Revered as "holy powder" in India, turmeric is the yellow ingredient used to make many curries. Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine have used turmeric to treat inflammatory disorders for centuries. Several studies show that the active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, also nicknamed "curecumin" can benefit conditions such as arthritis and Alzheimer's. However, a recent study shed more light on how the healing powers of this spice work.

Using a high-tech instrument called solid-state NMR spectroscopy, a research team at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, discovered that curcumin has a strong effect on membrane structure at low concentrations. Curcumin inserts deep into the cell membranes in a manner similar to how cholesterol inserts itself into the membrane. It makes membranes more stable and orderly, and may increase their resistance to infection.

Also, curcumin induces a change in the curvature of cell membranes, which may positively affect some cell membrane functions. These findings help to unravel the mystery behind curcumin's effect on the immune system and its role in treating conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. The researchers conclude that the results show promise for understanding how other drugs such as capsaicin - another natural remedy used for arthritis - alter membrane structure and have strong pharmacological effects.

This study is yet another that's helping doctors and patients understand how curcumin helps to relieve arthritis. In a 2006 study conducted at the University of Arizona College of Medicine researchers set out to determine whether and how turmeric acts as an anti-arthritic remedy.

Using animal models they compared the effectiveness of three curcumin extracts as anti-arthritics. An essential-oil depleted turmeric extract containing 41 percent of the three major curcuminoids was effective at preventing inflammation, but not at reducing it. A commercial sample containing 94 percent of the three major curcuminoids was more potent in preventing inflammation. It completely inhibited the onset of rheumatoid arthritis.

The study revealed for the first time how curcumin-containing extracts protect against arthritis. They inhibit a transcription factor called NF-KB from being activated in the joint. A transcription factor is a protein that controls when genes are switched on or off. Once the transcription factor NF-KB is turned on, it binds to genes and enhances production of inflammatory proteins that are destructive to the joint.

In addition to preventing joint inflammation, the curcuminoid extract blocked the pathway that affects bone resorption or loss. Bone loss is a common complication of rheumatoid arthritis, both from the ravages of inflammation and from some rheumatoid arthritis medicines.

As Funk explains, translating the results of a study like this to clinical use depends on accurate information about the chemical content and biological activity of the botanical supplements available for use. It brings health professionals steps closer to recommending turmeric supplements for medicinal use to prevent or suppress rheumatoid arthritis.

How to take Curcumin for Arthritis Relief

In health food stores and pharmacies you can find many curcumin supplements that are marketed to treat arthritis, among other disorders. The Arthritis Foundation recommends taking 400 mg to 600 mg capsules three times a day, or 0.5 gram to 1 gram of the powdered root up to 3 grams per day.

However, be aware that curcumin may cause nausea. Also, high doses of the supplement can thin the blood, so be careful if you're using other blood-thinning medications.

Study Reference

Journal: Journal of the American Chemical Society, Vol. 131 (12), pp 4490-4498

Date: 2009

Study Name: Determining the Effects of Lipophilic Drugs on Membrane Structure by Solid-State NMR Spectroscopy: The Case of the Antioxidant Curcumin


Authors: Jeffrey Barry, Michelle Fritz, Jeffrey R. Brender, Pieter E. S. Smith, Dong-Kuk Lee† and Ayyalusamy Ramamoorthy

Journal: Journal of Natural Products, Vol. 69 (3), pp 351-355

Date: 2006

Study Name: Turmeric Extracts Containing Curcuminoids Prevent Experimental Rheumatoid Arthritis


Authors: Janet L. Funk, Janice N. Oyarzo, Jennifer B. Frye, Guanjie Chen, R. Clark Lantz, Shivanand D. Jolad, Aniko M. Sólyom, and Barbara N. Timmermann