Turmeric for Arthritis

Tumeric root and powder pills
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Turmeric is a bright yellow spice that is typically ground from the root of the Curcuma longa plant. Related to ginger root, turmeric is a main ingredient in curry. An antioxidant compound in turmeric known as curcumin is said to fight inflammation, and some research suggests it may be helpful in treating osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

The Research on Turmeric and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, inflammatory type of arthritis that primarily affects the lining of your joints. An autoimmune disorder, rheumatoid arthritis causes the body to mistakenly attack the joints, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness. The condition can also affect other parts of the body.

In a small study published in 2012, people with rheumatoid arthritis took either curcumin, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug known as diclofenac sodium, or a combination of the two. At the study's end, the group taking curcumin had the greatest improvement in symptoms.

Despite these findings, the NIH cautions that there isn't yet enough scientific evidence to rate turmeric's effectiveness against rheumatoid arthritis.

The Research on Turmeric and Osteoarthritis

The most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis is a condition that leads to the breakdown of joint cartilage and bone. In a study published in Phytotherapy Research, people with mild-to-moderate knee osteoarthritis took either a curcumin supplement with piperine (a compound in black pepper known to increase curcumin's absorption) or a placebo for six weeks. At the study's end, there were significant improvements in pain and physical function, however, there was no reduction in stiffness.

In another study, people with knee osteoarthritis received either a turmeric extract or ibuprofen (a type of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) daily for four weeks. The turmeric extract was found to be as effective as ibuprofen. Although the number of people who developed adverse effects wasn't different between the two groups, the number of events of abdominal pain or discomfort was higher in those taking ibuprofen compared to those taking the turmeric extract.

Using Turmeric

Curcumin is poorly absorbed by the body when it is taken orally in supplements or as the ground turmeric spice. Taking piperine (the active ingredient in black pepper) together with curcumin has been found to increase the absorption of curcumin.

Side Effects

Turmeric may cause side effects such as digestive upset, headache, and skin rashes. In higher doses, it may cause nausea and diarrhea. Pregnant or breastfeeding women and children shouldn't take turmeric supplements. If you are taking blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin) or have a scheduled surgery, you should also avoid turmeric supplements. In addition, there's some evidence that turmeric supplements may aggravate gallbladder disease.

Turmeric is high in oxalates, compounds that are found naturally in many foods such as spinach, rhubarb, and almonds. If you have calcium oxalate kidney stones (the most common type of kidney stone) or are at risk for them, your healthcare provider may recommend that you limit your daily intake of oxalate-rich foods.

Some turmeric products may have additives and contaminants that may not be listed on the label, such as fillers, food coloring, and heavy metals such as lead. A report published in 2017, for instance, found that ground turmeric products sold in the United States were a source of lead exposure. Turmeric grown in high-lead soil appears to be the source of the contamination.

Keep in mind that self-treating with turmeric and avoiding or delaying standard care for arthritis can have serious consequences.

The Takeaway

Due to the lack of supporting research, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health advises against using turmeric supplements to prevent or treat any health condition (including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis). If you're still considering using turmeric supplements, talk to your doctor first to discuss whether it's appropriate for you.

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