Many people or organizations claim they have the “cure” for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other autoimmune diseases, using natural methods such as spices and organic foods. The research on a lot of these suggestions is limited at best.
So, what happens when a “superfood” promises results that seem too good to be true? The answer involves research and discussing the facts with a trusted healthcare provider.
Chefs out there may already know a bit about this spice but for those of you who do not, turmeric is a root similar to ginger. You can find turmeric root in stores, but it is much more common to see ground turmeric in the spice aisle.
It has been used in Indian cooking for almost 4,000 years, giving many dishes that iconic yellow-orange color. Historically it has also been used to improve arthritis, heal wounds, improve digestion, and treat other conditions. However, just because something has been used historically as treatment, does this always mean it’s reliable?
What can turmeric do, and should you be throwing this spice on everything?
The research on turmeric
Turmeric has been advertised as having anti-inflammatory properties, being able to help prevent cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and detox your body. In reality, a lot of research is starting to support some of this, but there is always more research to be done. Researchers say that more studies and information is needed before turmeric can be used exclusively to treat diseases.
Craig Hopp, PhD, deputy director of the division of extramural research at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, says, “There is a lack of evidence indicating turmeric is an effective treatment for any health condition.” Research can show that something has qualities that could indicate its benefits for people with certain conditions, but that does not make it an effective treatment. The fact that many websites on the internet make turmeric and other products out to be “wonder drugs” is dangerous. This can result in people placing hope where it is not due, and not following treatment plans that have been developed by their healthcare team.
What does the evidence say?
There is a compound in turmeric called curcumin that is largely responsible for the anti-inflammatory benefits that research is starting to reveal that the spice has. In cancer, curcumin has been shown to activate pathways that cause tumor cells to die prematurely. There is a lot of rigorous research that needs to be done in this area, but the potential for curcumin to target cancer cells while leaving healthy normal cells behind makes this a hot topic for researchers. Other studies have also shown that this compound can block the enzymes that cause inflammation and could thus help arthritis patients, and people living with other inflammatory diseases such as psoriasis.
The research regarding turmeric is in the beginning phases. As Marie Pirotta says in Australian Family Physician, despite the wide media attention and use of natural products such as turmeric for RA treatment, more research is needed.
Research is promising
Ann Marie Chiasson, MD, co-director of the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine says that the limited research that has been done on turmeric is showing that it seems to be more helpful with some conditions such as osteoarthritis and cholesterol, than it is with others. Again, she emphasizes that more research is required.
A recent study published in Molecular Medicine Reports reveals some additional data that shows how curcumin has some anti-inflammatory effects and the effect it has on the cells that break down bone (osteoclasts). The results of this study showed that curcumin has some inhibiting effect on the generation of osteoclasts.
Other studies also suggest that curcumin can relieve arthritis pain and that it can lower bad cholesterol while increasing good cholesterol. It is important to note that Hopp says that the study results can also vary depending on what part of the turmeric plant researchers look at. Different parts and compounds have different properties and thus different effects. Additionally, like any research, the effects can vary based on whether the study was done in vitro or in vivo (i.e., in cells or in humans). The human body is complex and the way that drugs and compounds react with cells in the lab can be very different compared to how they react with cells in the body. The things we ingest are metabolized differently, which affects how they will impact our body. This is one reason why healthcare providers are not telling their patients to sprinkle turmeric on everything.
Shrikant Anant, PhD, associate director of cancer prevention and control at the University of Kansas Cancer Center says that curcumin, “doesn't get absorbed by the gut. So, you have to eat a boatload of turmeric to get the active ingredients into your bloodstream." This could certainly negatively impact your digestion.
Does bioperine help?
Many doctors suggest that turmeric should be taken with bioperine, which is found in black pepper, to help absorption, therefore maximizing turmeric’s anti-inflammatory effects. Speak with your doctor to discuss if supplementation is right for you.
While researchers are still investigating turmeric, that doesn’t mean that you can’t bring it into your diet and see if it helps with your RA symptoms. There are additional food products that can help your gut breakdown turmeric. Black pepper as well as fats and oils can help break it down and thus increase your ability to absorb it. This doesn’t mean that you should be eating a spoonful of the stuff five times a day, but rather sprinkling it on your salad with some olive oil, or incorporating curry into your diet, would not be a bad idea. Incorporating new foods into your diet can be fun, especially if you like to cook. As you continue to work with your healthcare team to follow your RA treatment plan, you can incorporate more turmeric into your diet by trying new recipes. There is no guarantee that it will have any effect on your RA, but at the very least it may diversify your meals!
Keep safety in mind
Generally, turmeric is considered safe, even in large doses that are ingested or applied to your skin. However, like most things, it is not without side effects. High doses over long period of time can result in nausea and diarrhea. Moderation is always important. Additionally, anytime you are thinking about making a change to your RA treatment plan, you should consult your healthcare team. They can help you make changes while staying safe and educated about the process. If you want to start using turmeric in your diet, chances are it will be safe. Again, like any supplement, it is possible for turmeric to interact with your medications, so make sure you are open with and talking to your healthcare provider about any changes.
Ultimately, the potential for turmeric to be beneficial exists, but the research does not indicate that people with RA should be taking it exclusively to help manage their conditions. That being said, if you want to spice up your life in the kitchen, talk to your provider and get cooking!
Pirotta M., (2010) Arthritis disease: The use of complementary therapies. Australian Family Physician. 39, 638-640
Shang W., (2016) Curcumin inhibits osteoclastogenic potential in PBMCs from rheumatoid arthritis patients via the suppression of MAPK/RANK/c-Fos/NFATc1 signaling pathways. Molecular Medicine Reports. 14, 3620-3626