Practical Guide to Using Turmeric and Curcumin for Mental Health: Turmeric’s Powerful Compound Improves Cognitive Health and Emotional Well-Being

Please Note: This article does not replace the advice of a medical professional concerning your individual health and is only intended for informational and educational purposes.

You may have heart of curcumin, the bioactive compound found in turmeric. In this article we’ll discuss how to most effectively use turmeric in your diet, different types of curcumin supplements that are available and their bioavailability, and how curcumin can benefit your cognitive and mental health.

What is Turmeric?

Turmeric is a bright yellow spice made from a rhizome (or thick branching root) of the Curcuma longa plant, which belongs to the ginger family. Turmeric has a warm, peppery flavor and earthy aroma.

Turmeric is primarily produced in India, where it has been widely cultivated for thousands of years, but it is also grown in other tropical regions around the world.

You may see turmeric as an ingredient in a curry blend you have in your pantry, or you may even have some fresh or ground turmeric. Apart from its culinary uses, turmeric has been valued for its potential health benefits and has been used in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.

Curcumin is now being used in integrative nutrition and medicine.

Curcumin is the bioactive compound in turmeric, and you can find many curcumin supplements available on the market. However, the bioavailability of curcumin is very poor, meaning that your body cannot easily absorb curcumin.

Curcmin Supplements and Their Bioavailability

When looking at supplements of curcumin, don’t just look at the price. You need to consider what kind of bioavailability is has. One supplement may seem less expensive, but if you have to take a lot of it for it to work, or worse, it doesn’t work at all, it isn’t worth your money.

The most expensive supplement is one that doesn’t work.

Curcumin is poorly absorbed even at high doses. Curcumin, in its natural state, forms a crystalline structure that repels water. This crystalline structure is why even large doses of curcumin change blood curcumin levels very little. Because of this, there have been several advances in enhancing the bioavailability of curcumin as a supplement.

The processing of curcumin to enhance its bioavailability has evolved over time, with researchers and manufacturers developing various techniques to improve the compound’s absorption and effectiveness in the body.

Here is an overview of the evolution of curcumin processing to enhance bioavailability:

Raw Turmeric

Initially, curcumin was primarily consumed in its natural form as part of turmeric spice. However, curcumin from raw turmeric has low bioavailability due to poor solubility in water and rapid metabolism and excretion. Some culinary preparation methods may slightly improve absorption to a small degree. Cooking with turmeric, freshly ground black pepper, and oils together is the best way to boost your absorption of curcumin from consuming the spice turmeric.

Turmeric Extracts

To increase curcumin’s bioavailability, early efforts focused on extracting curcumin from turmeric. This concentrated form allowed for higher doses, but bioavailability remained limited.

Piperine (Black Pepper Extract)

Researchers discovered that combining curcumin with piperine, a compound found in black pepper, significantly improved absorption. Piperine inhibits the liver’s metabolism of curcumin, allowing more of it to enter the bloodstream.

Liposomal Encapsulation

Liposomal formulations involve enveloping curcumin in lipid (fat) molecules. This protects curcumin from rapid metabolism and enhances absorption through the intestinal wall.

Nanoparticles

Nano-sized curcumin particles can be encapsulated in various carriers (lipids, polymers, etc.) to improve solubility and absorption. Nanotechnology allows for better delivery of curcumin to target tissues.

Phytosomes

Curcumin phytosomes involve binding curcumin to phospholipids, which enhances its solubility and absorption. Phytosomes mimic the body’s natural lipid structure, facilitating transport across cell membranes.

Micelles

Curcumin micelles are tiny structures formed when curcumin is mixed with surfactants. These micelles improve solubility and can pass through the gut barrier more easily.

Curcumin Complexes

Complexation involves binding curcumin to other molecules or compounds to enhance stability and bioavailability. Examples include curcumin combined with proteins or cyclodextrins.

Hydrogels

Hydrogels are water-based delivery systems that release curcumin slowly, allowing for prolonged absorption and potential sustained benefits.

Nanoemulsions

Nanoemulsions are stable oil-in-water or water-in-oil mixtures that improve curcumin solubility and absorption. They create tiny droplets of curcumin that can be readily absorbed. Nanoemulsions are a type of colloidal dispersion that consists of small droplets of one fluid dispersed in another immiscible fluid (like oil and water).

Amorphous Solid Dispersion: The Newest Development in Curcumin Bioavailability

Curcumin is first melted to reduce the crystalline structure, then rapidly dispersed with food-based polymers. This product called curcurouge, used in Integrative Therapeutics new product Curalieve, has a smaller particle size and improved dispersibility compared to the natural form of curcumin. The amorphous nature of curcurouge contributes to its enhanced dispersibility, higher bioavailability as shown in both animal and human research.

