Curcumin is a naturally occurring chemical compound that is found in the spice turmeric. The two words are sometimes used interchangeably, but the technical difference between the two is that turmeric is the yellowish powder used to flavor foods, while curcumin is a chemical contained within turmeric. In Indian and Asian cultures, turmeric and curcumin have a long history of use as a traditional herbal medicine, and Western medicine is beginning to study the potential of turmeric in treating diseases such as cancer and diabetes. As with any health supplement, consult your doctor before taking turmeric or curcumin supplements.
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Curcumin belongs to a family of chemicals known as curcuminoids, which are polyphenolic compounds that have a bright yellow color. The distinctive color of turmeric is due to the high levels of curcumin it contains. Laboratory and animal studies have demonstrated that curcumin has potent anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties, reports an article published in 2007 in the medical journal Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology. Curcumin regulates chemical messengers that cause inflammation in the body, suggesting that curcumin may be particularly effective in treating autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Researchers are just beginning to investigate the health benefits of curcumin and turmeric in humans. According to the article in "Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology," small clinical trials have found beneficial effects of curcumin in treating autoimmune disorders, including type I diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis. However, some studies have found conflicting results, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, and additional large scale studies are needed to confirm these results. Curcumin has also shown potential in treating and preventing cancer, and is often used to treat an upset stomach.
The small amounts of turmeric used to flavor food rarely, if ever cause effects. Taking large doses of turmeric or purified curcumin for long periods of time, such as several grams per day, can potentially cause side effects, including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. In severe cases, stomach ulcers may develop. Large doses of turmeric may also worsen the symptoms of gallbladder disease.
High levels of turmeric can inhibit blood clotting, which can increase the risk of severe bleeding in patients undergoing surgery or people who are taking other blood-thinning medications. If you are taking warfarin, aspirin, ibuprofen or other medications that reduce blood clotting, consult your doctor before taking large amounts of turmeric or curcumin supplements.