Evidence for the effectiveness of curcumin supplements in reducing or stopping arthritis pain is increasing. Curcumin, a compound in the spice tumeric, is an anti-inflammatory agent with few side effects that can be purchased for a dollar a day.
More than 20 million Americans suffer from arthritis. Conventional treatment includes over-the-counter or prescription pain relief medications, anti-inflammatory agents, and, eventually, surgery to replace damaged joints. People with arthritis are also turning to complementary or alternative medicine in search of effective treatments. One promising supplement is curcumin, the main compound in the turmeric root—and good quality supplements are readily available and cheap, with a low risk of side effects.
In India, turmeric (Curcuma longa) has long been established as a staple culinary spice (it’s the bright yellow ingredient in many curries) and a potent medicinal plant, used to treat many conditions. Contemporary Western medicine is now conducting its own studies of curcumin for a wide range of diseases and conditions, including arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Preliminary results seem to confirm that daily curcumin supplements are an effective, safe way to reduce or stop arthritis pain. The Arthritis Foundation recommends taking 400–600 mg curcumin capsules three times a day.
New Research on Curcumin and Arthritis
Can curcumin help with arthritis pain? Italian researchers treated a small group of people who had osteoarthritis of the knee with curcumin, along with their usual medications. A second group did not receive the curcumin. After 3 months, the curcumin group showed:
- 58% reduction in reported pain
- 63% reduction in use of NSAIDs
- Improved physical function
- Improved emotional well being
- Decrease in C-reactive protein, an indicator of inflammation
In a widely discussed study, researchers at the University of Arizona College of Medicine created an animal model of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) that responded favorably to curcumin. The experimental dose that contained the highest amount of this compound was able to inhibit RA from beginning by preventing inflammation of the joints. It also stopped bone loss that is related to RA. This study showed that curcumin is an effective anti-inflammatory agent because it blocks the molecular pathways involved in the inflammatory response. Data from this 2006 study give credence to the use of curcumin supplements for arthritis pain caused by a similar inflammation of the joints.
Best Curcumin Supplements
Unfortunately, you won’t notice the benefits of curcumin from eating more curry. The food-grade spice turmeric does not contain enough of the active agent, and the body can only make use of a small fraction of it in this form. You can buy curcumin supplements (often labeled as turmeric) in capsule form at most health food stores or online.
Companies that market supplements are currently scrambling to come up a curcumin formulation with the highest “bio-availability.” Some research suggests that the addition of piperine, derived from another commonly used spice, black pepper, maximizes the body’s ability to utilize curcumin—by 2000%. Supplements containing both curcumin and piperine are available.
Curcumin Daily Dose
If you decide to try curcumin for your arthritis pain, plan on taking at least 1,200 to 1,800 mg per day, as recommended by the Arthritis Foundation. Doses up to 3 times this amount are also tolerable, and might be more effective. Some people find it best to take the dose in 3 parts, before meals.
There are few reported side effects from this dose of curcumin, though some people have reported nausea or stomach upset. Therefore, it’s wise to titrate up when you begin. Start with a small dose, and work your way up to the full dose over several days. If you experience any stomach upset or discomfort, go back to a smaller dose or stop taking it.
Curcumin capsules come in a variety of measures and sizes. If you shop around, you should be able to find a dose amount that works for you—for only $1 per day. Buy from a reputable supplement manufacturer. Look for a product that contains at least 95% curcumin as well as piperine.
Studies have shown that curcumin is generally well-tolerated at high doses by most people, with few or no side effects. There are some safety precautions, however. Always speak your health care practitioner before you add a supplement to your regimen, and be cautious about possible interactions with other drugs, medicines, or supplements you are taking.
Curcumin is NOT recommended in the following situations:
- Pregnant or breast-feeding
- Gallbladder disease or gallstones
- Before surgery (curcumin can thin blood)
Belcaro G, et al. Product-evaluation registry of Meriva®, curcumin-phosphatidylcholine complex, for the complementary management of osteoarthritis. PanMinervaMed. 2010;52 (Suppl. 1 to No. 1):55–62.
Funk, JL, et al. Turmeric extracts containing curcuminoids prevent experimental rheumatoid arthritis. JNatProd. 2006;69(3):351–355.
Shoba G, et al. Influence of piperine on the pharmacokinetics of curcumin in animals and human volunteers. PlantaMed. 1998;64(4):353–356.