Curcumin is believed to be one of the most health beneficial components of the spice turmeric. One of the big challenges to effectively using turmeric as a nutritional supplement is the poor bioavailability of curcumin in its raw form. Fortunately, during the past several years a few new enhanced bioavailability versions of curcumin made their way to market. This may open up the realistic use of curcumin for conditions in which its low bioavailability outside of the digestive tract has been a major obstacle.
Possible Uses for Curcumin
There’s a rapidly growing quantity of research on curcumin, but so far there is no mainstream medical acceptance for its use. However, the range of possible benefits is very broad and includes uses in treating conditions involving inflammatory and oxidative damage to the aging body such as arthritis, neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease and major depression, several types of cancer particularly those in the digestive tract, and helping to prevent or reduce digestive tract infections such as Helicobacter pylori which is a scourge that afflicts about half the world’s population and is increasingly tied to stomach ulcers and digestive tract cancers. Some researchers even note that curcumin may have a use in combating the growing epidemic of diabetes.
Low Toxicity Risk of Curcumin
As with just about any nutritional supplement, in theory turmeric or curcumin could be toxic if consumed in truly massive dosages. But you’d probably get tired of eating them long before that happened because compared to most supplements, curcumin is not very well absorbed into the blood.
A University of Michigan curcumin dosage study in humans in 2006 used a 95% curcumin extract from Sabinsa Corporation. Up until around that time, that was the state-of-the-art for curcumin supplements. The researchers examined single dosages up to 12 grams (12,000 mg) with no or minimal toxicity observed. They found no measureable curcumin in the blood of the human volunteers until they reached 10,000 mg dosages. As an indicator of the peak levels of curcumin from these high dosages, one of the study subjects had a measured level of curcumin of 57.6 ng/mL about 2 hours after the 12,000 mg dose.
For most health therapy purposes, high concentrations of curcumin in the digestive tract with little getting into the blood would probably be of little use. The study authors pointed out that this small absorption into the blood with high levels in the digestive tract could mean curcumin could be really helpful for dealing with colorectal cancer as a long-term chemopreventive agent as the compound would mostly stay concentrated where it is needed.
As there are also reports of curcumin’s activity against Helicobacter pylori infections, this is another promising potential use even with the poor bioavailability of regular turmeric and curcumin as shown via low blood concentrations of curcuminoids obtained even after very large dosages.
A 2001 study in Taiwan of curcumin as a chemopreventive agent concluded that oral consumption of up to 8000 mg per day per curcumin for 3 months in humans showed no significant evidence of toxicity.
A recent rat study tested a highly bioavailable curcumin formulation and found that the LD50 (the single dose that kills half the rats) was greater than 2000 mg per kilogram body weight. It also noted that the no adverse effects level in the rats was 720 mg per kilogram body weight per day. Rat studies can’t be translated directly to humans, but they are at least a good hint that the long-term dosages of even high bioavailability curcumin would have to be many grams per day before it is likely to affect a healthy human adversely.
Improving Curcumin Bioavailability
In years past, one of the few options to improve the use of turmeric as a supplement was to standardize it to high levels of curcumin. The full spectrum spice turmeric normally contains only a small amount of curcumin, at best about 3.14% by mass according to a 2006 study of the curcumin content in turmeric and other curry powders. So to get that 12,000 mg of curcumin that starts to show significant blood levels, you’d need to consume nearly a kilogram of turmeric. I’d say there’s not much chance of that happening on a daily basis.
Many supplements use turmeric standardized to 95% curcumin in an effort to keep the size and quantity of the supplements manageable. Until around 2006 or 2007, this was about as good as it got. Many of these are in capsules with around 500 mg of curcumin per capsule. So you could get the 12,000 mg in just 24 capsules, a big improvement but still not easy to swallow.
It’s possible to increase absorption of curcumin somewhat by consumption with oily foods, but studies on curcumin absorption in humans indicate that the vast majority of it is excreted via digestive tract waste. Most of it comes out in feces. Only trace levels are seen in urine.
Curcumin with Piperine Risks Side Effects
To improve bioavailability, many supplement vendors combine curcumin standardized to 95% with piperine (black pepper) extracts. This can help, and indeed it appears to spike upwards the absorption levels around two to four hours after consumption versus similar extracts without the piperine. It looks like this approach at best improves bioavailability by less than a factor of two.
