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How Turmeric Benefits the Endocannabinoid System

Although the bright, aromatic spice is all the rage these days, it has been used for centuries across the world. And there's a good reason for that.

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In the U.S., turmeric has gone from being sold primarily in natural food stores to lining the shelves of major grocery store chains. But what is it?

As a mainstay of Ayurveda, turmeric (Curcuma longa) has been a signature herb in meals and medicines for thousands of years in South Asia. Known for its anti-inflammatory properties, it has taken on numerous forms, from the golden milk latte at your neighborhood coffee shop to your daily morning supplement.

Related: What You Need to Know About The Endocannabinoid System

Turmeric's health benefits

The most well-known active component of turmeric is called curcumin, found in high concentrations in its rhizomes. Research on curcumin has led experts to believe that it could be a panacea, meaning that it could be a substance with an endless list of potential benefits for the human body. 

Although it is such a versatile herb, the data has been most convincing for patients diagnosed with depressionallergic rhinitis, and osteoarthritis.

Dietary phytochemicals, like curcumin, are linked with the suppression of inflammatory biomarkers, such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-ɑ), and nuclear factor kappa B (NF-κB); multiple studies investigating this pathway support the hypothesis that curcumin could be a naturally-occurring agent as a part of a treatment regimen for the inflammatory nature of osteoarthritis.

The cannabinoid connection

In a 2019 meta-analysis with 531 patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder, curcumin showed a statistically significant decrease in depressive and anxiety symptoms. Researchers concluded that the tolerability and impressive results call for more studies to evaluate whether curcumin could be a validated addition to the standard of care in this patient population.

Like other spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, and cloves, curcumin is rich in terpene, B-caryophyllene. Terpenes are compounds that provide plants their aroma, like fresh pine from pinene, tropical mango from myrcene, or soothing lavender from linalool, as well as a distinct set of therapeutic benefits. These compounds are known to interact with the endocannabinoid system like their cannabinoid counterparts. In particular, B-caryophyllene selectively binds to cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2), associated with immunity, demonstrating the potential role of curcumin in our protective shield against pathogens causing allergic rhinitis.

Studies reveal that even if you consume a reasonably high dose of curcumin, it has very low bioavailability. This poor absorption indicates this in the small intestine and its rapid metabolization in the liver. Research is inconclusive whether curcumin could work in synergy with other B-caryophyllene, which contains compounds like black pepper. Certain media outlets and supplement companies boast the improved absorption of curcumin, but more clinical studies are needed to determine the relationship between the two. Researchers on the quest to discover how to improve curcumin's dismal bioavailability are looking at how it has been used in Ayurveda, emphasizing the entire plant rather than just one component.

I am often asked: "Do I need to take the supplement, or can I just add turmeric to my food?"

I recommend you take a curcumin supplement for its medicinal benefits because the amount of curcumin in turmeric is no more than 3 percent of its weight, meaning that it contains no more than a few hundred milligrams of curcumin. Most studies have looked at using up to 6 g daily for its medicinal benefits.

As we shift our perspectives to include a more all-encompassing and preventative view of health, clinicians must expand their scope of knowledge to provide the best-personalized patient care. As an Integrative Health Pharmacist, I believe that we are moving towards the model involving a multilayered integration of the many modalities of medicine, including prescription medications, nutrition, therapeutic aromatherapy, nutrition, and, of course, herbs, like turmeric.