Still gold: Turmeric studies are revealing new and surprising benefits

April 7, 2020

Human trials are taking turmeric and curcumin science in surprising directions-and their number has only increased in concert with the botanical’s popularity.

Turmeric’s star just keeps shining. Look no further than HerbalGram’s latest Herb Market Report for evidence that, years after turmeric first attracted popular notice, the buzzworthy botanical keeps turning in stellar performances in both mainstream and natural channels.

How stellar? According to the report1, which reflects U.S. sales data for the 52 weeks ending December 30, 2018, turmeric enjoyed the greatest mainstream sales increase among all botanicals monitored, shooting up 30.5% to $93.3 million between 2017 and 2018. At the same time, turmeric raked in $51.2 million in natural-channel sales.

But just as every silver lining has a cloud, turmeric’s golden glow may be sliding into shadow-for the same report noted that for the first time ever, upstart hemp cannabidiol (CBD) usurped turmeric’s long-held top spot in the natural space.

So, is this turmeric’s sign to cede ground to CBD, or is there room enough in the botanical firmament for more than one superstar superfood?

Alexis Manfré, global product manager for proprietary turmeric ingredient TurmiPure Gold, Naturex (Avignon, France), is betting on the latter.

“While turmeric may no longer be in the number-one position, it certainly remains a top seller with continued growth,” he says. “Rather than looking at pure market share, the challenge going forward will be to take turmeric to the next level and meet consumer demand for convenience, clean labels, and efficacy at a low dose.”

 

Down but Hardly Out

Manfré isn’t the only herbal expert still bullish on turmeric-despite its natural-channel dip. “Over the past five years, we’ve seen demand grow massively in the U.S.,” he notes, “and we’re now seeing this same trend in Europe and emerging markets.”

Leisha Jenkins, marketing associate, Verdure Sciences (Noblesville, IN), agrees. “While it’s no surprise that turmeric is now sharing the limelight with other market prospects,” she says, “we’re still optimistic that we’ll continue to see substantial category growth.”

Francesca de Rensis, marketing director, Indena S.p.A. (Milan, Italy), is also optimistic. While acknowledging turmeric’s natural-channel slowdown, she sees its double-digit growth in the mass market as a genuine bright side, “demonstrating that turmeric is being adopted by a broader mainstream audience.”

 

Turmeric’s Trick

And for good reason.

Curcuma longa-the source of turmeric-is one of the most beneficial herbs we have,” says Mariko Hill, product development executive, Gencor (Irvine, CA). “There’s a reason our ancestors used the plant’s roots in therapeutic healing for thousands of years.” We’re merely beginning to catch on.

Rachela Mohr, business development manager for nutraceuticals, Wacker Biosolutions, Wacker Chemie AG (Munich, Germany), ascribes turmeric’s superstar status to a trio of timely advantages.

First, a natural plant extract “at a moment when natural products are increasingly important to consumers,” she says. Moreover, its history in India’s Ayurvedic tradition adds to its appeal-and to its credibility.

Finally, Mohr notes, “Claims for turmeric are backed by a huge number of recent human clinical studies that demonstrate its numerous health benefits.”

Many of those benefits stem from the root’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which help support everything from cognition and mobility to cardio-metabolic and gut health. All of which explains why Naturex’s Manfré considers turmeric “a great product for the healthy-aging category, although there’s huge consumer demand for turmeric across all age groups.”


 

Rooted in Curcumin

While turmeric may be the public face for the botanical’s benefits, that face’s bright yellow color comes from a family of three pigmented compounds called curcuminoids: curcumin, demethoxycurcumin, and bisdemethoxycurcumin.

“As a matter of fact,” Indena’s de Rensis says, “curcuminoids remain turmeric’s most interesting components, with many of its health benefits associated directly with curcumin.” Indeed, no fewer than 3,000 preclinical trials have studied curcumin, she says, making it “one of the best-investigated botanical products in the biomedical literature at the preclinical level.”

Those studies’ results establish curcumin as a “master switch” of inflammation, de Rensis says, exhibiting both direct and genomic activity at the level of pro-inflammatory enzymes like cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase, the inflammatory transcription factors NF-kB and AP3, and such inflammatory cytokines as the interleukins2.