These advancements in curcumin processing aim to overcome its natural limitations, such as poor solubility and rapid metabolism, to make it more bioavailable and effective in providing its potential health benefits. Different formulations may have varying degrees of success.

I used to use Theracurmin. But now I will be using Integrative Therapeutics next generation product Curalieve.

Theracurmin utilizes Integrative Therapeutics patented, colloidal dispersion technology which enhances bioavailability and increases curcumin levels in the blood. Human clinical trials show that Theracurmin is over 27 times more bioavailable than a standard curcumin extract.

Clinical trials have also shown the Theracurmin product to support detoxification pathways, healthy cardiovascular function, and post exercise muscle recovery. For mental health, Theracurmin taken twice a day was shown to have a significant impact in decreasing symptoms of depression.

Curalieve, Integrative Therapeutics newest curcumin product, is formulated with curcuRouge®, an amorphous solid dispersion (as described earlier in this article) containing curcumin extract. This is the best current technology to enhance bioavailability.

In a single-dose, double-blind, two-way crossover study, curcuRouge exhibited a higher bioavailability compared to submicron-particle colloidal dispersion (the Theracurmin technology). Ultimately, using a curcumin supplement that is absorbed better means the dose can be less, so the amount you need to take is less.

How does curcumin help inflammation?

Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, possesses potent anti-inflammatory properties through various mechanisms. Here are some key ways in which curcumin exerts its anti-inflammatory effects:

Inhibition of Inflammatory Enzymes

Curcumin inhibits several enzymes and molecules that play a crucial role in the inflammatory process. Most notably, it suppresses the activity of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) and 5-lipoxygenase (5-LOX), which are responsible for the production of pro-inflammatory prostaglandins and leukotrienes, respectively.

Reduced Production of Pro-Inflammatory Cytokines

Curcumin can decrease the expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), interleukin-1 beta (IL-1β), and interleukin-6 (IL-6). These cytokines contribute to inflammation and are implicated in various inflammatory diseases.

Inhibition of Nuclear Factor-kappa B (NF-κB)

NF-κB is a transcription factor that plays a central role in regulating the expression of genes involved in inflammation. Curcumin inhibits the activation of NF-κB, thus reducing the expression of pro-inflammatory genes.

Antioxidant Activity

Curcumin possesses powerful antioxidant properties, which help neutralize free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS). By reducing oxidative stress, curcumin indirectly mitigates inflammation, as oxidative stress can trigger and perpetuate the inflammatory response.

Modulation of Inflammatory Signaling Pathways

Curcumin interferes with various intracellular signaling pathways associated with inflammation. For instance, it can inhibit the Janus kinase/signal transducer and activator of transcription (JAK/STAT) pathway, which plays a role in immune and inflammatory responses.

Enhanced Activity of Natural Anti-Inflammatory Molecules

Curcumin can increase the production and activity of endogenous anti-inflammatory molecules like heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1) and glutathione, further dampening the inflammatory response.

Modulation of Immune Cells

Curcumin can influence immune cell function, including macrophages and T cells, by regulating their activation and cytokine production, which can have anti-inflammatory effects.

Protection of Endothelial Function

Curcumin may support the function of the endothelium, the inner lining of blood vessels. A healthy endothelium helps regulate inflammation and vascular tone.

Because inflammation is such an integral part of health and disease, curcumin’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties have been extensively researched. These effects may contribute to its ability to alleviate symptoms of pain, and mitigate the risk of various diseases such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and neurodegenerative disorders.

Again, it’s important to note that while curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties are well-documented in laboratory and animal studies, its bioavailability can be limited when taken orally. To maximize its effectiveness, curcumin supplements often include agents like piperine (from black pepper) or are formulated as nanoparticles, liposomes, or phytosomes to enhance absorption in the body. Additionally, curcumin should be used as a dietary supplement and should not replace medical treatments for inflammatory conditions without consulting a healthcare professional.

The Link Between Inflammation and Mental Health

The link between inflammation and mental health is an emerging area of research. Inflammation is a natural and necessary response of the immune system to harmful stimuli, such as infections, injuries, or toxins. During inflammation, the body releases pro-inflammatory cytokines and other immune molecules to combat threats and promote healing. One of the characteristics of mental health conditions such as depression is higher levels of markers of inflammation.

