Most people know turmeric as a powdered spice used to give foods flavor and color—it gives many curries their deep golden color. Derived from a plant in the ginger family, turmeric (Curcuma longa) contains a natural chemical compound called curcumin. Scientists have found curcumin has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Analysts estimate curcumin accounts for only about 3 to 5% of turmeric.9,10 Arthritis pain relief may require ingesting more curcumin than a person eats in a typical diet, so advocates often recommend a dietary supplement.
Curcumin supplements typically contain curcumin (diferuloylmethane) as well as other chemicals naturally found in turmeric, including demethoxycurcumin and bisdemethoxycurcumin. Scientists believe that each of these compounds, collectively called curcuminoids, has anti-inflammatory effects.11
Advocates suggest a daily curcumin supplement of 200 to 1000mg that contains 95% curcuminoids.
Antioxidant and Anti-inflammation Properties
How does curcumin work? Evidence suggests curcumin acts in many different ways to reduce arthritis symptoms.
Curcumin as an antioxidant
Researchers suspect that some or all painful arthritis inflammation may be caused by free radicals in the body. Free radicals—unstable molecules or atoms missing an electron—occur naturally in the body, but too many cause oxidative stress, which is linked to inflammation. Antioxidant foods, such as turmeric, leafy greens, and seafood high in omega 3 fatty acids, neutralize free radicals.
Many researchers believe that turmeric and its essential components, curcuminoids, have antioxidant properties and can be part of a diet that reduces the risk of disease and its effects.
Curcumin as an a TNF-inhibitor
Evidence suggests curcumin may suppress the body’s response to tumor necrosis factor (TNF),15 a chemical produced by the immune system that causes inflammation related to rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and other arthritic conditions.16 Curcumin’s role in inhibiting TNF not yet well understood and research is underway.
Curcumin as a COX inhibitor
Typical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen, work by blocking both COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes. COX-1 enzymes influence the clotting of blood and the health of the stomach, and COX-2 enzymes influence inflammation that can lead to pain.
Researchers have found that curcumin has the chemical properties of a COX inhibitor17-20 and can provide modest pain relief. However, experts have not yet found a way to harness curcumin’s COX-inhibiting properties to reliably relieve moderate or significant arthritis pain.