It’s this anti-inflammatory capacity that helps curcumin inhibit the chronic inflammation associated with, for example, arthritis and skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema, adds Gencor’s Hill. “It has a positive track record for boosting immune response and disease prevention,” she continues. “Research shows that it can improve vascular endothelial function, easing blood flow and reducing strain on the heart. Studies show that it may improve metabolic disorders by regulating lipid metabolism and enhancing insulin sensitivity. Curcumin can improve overall brain health in many ways-most notably, by preserving mental acuity as we age. And multiple studies show that it helps cleanse and detox the liver by facilitating the removal of foreign substances from the body.3"

In sum, she says, “There’s a mountain of evidence to suggest that curcumin’s therapeutic effects are both powerful and long lasting.”

 

Good Sports

Let’s start with its effects in sports.

“When it comes to exercise, some degree of physiological inflammation post-exertion is essential for the development of muscle mass,” Hill explains. But our modern world and diets already skew us toward inflammation, she continues, which not only impairs general wellness but can trigger the delayed-onset muscle soreness that stalls recovery and dampens performance.

So, it’s encouraging news that a recent exercise-recovery study-currently under peer review-that Hill’s company, Gencor, conducted showed that its branded curcumin product HydroCurc significantly reduces levels of muscle soreness and inflammatory markers following exertion.

“More interestingly,” Hill notes, “the ingredient significantly activated the Akt/PKB pathway-the downstream region of the mTOR pathway-which signifies potential reduction in muscle catabolism.”

Meanwhile, CurcuWin, OmniActive Health Technologies’ (Morristown, NJ) branded curcumin ingredient, was the subject of a double-blind, randomized, parallel-design, placebo-controlled human clinical trial4 examining its effects on muscle performance and soreness at doses of 250 mg and 1000 mg administered over eight weeks versus placebo. The results, says Ralf Jäger, MBA, FISSN, cofounder and managing member of Increnovo LLC (Milwaukee) and lead author of the publication, show that consuming the ingredient prior to exercise “can improve training quality and help muscles recover faster.”

This comes atop previous studies5,6 showing similar post-exertion benefits for the ingredient, says Brian Appell, marketing manager at OmniActive. To wit, 1000 mg significantly reduced markers of inflammation (interleukin-6) and muscle damage (creatine kinase), showing the potential for facilitated muscle recovery and improved performance. No wonder, Appell says, “We believe curcumin’s role in the sports nutrition market will continue to grow.”

 

State of Mind

Another feather in curcumin’s cap: supporting brain health, which Hill says “is an area of interest for consumers and academia.”

Wacker Chemie’s Mohr points to the research portal Nootropicexperts as crediting curcumin with working at the molecular level to enhance neurogenesis. “It boosts the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine,” she says. “And it’s a powerful antioxidant helping to protect the brain from chronic excess inflammation.”

Thanks to an innovation grant from the Australian Federal Government’s Department of Industry, Innovation, and Science, Gencor is currently studying HydroCurc’s ability to cross the blood/brain barrier, Hill notes, and they’re seeing “very pleasing” interim results. “This will validate curcuminoids’ potential for brain health, while also overcoming the challenges of both absorption and uptake, too,” she predicts.

Numerous studies have also associated Verdure’s Longvida curcumin with cognitive improvement, Jenkins says. Within the last year, a follow-up investigation7 further established Longvida’s effects on cognition and mood in healthy subjects: After participants aged 60 to 80 supplemented with 400 mg of the ingredient daily for four weeks, researchers found significant improvements in measures of memory, attention, fatigue, stress, and mood compared to placebo.

Notes Jenkins, “It’s really impressive to have healthy subjects exhibit positive cognitive attributes and improved mood, but it’s even more impressive to replicate those results years later in another healthy population.”

 

The Brain Game

But cognitive health involves more than keeping older people sharp. As Jenkins says, “The field has shifted recently from aiming at symptoms of cognitive decline and aging to helping people of all ages support a healthy brain as well as cognitive function and working memory.”