Chronic Inflammation

When inflammation does not resolve, the inflammatory response has become chronic, persisting long after the initial threat has passed. Chronic inflammation can result from various factors, including a poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, obesity, chronic stress, and certain medical conditions. Many of these same factors are also linked to mental health.

Impact on the Brain

Researchers have found that chronic inflammation can have a profound impact on the brain. Inflammatory cytokines can cross the blood-brain barrier and activate immune cells within the brain, leading to neuroinflammation.

Mood Disorders

There is growing evidence that chronic inflammation may contribute to the development and exacerbation of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the brain have been associated with depressive symptoms, including low mood, fatigue, and cognitive impairments.

Neurotransmitter Imbalance

Chronic inflammation can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which play key roles in regulating mood and emotions. An imbalance in these neurotransmitters is often seen in individuals with mood disorders.

Neurodegenerative Diseases

Chronic inflammation is also implicated in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. In these conditions, chronic inflammation contributes to the progressive deterioration of brain function and cognitive decline.

Stress-Induced Inflammation

Chronic stress, which is a known risk factor for mental health disorders, can trigger and exacerbate inflammation in the body. The stress response activates the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, creating a bidirectional relationship between stress, inflammation, and mental health.

Treatment Implications

Recognizing the link between inflammation and mental health has led to the exploration of anti-inflammatory treatments as adjuncts to traditional therapies for mood disorders. Some studies have investigated the use of anti-inflammatory agents, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or omega-3 fatty acids, in conjunction with standard antidepressant medications.

Curcumin also exhibits anti-inflammatory effects that have demonstrated efficacy in a reduced need for drugs like NSAIDS for pain. Some research is now showing significant beneficial effects on cognitive health and mental health.

It’s important to note that the relationship between inflammation and mental health is complex and not fully understood. Not everyone with chronic inflammation will develop mental health issues, and not all cases of depression or anxiety are driven by inflammation. However, this growing body of research highlights the importance of addressing inflammation as a potential contributing factor in some mental health conditions and underscores the significance of a holistic approach to mental well-being that includes lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, and stress management.

How Curcumin Impacts Mental Health and Brain Health

Curcumin, a bioactive compound found in turmeric, has shown promise in potentially positively impacting mental health. Several studies have found an overall significant effect of curcumin when combined with standard treatments for the treatment of anxiety and depression.

There are several ways in which curcumin is effective for improving mental health. Here we will look at 7 of them.

1. Anti-Inflammatory Properties

Curcumin has anti-inflammatory effects, which may help reduce chronic inflammation in the brain. Again, chronic inflammation has been linked to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

2. Neuroprotection

Curcumin’s antioxidant properties may protect brain cells from oxidative damage, potentially reducing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive decline, which can impact mental health.

3. Enhanced Neurotransmitter Function

Some studies suggest that curcumin may influence neurotransmitter levels and function in the brain. It may help modulate the release of mood-regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which can influence mood and emotional well-being.

4. Stress Reduction

Curcumin may have anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) and stress-relieving properties. It may help lower cortisol levels, the hormone associated with stress, and promote a sense of calm.

5. Antidepressant Effects

Research indicates that curcumin may have potential antidepressant effects by increasing the availability of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein associated with depression. Low BDNF levels are often observed in individuals with depression. Some research has even shown curcumin to be as effective as Prozac in the treatment of depression. Of course, it is not recommended to go it alone if you are feeling depressed and it is recommended to discuss treatment with your doctor.

6. Cognitive Enhancement

Curcumin may support cognitive function and memory (Small et al), which can indirectly impact mental health by promoting mental clarity and overall well-being.

7. Potential Synergy with Conventional Treatments

Some studies suggest that curcumin could complement conventional treatments for mental health conditions, enhancing their effectiveness and reducing side effects.

Safety Concerns

There is promising research on curcumin’s potential impact on mental health, but it is always necessary to consider your unique situation and the safety of adding curcumin as a supplement for you. Talking with your doctor and checking on any interactions curcumin may have with your standard medical treatment is recommended.

Don’t Use Supplements as a Substitute for Medical Care for Mental Health

If you are seeking help for mental health, do talk to your doctor and a mental health provider such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. If you are struggling, you don’t want to count on supplements alone without someone helping support you and guide your treatment. The goal of this article is not to say that curcumin should be viewed as a sole treatment for mental health disorders.

Additionally, your individual response to using curcumin as a supplement may vary from results found in research, and It is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional before incorporating curcumin supplements into your diet, especially when addressing specific mental health concerns.