But there’s a problem with piperine. It inhibits the CYP3A4 and P-glycoprotein enzymes that are responsible for metabolizing not only curcumin but also many common medicines such as SSRI antidepressants, benzodiazipine anxiolytics, and even cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. As a result, it can drastically increase blood levels of substances that are metabolized via these enzymes. As a result, it is generally recommended to not consume more than about 15mg of piperine per day because it inhibits detoxification of many compounds.
If you pick one of the common curcumins enhanced with piperine, you may have to watch for piperine carefully because it is also used in many other supplements for improving bioavailability. As it may affect blood levels of many other supplements and medicines, products containing piperine need to be used cautiously especially when consumed within a few hours of other supplements and medicines. It’s probably best to take medicines apart from products containing piperine. Discuss the situation with your doctor and pharmacist to see if they have any advice on whether your medicine dosages may need to be changed if you are taking piperine based supplements.
An example of a standardized curcumin supplement with piperine is Life Extension Super Curcumin with Bioperine. Bioperine is a brand name for a type of piperine sold by ingredient manufacturer Sabinsa Corporation. Life Extension recommends that its customers switch to a newer formulation that includes a more bioavailable form of curcumin known as Dolcas Biotech BCM-95 that does not use piperine. But many other vendors still sell curcumin with piperine as their only enhanced bioavailability option.
Dolcas Biotech BCM-95 Bio-Curcumin
Dolcas Biotech developed the proprietary turmeric extract called BCM-95 (also known as BioCurcumin 95) which improves the bioavailability of curcumin by around 7 to 8 times that of regular turmeric extracts and more than 6 times those using piperine. A comparison graph of the measured blood concentrations over a period of 8 hours shows peak concentrations of curcumin around 300 ng/g for BCM-95 versus around 100 ng/g for a conventional 95% turmeric extract at around 4 to 5 hours after dosing. The graph also shows the concentrations remain higher for more hours, but both yield negligible levels of curcumin after about 8 to 9 hours after an oral dose. Thus you may need to take two to three capsules per day spaced evenly to maintain relatively high levels of curcumin in the blood. It’s claimed that a 400 mg dose of BCM-95 yields similar blood concentrations to taking 2500 mg to 2800 mg of regular turmeric standardized to 95% curcumin. So to get 12,000 mg of curcumin per day, you would need to take around four capsule of 400 mg of BCM-95 per day.
In 2007, Life Extension published an article Novel Turmeric Compound Delivers Much More Curcumin to the Blood that shows with data and graphs how BCM-95 compares to regular turmeric curcumin extracts as well as those using piperine.
BCM-95 is included in the Life Extension Super Bio-Curcumin® 400 mg 60 vegetarian capsules product. You can also find it in a 500 mg per capsule product Geres Dengle: CURCUMIN XTRA-MAX(TM) Advanced 500 mg BCM-95(R) Curcuminoid Complex and in a 250 mg per capsule product from Genceutic Naturals.
Indena Meriva Curcumin
Indena has developed a brand of curcumin extract bound with phytosomes that it calls Meriva. It claims the curcumin in Meriva is absorbed around 20 times better than conventional curcumin extracts. Their data includes a graph that shows peak blood concentration of about 40 ng/mL at 4 hours after the 500 mg dose versus about 10 ng/mL for a dosage of 2100 mg of regular curcumin. (For comparison with the BCM-95 data, 1 mL of blood weighs about 1.06 grams.) At 24 hours after the dose, the levels are about 10 ng/mL (Meriva) versus 2 ng/mL (regular curcumin).
The least expensive source I found for the Meriva formulation is Swanson Health Products Meriva Turmeric Phytosome 500 Mg 60 Caps product. There are similar products available from other vendors including Doctor’s Best Meriva Phytosome Curcumins, and Now Foods Bio-curcumin Phytosome.
Verdure Sciences Longvida Curcumin
Verdure Sciences has commercialized UCLA research on increasing curcumin bioavailability and improving its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier via their proprietary ingredient Longvida. They point out that the average serving of an Indian curry using turmeric only has about 6 mg of curcumin and it is not very bioavailable, so anybody truly wanting to benefit from curcumin would be best served by taking supplements with bioavailability enhancements. Some of Verdure’s published statements regarding research on Longvida suggest that it may be around 65 times more bioavailable than conventional turmeric curcumin extracts, others suggest more like 11 times better absorption. They also claim it is more able to cross the blood-brain barrier than any other curcumin supplement on the market today. This is particularly important for use in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s or for treating depression and other conditions with low brain levels of neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
Apparently these improvements are due to the way they combined fatty acids and lecithin with the curcumin to increase absorption. Each 500 mg capsule is reported to contain 100 mg of curcumin plus 400 mg of other ingredients including vegetable-derived stearic acid dextrin, soy lecithin, ascorbyl palmitate, and silicon dioxide in a vegetarian capsule made out of hydroxypropylmethylcellulose.
