As a herbal supplement, curcumin has received a lot of buzz these past few years. It is being touted as one of the most effective natural strategies to keep a check on inflammation and to relieve pain.
Curcumin is the main bioactive compound found in turmeric, a well-known Indian spice. It is curcumin that gives turmeric its distinctive golden-yellow color. People in India have used turmeric for centuries both as a culinary spice to add color and flavour to their food and as a traditional Ayurvedic medicine to manage various inflammatory conditions. It has been traditionally used to treat colds, liver disorders, digestive issues, ulcers, joint pain, fever and various types of skin ailments including psoriasis. It is also used to purify blood, heal wounds and improve skin health. So, what gives turmeric its healing powers?
Turmeric contains many compounds, called curcuminoids, that are responsible for its medicinal qualities. Out of these, curcumin is the most active, most researched and also possibly the most health imparting constituent. There is plenty of modern day research that validates its anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, which make curcumin potentially beneficial in a variety of chronic, inflammatory disorders.
Curcumin: Anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties
Most of the health benefits of curcumin come from its role in reducing inflammation in the body. Studies show that curcumin regulates proteins, enzymes, growth factors, adhesion molecules and cytokines (signalling molecules) that are involved in propogating inflammation in the body.  . One of the most important mechanisms through which it curbs inflammation is by blocking the NF-κB signalling pathway. Activation of NF-κB increases the expression of other pro-inflammatory molecules, and this pathway is what most advanced anti-inflammatory drugs aim to target.
This polyphenol works in controlling chronic inflammation, a common factor linked to many health conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and certain types of cancer.
- Lowers heart disease risk
Curcumin can support your heart health due to its powerful anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. It is known to block chemical pathways – such as NF-κB pathway (Nuclear factor-kappa B) – involved in activating inflammation. Chronic inflammation, as we know, is believed to be the root cause of almost every chronic illness known to, us including heart disease. Curcumin also prevents platelets sticking together and forming sticky blood clots, which can block blood flow to the heart or brain causing fatal heart attack or stroke.
Studies show that curcumin also lowers the risk of heart disease by improving endothelial functions. The findings from a 2016 study suggested that curcumin supplementation “may present a simple lifestyle strategy for decreasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases in individuals who are apparently healthy.”  Another study published in the journal Nutrition Research found that both exercise and curcumin supplements improved endothelial functions in postmenopausal women. 
Endothelium is a fragile yet resilient single layer of cells that line the inside of the blood vessel walls and many other tissues. It plays a very critical role in keeping your blood vessels strong and healthy by regulating blood pressure, preventing blood clotting and reducing inflammation in the arteries. It has been well-established that endothelial dysfunction plays a key role in the development of atherosclerosis (excessive build-up of plaque in the wall of arteries) and predicts the beginning of many heart related problems.
- Helps in people with diabetes and pre-diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is a complex interplay of oxidative stress, inflammation, obesity, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. A comprehensive review of studies published from 1998 to 2013 showed that curcumin can help treat and even prevent type 2 diabetes by influencing many of these factors.  For example, curcumin:
- Reduces free fatty acids (FFAs) in the bloodstream, which helps in lowering blood sugar levels and improving insulin resistance in people with type 2 diabetic patients 
- Protects beta cells of the pancreas from oxidative damage and improves their functions. (Beta cells release insulin). Through this mechanism, curcumin might even prevent the development of diabetes in people in the pre-diabetic stage (people who have blood sugar levels higher than normal but not high enough to be considered diabetes yet). 
- Is found to have a positive effect on blood glucose, oxidative stress and inflammation, when used as an adjunct to metformin. 
- Protects against radiation exposure
Ionizing radiation, whether from nuclear accidents or medical scans, generate free radicals that cause oxidation of cellular DNA, fats and proteins. This can lead to body-wide inflammation and disease. Curcumin is a strong antioxidant and reduces oxidative damage to cells, tissues and organs, providing good protection against exposure to radiation.
It seems curcumin offers two-fold benefits. It not only protects healthy cells from radiation induced oxidative damage but also causes cancer cells to die. This property makes curcumin both radioprotective (for normal, non-cancerous cells) and radio-sensitizing (for cancer cells and tumors). Studies suggest that curcumin can be used in conjunction with radiotherapy to treat cancer.
A study reported that curcumin is able to bring these radioprotective effects through multiple mechanisms. It activates a protein (NRF2) that increases the levels of antioxidant enzymes, increases glutathione (the master antioxidant) and also directly destroy free radicals. 
- Reduces pain and symptoms in arthritis
Many studies support the use of curcumin to manage pain, inflammation and reduced joint functions related to arthritis, including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Dealing with chronic pain and joint immobility seriously impacts the quality of life in people with these joint conditions.
While analgesics, NSAIDs and steroids are often used to manage the disabling symptoms of arthritis, long term dependence on these methods have serious side effects; especially in the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, liver and cardiovascular system. NSAIDs also increase the risk of allergies and infections.
Many clinical trials have shown that curcumin reduces pain, improves joint functions and quality of life in people with osteoarthritis. It also reduces the use of pain-relieving drugs.  Curcumin is also found to be safe and effective in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis, and is better than the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac in reducing joint tenderness and swelling. 
Again, it is curcumin’s anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antioxidant properties that come to the rescue here. Curcumin blocks the activation of NF-κB and down-regulates the expression of certain molecules (cytokines and enzymes) that cause inflammation in the joints – leading to loss of cartilage and bones near the affected joints. Moreover, it is safe and brings relief without any side effects.
- Improves liver functions
Many studies have shown that oxidative stress and nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-kB) signalling pathways play a significant role in the development and progression of several liver diseases. And dietary antioxidants like curcumin shows promise in treating different types of liver diseases such as hepatitis, cirrhosis, alcoholic liver disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, drug-induced liver toxicity, liver cancer and cirrhosis.  It also improves liver functions.
This 2017 study found that short-term supplementation with curcumin improves liver fat in patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.  It is a common liver disease with excessive build-up of fats in liver cells, leading to oxidative and inflammatory damage. The liver protective effects of curcumin are believed to be due to its antioxidant and NF-kB blocking properties.
Curcumin is also being studied for its role in treating cancer, preventing depression and delaying the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, though more research is needed to establish these health benefits.
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