Practical Tips for Incorporating Curcumin (via Turmeric) into Your Diet

While it would be near impossible, and certainly impractical, to reach therapeutic levels of curcumin in the diet alone on any regular basis. But including this anti inflammatory spice in your diet can contribute to the benefits of an overall anti inflammatory diet.

Because of the absorbability issues associated with turmeric, it is best to use turmeric when cooking it with black pepper and oil. Of course, this is how you would typically be using it anyway, as it is a common ingredient for curry dishes. Some of the other places I like to use turmeric in cooking include making yellow rice, golden milk, Mexican rice, and dal.

It can also be added to smoothies, juices, teas, or the famous golden milk latte (a blend of turmeric, milk or milk substitute of your choice, nutment, cinnamon, and honey if you like sweetness). Turmeric’s flavor can be a bit spicy, so try balancing that out with a bit of sweetness from banana or carrot in a smoothie or carrot in a juice.

A simple turmeric tea can be made from simmering fresh slices of turmeric root in water for several minutes. You can then steep other teas with it to make a blend.

One inch of fresh root, or a tablespoon of grated root is equal to one teaspoon of powdered turmeric.

I once accidentally purchased a 5 lb bag of turmeric on Amazon, which resulted in trying and developing multiple recipes with turmeric in them. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade! You can find these recipes in the recipe section of this blog, and I have linked to some of them here in this post.

You may find that there is variability in the quality of turmeric powders you can buy. They may taste more bitter the older they are. If you are interested in making your own turmeric powder from fresh turmeric in the oven, it’s easy! Freshly made turmeric powder can last up to year! Here is how to make it:

  1. Wash your turmeric root.
  2. Use the edge of a spoon or a peeler to remove the skin. The spoon is easier because of the nooks and crannies in my opinion.
  3. Slice the root into small, even slices. It will dry more quickly and evenly this way. 
  4. Place the slices on a baking sheet with parchment paper, avoiding any overlap of the slices.
  5. Bake in the oven at 200 degrees F for 2 hours.  
  6. Add slices to a coffee grinder and grind into a fine powder. Please note that this may stain your equipment. 
  7. Place in a spice jar and store in a cool, dark cupboard for up to one year.
How to Use and Store Fresh Turmeric

You can also use fresh turmeric! It looks similar to ginger just very orange instead of yellow, which makes sense as they are in the same family.

Store your fresh turmeric root in the vegetable drawer. Make sure it is clean and dry, and place it in a paper or cloth napkin lined container. Use a brush as you would for a potato or just create a lot of friction with your fingers to scrub it under running water to remove microbes that would break it down. Then dry it really well and maybe even let it air out a bit before wrapping it up in a paper towel or napkin to absorb excess moisture.

Your turmeric can now go fridge or freezer. You don’t want your turmeric root to shrivel up and go to waste, and this method should keep it fresh for a couple of weeks in the fridge for a couple of weeks or freezer up to 6 months.

NOTE: Because of its rich orange pigment, turmeric may stain your hands and cutting board. Wash your cutting board ASAP to avoid permanent stains. Lemon juice can help remove stains from your skin or cutting board if needed.  

Don’t refreeze turmeric root. Cutting it into cubes the size you plan to use will help you take out just want you plan to use from the freezer.

Will cooking destroy the beneficial compounds in turmeric?

No, research shows that cooked curcuminoids, including boiled and roasted forms, still have antioxidant and neuroprotective activity. That said, in comparison with uncooked, grated turmeric and uncooked powder, the protective effects of cooked curcuminoids (the active compounds in turmeric) were decreased when boiled and further decreased when roasted. 

Can Curcumin Help You?

Mental Health Support

Personally, I have used curcumin as part of an integrative approach to mental health. This supplement has been researched for its impact on depression scores and showed benefits in reducing measures of depression. Other aspects of my approach to mental health has included an anti inflammatory diet, adequate protein, a multivitamin with methylfolate, a high quality fish oil supplement and eating fish 3x/week for omega 3s, exercise, sleep, and a spiritual approach to life. I have also for periods of time utilized adaptogens, been on a gluten free diet, addressed gut issues, and done dream work.

Pain Management

Another great way to use curcumin supplements is for inflammatory pain. If you have pain that causes you to take pain medication on a daily basis, know that curcumin supplements have been effectively used to reduce pain, allowing many people to reduce or discontinue their use of pain medications.

