“Golden spice” antioxidant fights brain aging and brain inflammation, helping to maintain a sharp mental edge.
Turmeric is an important medicinal herb in India’s Ayurvedic health system, and has bio-activities that appear to be particularly helpful for brain health:
- Neuroprotective. Antioxidant activity that defends brain cells from radicals.
- Brain soother. A natural anti-inflammatory that counters a major brain risk factor.
- Anti-Amyloid. Blocks formation of unhealthy plaques and tangles within the brain.
- Side Effects
- Available Forms
- Supplements in Review Recommendation
- Inside Scoop: Beware turmeric “dirty tricks!”
Turmeric (Curcuma longa, related to ginger) is a popular spice that is perhaps most well-known for imparting flavor and bright yellow color to curry. In addition to its widespread use in global cuisine, Turmeric is an important medicinal herb throughout Asia, widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic health practices.
Turmeric is most strongly associated with India, where about 78% of the world’s supply is grown. As a major spice in the region’s cuisine, turmeric is consumed in large amounts: About 2.5 grams per day, just from foods alone. This means Indian citizens also get plenty of dietary curcumin: A group of polyphenol antioxidants collectively considered to be turmeric’s “active ingredient.” Curcuminoids make up about 3-5% of raw turmeric root.
A biologically potent complex, curcumin has three primary bio-activities that help brain health:
- Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant. It reaches brain tissues and protect brain cells from oxidative stress. As the body’s most energetic organ, the brain is ground-zero for oxidative stress.
- Curcumin is a powerful brain anti-inflammatory. Brain inflammation is a contributing cause to many different degenerative brain problems. Curcumin has a soothing effect on the brain.
- Curcumin fights amyloid plaques. These irregular clusters of proteins interfere with normal brain activities, and are a major contributing factor to Alzheimer’s and dementia.
While these are the three main bio-activities, it’s worth noting that early animal studies suggest curcumin may also boost neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine;1 activate the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that acts like a “brain fertilizer” for fresh neurons;2 and (as curcuminoids) help block enzymes that degrade the memory neurotransmitter acetylcholine.3 Turmeric’s curcuminoids have diverse brain-supportive mechanisms of action that seem to maintain mental clarity.
Eating lots of curry → 4X lower rate of Alzheimer’s
Turmeric’s actions combine to defend the brain against the ravages of aging–prolonging brain cell survival and maintaining youthful brain cell performance. Turmeric’s brain-protective activity may be seen in India’s population, which enjoys some of the best cognitive health in the world. In fact, Indian citizens between the ages of 70-79 have a 4X lower rate of Alzheimer’s than American citizens in the same age group.
Turmeric’s curcumin is very difficult to absorb
Research suggests that once you take curcumin, only about 60% might reach the bloodstream.4 This poor bioavailability most likely limits the spice’s therapeutic benefits. Curcumin absorption can be improved, however–one study found that combining curcumin with black pepper extract boosted its bioavailability by 20X.5
OK, so there’s some anecdotal evidence that eating curry might help the brain. But is there any clinical research? Oh yeah. Turmeric has been involved in thousands of scientific studies within the last decade alone. Research seems to focus mostly on turmeric’s immune-modulating properties, especially its anti-inflammatory activity, along with its antioxidant activity.
How might turmeric help mental performance?
It fights dementia and Alzheimer’s. Turmeric is not a mental performance-boosting nutrient, but it is one of the most compelling mental anti-aging nutrients. Its curcuminoids work to keep brain cells in youthful state, even in advanced age. Take it now for a mental edge later in life.
Turmeric’s bio-activities shows promise for helping a lot of different health issues, including arthritis, cardiovascular health, digestive problems like colitis and irritable bowel syndrome, and multiple aspects of cognitive health. Let’s dig into some of the studies on turmeric and the brain.
There’s a good deal of animal research on curcumin’s brain health potential, most of which are models focusing on the onset and progression of various brain-degenerative conditions:
- Curcumin was found to protect against amyloid plaque in the brain, preserving spatial memory. Researchers concluded “curcumin may find clinical applications for AD prevention.”(rat study)6
- Low- and high-dose curcumin were found to reduce brain oxidation and inflammation. Low-dose also reduced beta-amyloid and brain plaque burden by 43-50%. Researchers concluded curcumin “shows promise for the prevention of Alzheimer’s.” (mouse study).7
- Researchers reported “curcuminoids can restore susceptibility for plastic changes” in brain cells with amyloid-induced injury. This “plasticity” is critical for learning, memory and brain health.(rat study)8
- Pretreatment with curcumin to brain cells with neurotoxic beta-amyloid appeared to have neuroprotective effects. Researchers reported curcumin “significantly reversed the effect of [amyloid] by decreasing oxidative stress and DNA damage.” (rat study)9
- Curcumin treatment prior to and during homocysteine-induced brain toxicity was found to reduce markers of oxidative stress, leading researchers to suggest it “improved learning and memory deficits by protecting the nervous system” against toxicity.(rat study) 10
The above are just a small sampling of animal research on turmeric’s curcuminoids, and their specific potential for assisting with brain health. Let’s see how this evidence translates in human studies.