Which is where sports nutrition comes in. “Mental wellbeing is important for athletes at every experience level,” Jenkins notes. “So as the sports-nutrition audience grows and develops, cognitive acuity will be one advantage that all athletes can benefit from.”

Witness the boom in supplements for Esports athletes. Players, Jenkins says, crave mental acuity and focus to carry their play to peak levels on intense schedules. Curcumin meets those needs while also fitting what she calls “the move away from ‘bad’ or unhealthy options toward a focus on health, wellness, and longevity as opposed to quick fixes and the negative side effects of caffeine.”

 

Gut Instincts

And what about the microbiome-can curcumin make a difference there?

Yes. As Shaheen Majeed, president worldwide, Sabinsa (East Windsor, NJ), explains, “It’s been found that curcuminoids improve the population and type of beneficial commensal intestinal microbiota while inhibiting the growth of pathogenic microbes in the gut lining.”

A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled pilot study8 not only found that the curcuminoids in Sabinsa’s Curcumin C3 Complex ingredient produced a larger, 69% increase in intestinal bacterial populations compared to whole turmeric itself-reinforcing curcuminoids’ role as turmeric’s principal bioactives; it also found that subjects receiving the placebo saw their microbiota species decline 15% from baseline versus the turmeric group.

But those aren’t the only bacterial benefits that curcuminoids confer. In addition to bolstering the population of several beneficial microbiota species, Majeed says, “Curcuminoids are also metabolized to useful products such as the reductive metabolites tetrahydrocurcumin and demethylated curcuminoids.”

Exhibit A: Indena has studied the role of microbiota in the biotransformation of supplementary curcumin. And, as de Rensis says, “In vitro studies, including one published this year9, demonstrate that our curcumin formulation with lecithin has an effect on the microbial biostransformation of curcuminoids, with suitable production of active curcuminoid metabolites, where unformulated curcumin has lower levels.”

 

New Frontiers

Human trials like these take turmeric and curcumin science in surprising directions-and their number has only increased in concert with the botanical’s popularity.

“Research has evolved from examining curcumin’s role as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory to investigating, say, its use as an adjunct to chemotherapy,” Majeed says. “This opens new windows for applications in healthcare, leading to yet more new clinical studies with more subjects and longer timelines to learn more about its benefits and safe use.”

This is a promising prospect for the ingredient’s future, Jenkins believes. “Continued research is vital to the category’s success, allowing not only for substantiation of historical applications, but for improved methodology and a more comprehensive understanding of the mechanistic capabilities with proven efficacy and safety,” she says.

 

Get to Work

But none of what we learn will matter if curcumin can’t get to the tissues that need it. And, says Hill, “One of the biggest challenges with curcumin is its bioavailability.”

The fault lies with turmeric’s lipophilic nature, which limits its absorption in aqueous environments like the stomach. Add to that our bodies’ tendency to eliminate curcumin rapidly, and you wind up in a situation where high doses on the order of 1 to 2 grams per day are needed to reach efficacy levels. “Thus,” says Naturex’s Manfré, “the challenge is to ensure the greatest absorption of all curcuminoids and metabolites at a low and cost-effective dose.”

That’s sent brands to the lab in an effort to crack the bioavailability code. For example, Gencor’s water-dispersible HydroCurc ingredient uses a patented dispersion technology called LipiSperse that it developed with Pharmako Biotechnologies to “increase the dispersion of crystalline lipophilic agents in aqueous environments, allowing for better absorption and use,” Hill says. And because the LipiSperse technology delivers its curcumin payload at a 9-to-1 ratio of actives to excipients, a mere one to two capsules daily provide an efficacious dose.

Manfré notes that a randomized, crossover-design pharmacokinetic study10 sponsored by Naturex involving 30 healthy subjects found a 24-fold enhanced level of curcuminoid bioavailability for 300 mg of Naturex’s TurmiPure Gold turmeric extract (standardized to curcumin) compared to 1500 mg of turmeric standardized to 95%-even with the addition of piperine, which Manfré says “is traditionally thought to aid curcuminoid absorption.” In other words, a 300-mg dose of Naturex’s product delivered as many curcuminoids to the blood as 1,922 mg of regular 95%-turmeric, with or without black pepper extract, he says.