I did some checking for publicly available testing results comparable to those for BCM-95 and Meriva but didn’t find anything yet. I’d like to see charts including dosage with blood concentration versus time graphs as the Dolcas Biotech and Indena companies have made available to better understand what this Longvida “65 times” better bioavailability claim really means. As Longvida is one of the newer highly bioavailable curcumin formulations, it is not yet as widely available as the Meriva and BCM-95 curcumin products. Vitamin Research Products Longvida Optimized Curcumin 500 mg is one of the products that is available as of this writing.
Theracurmin: Water Soluble Curcumin Variant from Japan
The publication Innovative Preparation of Curcumin for Improved Oral Bioavailability contains research by Japanese scientists associated with Theravalues Corporation regarding a new curcumin supplement they call Theracurmin. They claim it to be water soluble and the photographs in the paper appear to demonstrate that. As measured by human blood concentrations, their claim is that Theracurmin is 27 times more bioavailable than regular standardized curcumin extracts.
There’s a bit of discussion online about it being available, but I had no luck finding a US source after several minutes of searching. I did find a source for Theracurmin in Japan, however it is prohibitively expensive at US$62.50 per bottle of 30 capsules each containing 30 mg of active curcumin. Surprisingly they even have a 10 mg dosage packaged as “gummy” style candies for about half that price. However, given the amount of active ingredient reaching the blood per dollar, the other alternatives listed above are probably better overall and certainly more cost effective for most people.
Additional Suggestions for Taking Curcumin
There are some good choices today for curcumin supplements designed to improve bioavailability, much better than the options that existed even just five years ago. But even with these choices, if you are aiming to maintain significant levels of curcumin in your blood at all times for maximum effect, you are going to need to take two or three doses per day spaced evenly.
I’ve not noted any particular digestive upset from taking curcumin with other supplements without a big meal, but this varies from person to person and also depends upon the other supplements you are taking. If you find that you need to take it with some food to minimize digestive upset, I’d suggest you try taking one dose in the morning with breakfast and another shortly before bedtime with a small protein-rich snack with some fat content such as cottage cheese. If you choose to take a third dose each day, take it with an afternoon snack or an early dinner.
Consider taking curcumin along with other beneficial oils and fats to increase absorption and for their synergistic benefits. Omega 3 fatty acid rich fish oils and flaxseed oils are particularly good choices. When cooking or preparing foods, olive oil is a healthy choice to go along with your curcumin supplements. As Longvida Curcumin uses stearic acid in its formulation to improve absorption, you might also consider incorporating cocoa butter which is rich in stearic acid. Cocoa mik is another option, too. Longvida also uses soy lecithin which is an excellent emulsifier and a great source of phospatidylcholine which is important to brain function and healthy cell membranes.
People with blood clotting disorders should also be cautious about using curcumin. It is believed to slow clotting by both reducing platelet aggregation and reducing the formation of clots from fibrin proteins and collagens. By itself, the effect is probably nothing to worry about and may actually be a good thing as abnormal clotting cause a wide range of potentially lethal health problems such as strokes, heart attacks, and pulmonary embolisms. But when curcumin is combined with prescription medications such as warfarin or Plavix, there’s a chance the effect of slowed clotting could be enough that the medicine dosages may need to be reduced. In the case of warfarin, that could be a really good thing as that drug has some very serious dangers due to its interaction with vitamin K in the diet plus long-term usage risks involving accelerated development of atherosclerosis and osteoporosis. You could introduce a small dosage of curcumin, have your INR tested (INR reflects how slowly the blood clots with a measure of 0.8 to 1.2 for most people), and then continue to increase the dosage gradually while watching the INR test results to make sure they don’t go outside of your doctor’s prescribed target range.
If you’re trying to conceive a child, be aware that there’s a chance that very high dosages of curcumin could interfere with fertility as curcumin is being researched for possible application as a contraceptive.
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