When it comes to human studies for turmeric, there are not nearly as many–mostly small pilot trials. However, some of these seem to build upon the animal research to make a compelling case for curcumin helping the brain. Let’s check out a few:
1,010 Asians between the ages of 60 and 93 reported on their curry consumption and were given Mini-Mental State Examinations, which measure cognitive performance across functions like attention span, language, memory, calculation and awareness. Researchers found that study subjects who ate curry occasionally, often or very often had better scores on MMSE tests than those who ate curry rarely or never.
- Researchers concluded “tentative evidence of better cognitive performance from curry consumption” and called for future studies to confirm their suggestion.11
This study investigated turmeric as Longvida®, an enhanced-bioavailability form of turmeric. Researchers gave 400 mg Longvida® or placebo daily to 60 adults aged 60-85 for four weeks. Study subjects were evaluated for short-term and long-term mental performance: They were tested for cognition one hour and three hours after acute doses, and then again at the end of the entire four-week study. Cognitive testing included measures of working memory, alertness, calmness, mental fatigue and mood.
- Researchers reported that one hour after a single dose “curcumin significantly improved performance on sustained attention and working memory tasks” when compared with placebo. and then tested their short-term and long-term cognitive performance. After 4 weeks, researchers reported the Longvida® curcumin seemed to improve memory, mood, alertness, and feelings of contentment. Researchers concluded that these results “highlight the need for further investigation of the potential psychological and cognitive benefits of curcumin in an older population.”12
36 patients over the age of 49 believed to have mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s were administered placebo or Curcumin C3 Complex® at dosages of 2 g or 4 g daily for a span of 24 weeks. Throughout the study, the subjects were evaluated for cognitive performance, including Mini Mental State Exams (MMSE) and testing for psychiatric well-being and capability in daily living activities. All of these tests were designed to gain an understanding of how curcumin in this form might protect against Alzheimer’s.
- At study’s end, researchers concluded they were “unable to demonstrate any clinical or biochemical evidence of [curcumin’s] efficacy against Alzheimer’s.” Researchers acknowledged that animal models had shown considerably more promise in this area, and suggested that it may have failed due to poor bioavailability or differences in how humans and animals metabolism curcumin.13
Turmeric dosage depends on the form.
- Plain turmeric, whether as a whole root or a dried-and-powdered supplement, is typically dosed at 1.5 g -3 g daily for cognitive benefits–which is in line with the average intake of the spice in India.
- Turmeric that is standardized to a high 95% curcuminoids has higher amounts of active ingredient and smaller serving size: About 400 mg – 600 mg, two or three times daily (and more for lower standardized amounts).
- Liquid extract of turmeric is typically dosed at 50-100 drops daily, taken mixed with a little water.
Turmeric is totally safe for adults to use. However, it sometimes associated with stomach complaints, including nausea, indigestion, GERD and diarrhea. In short, turmeric can be hard for some people to absorb… but some advanced forms can help with that.
- Whole turmeric root: Turmeric is widely available as a raw spice, but it’s impossible to know exactly much curcumin is found from root to root.
- Plain turmeric root, dried and powdered: This form can be presented in capsules, tablets and complexes, but like whole root, does not supply a specific level of curcuminoids. It’s cheap, but too difficult to absorb–avoid it.
- Standardized turmeric root powder: This form will supply an exact and guaranteed level of the active ingredient, curcuminoids. Supplements are typically standardized to anywhere from 5% to 95%.
- Meriva™: This “branded” form uses patented technology called Phytosome® to join curcuminoids with phosphatidylcholine non-GMO soy lecithin. This step makes turmeric 29X easier to absorb.
- Longvida®: This form is made with a patented SLCP™ Technology that protects curcuminoids through the digestive tract so more can reach the bloodstream: It achieves 65X greater bioavailability than regular curcumin. Longvida® is optimized, but not standardized to curcuminoids.
