool, considering turmeric has none of the upsetting side effects of Prozac such as insomnia, weight gain, loss of sex drive, anxiousness and fatigue, etc.
Turmeric: Destroyer of Anxiety and PTSD
Anxiety is often experienced alongside depression, so it’s no surprise that turmeric can also be effective for anxiety related disorders. In 2017, the journal Biological Psychiatry published a mouse model study that showed that curcumin reduced the effects of stress on social anxiety.
The potential use of curcumin as an aid to PTSD treatment is still in the early stages of exploration. Last year, researchers used Pavlovian fear conditioning (pairing a neutral and frightening stimulus to condition the rat to be fearful of the neutral stimulus) on rats, and then tried to get them to “unlearn” the fear. It was found that “curcumin enhances the extinction of a Pavlovian fear memory, suggesting that it may be a potential adjunct to exposure based treatments in patients with psychiatric disorders characterized by traumatic memory formation.”
Of course, turmeric alone can’t treat severe anxiety disorders, but it looks like it can be a useful addition to the treatment protocol!
Turmeric: Warrior Against Alzheimer’s Disease
Therapeutic curcumin can decrease plaque formation and inflammation in the brain, two hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as provide other neuroprotective benefits. This study from 2017 found that attention and memory improved in Alzheimer’s patients given a highly bioavailable form of curcumin. “Epidemiological studies indicate a lower prevalence of Alzheimer disease in Indian people who consume curcumin in curry and a link between dietary curry consumption and better cognitive performance in older adults, supporting the hypothesis that curcumin consumption may provide neuroprotective benefits.” As if I needed an excuse to eat more curry!
Turmeric: Serving Your Brain Those Big Fat Fatties
One really cool thing that curcumin can do that confers a wide variety of benefits for your brain is increase the amount of DHA in your brain. DHA, an extremely important Omega-3 fatty acid found in fish, is one of the most prevalent and important fatty acids found in the brain and eyes. While it is commonly believed that this fatty acid can be synthesized from another plant-based fatty acid called ALA (alpha linoleic acid), found in flaxseed and other seeds, the rate of conversion is actually very low. Curcumin can increase this conversion rate, therefore providing great benefit to those on plant based diets or other diets low in DHA.
But Wait, There’s More…
Other amazing things that turmeric can do include increasing cell growth in the area of your brain associated with long term memory (the hippocampus), protection of alcohol induced neurodegeneration, and enhancing learning that depends on neurogenesis in the hippocampus. Based on information from several studies cited in this article, it appears as though turmeric has a concentrated effect in the hippocampus, which is great news if you are trying to improve or protect your memory!
How Turmeric Works: What Happens in Vagus
How is turmeric able to have so many positive health effects?
In short: It fights inflammation.
Inflammation in the body leads to inflammation in the brain. Levels of inflammation in the brain are correlated with the presence of mental disorders and illnesses ranging from mild depression and anxiety, brain fog, and ADHD to severe including severe forms of depression and anxiety, schizophrenia, autism, and more. Reducing inflammation in our body can also lower levels of inflammation in our brains, leading to a higher state of mental wellbeing.
Curcumin is famous for its anti-inflammatory effects, which is partially responsible for the brain benefits mentioned in this article. But because turmeric has a notoriously low absorption rate, it was often a mystery how it could provide such amazing benefits. However, this study found that the vagus nerve (a huge bundle of nerves connecting the brain and the gut) is a key component in arthritis treatment with curcumin, showing that the gut-brain axis is a vital part of the process. It’s anti-inflammatory effects in the gut translate to anti-inflammatory effects in the brain!
What happens in vagus doesn’t always stay in vagus. (sorry, I had to.)
A couple of other possible methods of action include increased DHA synthesis as mentioned in the previous section, increased BDNF production (which is essentially an important “brain cell fertilizer” protein) and the increased production of glutathione, the body’s most powerful natural antioxidant that helps protect the mitochondria.
How to Put That Golden Powder in Your Belly!
So, now we’ve come to the level of initiation where you have to take action.
Shall you join the cult of the golden powder or no?
What a silly question. Of course you’re going to. But there’s the question of how?
Two common issues with turmeric:
1. Turmeric tastes bitter
2. Turmeric doesn’t absorb particularly well,
Some great solutions to that are using it in your cooking along with healthy fats, making delicious drinks with it, and taking it in supplement form. Most of these methods are sufficient for providing benefits, since a lot of the studies cited above used standard curcumin supplements. However, black pepper and fat are two things that greatly increase its absorption.
When in doubt: Head down to your local Indian restaurant and order a delicious curry (we could all use an excuse to eat more Indian food, yes?).
If you would rather get adventurous in the kitchen, making curries or a popular drink called Golden Milk is a great way to drastically increase your consumption of turmeric prepared for optimal absorption. here are a couple of delicious recipes to try:
If you would rather take a supplement for ease and simplicity, I love this one from Vital Choice. It is combined with a high quality wild salmon oil for excellent bioavailability (plus the extra DHA doesn’t hurt, for sure!). The company is excellent, and their products all have great independent reviews.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, besides the fact that I am a huge fan of curry, turmeric is an excellent addition to your diet as part of a plan to manage your brain health, prevent cancer, treat inflammatory diseases, and countless other things. However, don’t go dump all of your medications down the toilet in favor of curcumin, as tempting as it is. Talk with your healthcare provider about your plan to manage any illnesses and possible drug interactions, but if that isn’t an issue for you, turmeric has no side effects (in normal amounts – you probably don’t want to ingest a whole cup of powder in a day) and could probably be of great use to you.
I hope this article is helpful for you! Have fun trying some new recipes, and let me know how you feel after trying it out!
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*Curcumin reduced anxiety in mouse model studies
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