According to a review of the clinical applications of curcumin supplements, “osteoarthritis [64,65], spinal cord injury, diabetic neuropathy, sciatic nerve injury, chemotherapy induced peripheral neuro-inflammation [66] and migraine [67]. However, nearly all studies involving pain management have been conducted with unformulated curcumin or formulated products that offer some increased bioavailability but are not highly bioavailable. Thus, a tremendous opportunity exists for treating pain with highly bioavailable curcumin formulations.”

Takeaways Regarding Curcumin and its Potential Impact on Mental Health

  • Don’t expect a curcumin supplement to be a substitute for a diet full of processed, pro-inflammatory foods.
  • DO consider taking curcumin as part of an anti-inflammatory diet.
  • Don’t look for the cheapest curcumin supplement, look at the ingredients and how it was made keeping in mind bioavailability as discussed in this article.
  • Don’t supplement with turmeric, but DO cook with it. Cook it with black pepper and oil to maximize health benefits.
  • Don’t just take curcumin if you are feeling depressed. While it could work great for you, you want to be proactive in your approach. Talk to your doctor, you are not alone. Curcumin can likely be used alongside other standard approaches to mental health care.
  • DO also discuss and explore if curcumin is safe for you to take with other medications you may be taking or medical conditions you have.

Work with a Registered Dietitian!

If you are interested in taking a holistic and integrative approach to dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression, consider a nutrition consult to get you started on the right foot!

Resources & References:

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Fusar-Poli L, Vozza L, Gabbiadini A, Vanella A, Concas I, Tinacci S, Petralia A, Signorelli MS, Aguglia E. Curcumin for depression: a meta-analysis. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2020;60(15):2643-2653. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2019.1653260. Epub 2019 Aug 19. PMID: 31423805.

Small GW, Siddarth P, Li Z, Miller KJ, Ercoli L, Emerson ND, Martinez J, Wong KP, Liu J, Merrill DA, Chen ST, Henning SM, Satyamurthy N, Huang SC, Heber D, Barrio JR. Memory and Brain Amyloid and Tau Effects of a Bioavailable Form of Curcumin in Non-Demented Adults: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled 18-Month Trial. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2018 Mar;26(3):266-277. doi: 10.1016/j.jagp.2017.10.010. Epub 2017 Oct 27. PMID: 29246725.

Gary W. Small, Prabha Siddarth, Zhaoping Li, Karen J. Miller, Linda Ercoli, Natacha D. Emerson, Jacqueline Martinez, Koon-Pong Wong, Jie Liu, David A. Merrill, Stephen T. Chen, Susanne M. Henning, Nagichettiar Satyamurthy, Sung-Cheng Huang, David Heber, Jorge R. Barrio. Memory and Brain Amyloid and Tau Effects of a Bioavailable Form of Curcumin in Non-Demented Adults: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled 18-Month Trial. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Volume 26, Issue 3, 2018, Pages 266-277, ISSN 1064-7481, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jagp.2017.10.010 (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1064748117305110)

Sanmukhani J, Satodia V, Trivedi J, Patel T, Tiwari D, Panchal B, Goel A, Tripathi CB. Efficacy and safety of curcumin in major depressive disorder: a randomized controlled trial. Phytother Res. 2014 Apr;28(4):579-85. doi: 10.1002/ptr.5025. Epub 2013 Jul 6. PMID: 23832433.

Kodentsova VM, Risnik DV, Sarkisyan VA, Frolova YV. [Adequate and clinically effective levels of curcumin consumption]. Vopr Pitan. 2022;91(5):6-15. Russian. doi: 10.33029/0042-8833-2022-91-5-6-15. Epub 2022 Aug 30. PMID: 36394925.

Stohs SJ, Chen O, Ray SD, Ji J, Bucci LR, Preuss HG. Highly Bioavailable Forms of Curcumin and Promising Avenues for Curcumin-Based Research and Application: A Review. Molecules. 2020 Mar 19;25(6):1397. doi: 10.3390/molecules25061397. PMID: 32204372; PMCID: PMC7144558.

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Saleh HA, Yousef MH, Abdelnaser A. The Anti-Inflammatory Properties of Phytochemicals and Their Effects on Epigenetic Mechanisms Involved in TLR4/NF-κB-Mediated Inflammation. Front Immunol. 2021 Mar 26;12:606069. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2021.606069. PMID: 33868227; PMCID: PMC8044831.

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Anne Marie Berggren RDN, MS, CDN, CNSC is a Registered Dietitian with a Master's Degree in Nutrition, training in integrative and functional nutrition, nutrition for mental health, obesity and weight management, is a board certified nutrition support clinician, and an adjunct professor for the Stony Brook Graduate Nutrition Program teaching advanced clinical nutrition.

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