- Curcumin C3 Complex®: This form is standardized with greater care and precision that other formulas. It supplies 95% curcuminoids in the following ratios: 70% – 80% are curcumin; 15% – 25% demethoxycurcumin; 2.5% – 6.5% bisdemethoxycurcumin.
Supplements in Review Recommendation
- Curcumin as Longvida®, 1000 mg
Curcumin is not going to supercharge your brainpower. However, it has shown enough promise for long-term brain health–as well as for other organs and system–to earn a tentative recommendation from us. Cheap, plain curcumin is so difficult to absorb that a premium form is warranted. Absorption-enhanced formulas do a better job of ensuring the spice’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity actually reach your bloodstream and are delivered to tissues. Take an absorbable form of curcumin now, and you may enjoy better brain function when you’re older.
Longvida® is our choice for its 65X increase in bioavailability. This is a huge jump, and a 1,000 mg serving likely results in so much absorbed curcumin that it compensates for Longvida®’s lack of standardization.
Inside Scoop: Beware turmeric “dirty tricks!”
Turmeric is confusing. Unscrupulous manufacturers know this, so they may try to pull fast ones with their turmeric to charge you more and give you less. One dirty trick we have seen: Manufacturers will advertise a turmeric product as “Organic turmeric, standardized to 95% curcuminoids.” Sounds great, right? But then when you look at the supplement facts, you might find something like this:
- Organic turmeric root, 400 mg
- Turmeric standardized to 95% curcuminoids, 50 mg
This means there’s a whole lot of weak plain turmeric, and a much smaller amount of strong standardized turmeric. But when you looked at the front of the label, you might have thought all of the turmeric in each capsule was standardized that you wanted. Not so; it’s a dirty trick!
- Kulkarni SK, et al. Antidepressant activity of curcumin: involvement of serotonin and dopamine system. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2008 Dec;201(3):435-42. ↩
- Wu, et al. Dietary curcumin counteracts the outcome of traumatic brain injury on oxidative stress, synaptic plasticity, and cognition. Exp Neurol. 2006 Feb;197(2):309-17. ↩
- Ahmed T, Gilani AH. Inhibitory effect of curcuminoids on acetylcholinesterase activity and attenuation of scopolamine-induced amnesia may explain medicinal use of turmeric in Alzheimer’s disease. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2009 Feb;91(4):554-9. ↩
- Ravindranath V, Chandrasekhara N. Absorption and tissue distribution of curcumin in rats Toxicology, 16 (1980), pp. 259–265 ↩
- G. Shoba, D. Joy, T. Joseph, M. Majeed, R. Rajendran, P.S. Srinivas. Influence of piperine on the pharmacokinetics of curcumin in animals and human volunteers. Planta Med., 64 (1998), pp. 353–356 ↩
- Frautschy, et al. Phenolic anti-inflammatory antioxidant reversal of Abeta-induced cognitive deficits and neuropathology. Neurobiol Aging. 2001 Nov-Dec;22(6):993-1005. ↩
- Lim GP, et al. The Curry Spice Curcumin Reduces Oxidative Damage and Amyloid Pathology in an Alzheimer Transgenic Mouse. The Journal of Neuroscience, 1 November 2001, 21(21): 8370-8377 ↩
- Ahmed T, et al. Curcuminoids rescue long-term potentiation impaired by amyloid peptide in rat hippocampal slices. Synapse. 2011 Jul;65(7):572-82. ↩
- Park SY, et al. Curcumin protected PC12 cells against beta-amyloid-induced toxicity through the inhibition of oxidative damage and tau hyperphosphorylation. Food Chem Toxicol. 2008 Aug;46(8):2881-7. ↩
- Ataie A, et al. Neuroprotective effects of the polyphenolic antioxidant agent, Curcumin, against homocysteine-induced cognitive impairment and oxidative stress in the rat. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2010 Oct;96(4):378-85. ↩
- Ng TP, et al. Curry consumption and cognitive function in the elderly. Am J Epidemiol. 2006 Nov 1;164(9):898-906. Epub 2006 Jul 26. ↩
- Cox KHM, Pipingas A, Scholey AB. Investigation of the effects of solid lipid curcumin on cognition and mood in a healthy older population. J Psychopharmacol October 2, 2014. ↩
- Ringman JM, et al. Oral curcumin for Alzheimer’s disease: tolerability and efficacy in a 24-week randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled study. Alzheimers Res Ther. 2012; 4(5): 43. ↩