Indena enhances the bioavailability of its Meriva-brand ingredient by creating a solid dispersion of its three major curcuminoids in a food-grade lecithin matrix. This “phytosome” delivery system improves the ingredient’s dispersibility and solubility in gastrointestinal fluid, de Rensis says-“a necessary condition to optimizing bioabsorption, effectiveness, tolerability over time, and safety.”

OmniActive uses its patented UltraSOL technology to increase the relative absorption of its CurcuWin ingredient’s curcuminoids 46-fold over standard curcumin. “For supplements, this translates into efficacy at lower doses,” Appell says. “For food and beverages, it offers a formula-flexible solution.”

Verdure Sciences’ Longvida curcumin survives digestion to enter into circulation thanks to a patented solid lipid curcumin particle (SLCP) technology that Jenkins says “allows delivery of bioefficacious levels of unglucuronidated free curcumin to the brain and bloodstream.”

And finally, Wacker surrounds its Cavacurmin formulation with gamma-cyclodextrin, a ring-shaped sugar molecule that creates a hydrophilic interface between lipophilic curcumin and water-again, easing dispersion and absorption. “A peer-reviewed clinical study11 shows that this successfully enhanced bioavailability by a factor of 40 compared to conventional curcumin extracts,” Mohr notes.

 

Special Delivery

Mohr adds that Wacker’s ingredient is a free-flowing, water-dispersible powder appropriate for use in supplements like tablets or capsules as well as in functional bars, gummies, beverages, and more.

And this is no small point, she says, “as consumers increasingly look for alternative dosage forms that differ from conventional medicines.”

Sabinsa’s Majeed widens turmeric and curcumin’s prospects even further. Noting that turmeric has been used to improve skin health “throughout history,” he points out that cosmetic and even oral-health products that contain curcumin “are finding more acceptance among consumers today.”

Which should go a long way toward keeping turmeric’s star shining. “As studies continue to be published and consumers experience turmeric extract’s benefits, the market will continue to grow,” Majeed says. “And now that the research has extended far beyond inflammation, we expect that market expansion to endure.”

References:

  1. Smith T. “Herbal supplement sales in US increase by 9.4% in 2018.” HerbalGram, no. 123 (2019).
  2. Jurenka JS. “Anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, a major constituent of Curcuma longa: A review of preclinical and clinical research.” Alternative Medicine Review, vol. 14, no. 2 (June 2009): 141-153
  3. Gupta SC et al. “Multitargeting by turmeric, the golden spice: From kitchen to clinic.” Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, vol. 57, no. 9 (September 2013): 1510-1528
  4. Jäger R et al. “Eight weeks of a high dose of curcumin supplementation may attenuate performance decrements following muscle-damaging exercise.” Nutrients. Published online July 23, 2019.
  5. Jäger R et al. “Curcumin reduces muscle damage and soreness following muscle-damaging exercise.” The FASEB Journal. Published online April 1, 2017.
  6. Oliver JM et al. “Novel form of curcumin attenuates performance decrements following muscle damaging exercise.” The FASEB Journal. Published online April 1, 2017.
  7. Scholey A et al. “A highly bioavailable curcumin extract improves neuroprotective function and mood in healthy older people: A 12-week randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial (OR32-05-19).” Current Developments in Nutrition, vol. 3, suppl. 1 (June 2019)
  8. Peterson CT et al. “Effects of turmeric and curcumin dietary supplementation on human gut microbiota: A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled pilot study.” Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine. Published online August 8, 2018.
  9. Bresciani L et al. “The effect of formulation of curcuminoids on their metabolism by human colonic microbiota.” Molecules. Published online February 19, 2020.
  10. ClinicalTrials.gov. “A comparative pharmacokinetic study to evaluate the ability of a new formulation to enhance curcuminoids bioavailability (TURBIO).” August 9, 2018.
  11. Purpura et al. “Analysis of different innovative formulations of curcumin for improved relative oral bioavailability in human subjects.” European Journal of Nutrition, vol. 57, no. 3 (April 2018): 929-938
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