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Who Shouldn’t Consume Curcumin or Turmeric?

Who Shouldn’t Consume Curcumin or Turmeric?

Following flax and wheatgrass, turmeric is the third best-selling botanical dietary supplement, racking up $12 million in sales. Currently, sales are increasing at a rate of 20%.

Curcumin is a natural plant product extracted from the turmeric root and is used commonly as a food additive popular for its pleasant mild aroma and exotic yellow color.  It is widely considered unlikely to cause side effects. However, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s not toxic. Strychnine is natural; cyanide is natural. Lead, mercury and plutonium are all elements—can’t get more natural than that! But turmeric is just a plant. Surely plants can’t be dangerous? Tell that to Socrates.

“In considering the validity of the widely accepted notion that complementary and alternative medicine is a safer approach to therapy, we must remind ourselves and our patients that a therapy that exerts a biologic effect is, by definition, a drug and can have toxicity.” It cannot be assumed that diet-derived agents will be innocuous when administered as pharmaceutical formulations at doses likely to exceed those consumed in the diet.

Traditional Indian diets may include as much as a teaspoon of turmeric a day. Doses of turmeric that have been used in human studies range from less than just a 16th of a teaspoon a day to two tablespoons a day for over a month. On the other hand, the curcumin trials have used up to the amount found in cups of the spice, around 100 times more than what curry lovers have been eating for centuries.

Studies have yet to show overt serious side effects in the short-term. However, if we combine high dose curcumin with black pepper, resulting in a 2000% boost in bioavailability, it could be like consuming the equivalent of 29 cups of turmeric a day. That kind of intake could bring peak blood levels to the range where you start seeing some significant DNA damage in vitro.

So just incorporating turmeric into your cooking may be better than taking curcumin supplements, especially during pregnancy. The only other contraindication cited in the most recent review on curcumin was the potential to trigger gallbladder pain in individuals with gallstones.

If anything, curcumin may help protect liver function and help prevent gallstones by acting as a cholecystokinetic agent, meaning that it facilitates the pumping action of the gallbladder to keep the bile from stagnating. In one study, researchers gave people a small dose of curcumin, about the amount found in a quarter teaspoon of turmeric and, using ultrasound, were able to visualize the gallbladder squeezing down in response, with an average change in volume of about 29%. Optimally, though we want to squeeze it in half. So the researchers repeated the experiment with different doses. It took about 40 milligrams to get a 50% contraction, or about a third of a teaspoon of turmeric every day. On one hand that’s great—totally doable. On the other hand, that’s some incredibly powerful stuff! What if you had a gallbladder obstruction? What if you had a stone blocking your bile duct? If you eat something that makes your gallbladder squeeze so much, it could hurt like heck! So patients with biliary tract obstruction should be careful about consuming curcumin. For everyone else, these results suggest that curcumin can effectively “induce the gallbladder to empty and thereby reduce the risk of gallstone formation and ultimately even gallbladder cancer.”

Too much turmeric, though, may increase the risk of kidney stones. As I mentioned in Oxalates in Cinnamon, turmeric is high in soluble oxalates which can bind to calcium and form insoluble calcium oxalate, which is responsible for approximately 75% of all kidney stones. “The consumption of even moderate amounts of turmeric would therefore not be recommended for people with a tendency to form kidney stones.” Such folks should restrict the consumption of total dietary oxalate to less than 40 to 50 mg/day, which means no more than at most a teaspoon of turmeric. Those with gout, for example, are by definition, it appears, at high risk for kidney stones, and so if their doctor wanted to treat gout inflammation with high dose turmeric, he or she might consider curcumin supplements, because to reach high levels of curcumin in turmeric form would incur too much of an oxalate load.

If we are going to take a supplement, how do we choose? The latest review recommends purchasing from Western suppliers that follow recommended Good Manufacturing Practices, which may decrease the likelihood of buying an adulterated product.

More on gallbladder health can be found in my video Cholesterol Gallstones. And those who are susceptible to kidney stones should try to alkalinize their urine by eating lots of dark green leafy vegetables. See Testing Your Diet with Pee & Purple Cabbage.

Based on this new science on turmeric (lots more to come!), I now try to include it in my family’s daily diet.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Related:
The Safety of Tarragon
Is Carrageenan Safe?
Combating Common Diseases With Plants

Read more: Health, Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, General Health, Men's Health, Natural Remedies, Videos, Women's Health, , , , ,

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Dr. Michael Greger

A founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues. Currently Dr. Greger serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at The Humane Society of the United States. Hundreds of his nutrition videos are freely available at NutritionFacts.org.

109 comments

+ add your own
2:47AM PDT on Oct 24, 2014

ty

8:38AM PDT on Oct 19, 2014

Thanks Dr. Greger for the article, info and many links. Interesting read.

1:18AM PDT on Oct 18, 2014

I prefer turmeric tea. It's been consumed in such regular, vast quantities for eons in India, etc. so I should be OK.

3:08PM PDT on Oct 17, 2014

Dr. Greger an his ambiguous rambling, again. All I have seen and experienced using Turmeric both as a condiment and as a supplement (in capsules) is highly beneficial. I lived in Indonesia in the early 90s and saw the huge amounts of turmeric they consume. In fact, turmeric is the main ingredient in their famous Jamus, popular natural remedies that keep the people healthy and smart into very advanced age. No dementia and cancer running rampant among the Indonesian population. And, NO OBESITY anywhere to be seen, either.

Turmeric may be considered a fad here in the U.S, for the last 5 years or so, but for India and the far East is a traditional food and medicine with thousands of years of continuous and beneficial use.

Lately, in Western countries, some oncologist have been observing greater improvement in patients that supplement their harsh meds with the gentle and salutary effects of Turmeric. Patients with multiple myeloma cancer have responded unusually well to Turmeric supplementation.

I say, try it. At age 73 I don't suffer from aches and pains in my joints and my bones are good and strong. That is good enough for me.

11:15AM PDT on Oct 16, 2014

When you hurt ...its tempting to take anything to kill the pain...thats why i like tumeric...before i was in MUCH more pain!

10:08AM PDT on Oct 16, 2014

I'm eating it right now!

9:45AM PDT on Oct 16, 2014

I agree with Kamia, moderation is the key. I use turmeric in cooking on occasion and I use turmeric capsules for pain and inflammation.

1:01PM PDT on Oct 14, 2014

Like everything else in life, moderation is the key. We need to quit thinking that anything, natural or not, is a silver bullet we can consume in massive quantities to solve problems. I like Turmeric on my rice, but wouldn't ever want to consume huge doses!

7:24AM PDT on Oct 14, 2014

Thank you!

3:05AM PDT on Oct 14, 2014

It is well to remember that anecdotal evidence is no substitute for clinical trials.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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