Curcumin, a supplement derived from the spice turmeric, could be a safe anti-inflammatory and pain reducer.
Before you can share the excitement over an alternative to NSAIDs, it’s important to understand why they shouldn’t be consumed regularly.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, are a type of over the counter medication.
NSAIDs include ibuprofen, Aleve, and aspirin, and are commonly used by endurance athletes to reduce pain and inflammation before, during, and after exercise.
NSAIDs are really a do-everything type pain reliever. They reduce symptoms of headaches, sprains, arthritis, and other aches and pains that go hand-in-hand with endurance exercise.
NSAIDs are one of the most popular ways to manage pain.
NSAIDs work well at what they do. So, what’s the big deal with popping a little Vitamin I?
How NSAIDs reduce pain and inflammation
NSAIDs reduce pain and inflammation by blocking a specific group of enzymes called cyclo-oxygenase enzymes, often abbreviated to COX enzymes.
COX enzymes produce compounds called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins have hormone-like effects that control inflammation, blood flow, and the formation of blood clots, among other functions.
To understand the significance of the mechanism behind NSAIDs, it’s important to know the mechanism behind pain.
What Causes pain?
Pain is the result of an electrical impulse sent from your nerves to your brain. But what causes that signal?
It’s a complicated process, but when your body experiences some kind of trauma (let’s say back pain from a long day of cycling) the damaged tissue releases those hormone-like chemicals, prostaglandins.
Prostaglandins, in turn, cause the tissue to swell while amplifying the electrical signal to your nerves.
Essentially, an injury causes a complex series of chemical reactions that increase the sensation of pain.
Because NSAIDs block the enzymes responsible for producing prostaglandins, they alleviate pain and swelling throughout the body. (Griffin)
Why chronic NSAID use is dangerous
Here’s the catch: prostaglandins do a lot more than increase pain. Ever notice how too many NSAIDs cause stomach issues?
That’s because prostaglandins also play a vital role in protecting the lining of your stomach and GI tract.
That’s a big problem, considering your stomach is an acidic environment that can damage unprotected tissue to the point of gastrointestinal bleeding. (Hertz)
- Various other NSAIDs, excluding aspirin, can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke in as little as a few weeks of taking the medication. (Hertz)
- Prostaglandins also affect blood flow. NSAIDs reduce the blood flow to your kidneys, which creates a build-up of fluids in your body. More fluid=higher blood pressure. By the way, a chronic reduction in blood flow to your kidneys can cause permanent damage and even kidney failure.
- People who take the painkiller ibuprofen while running very long distances double their risk of acute kidney injury, according to a study by researchers at Stanford and other institutions. Interestingly, researchers actually hypothesized that ibuprofen would not increase kidney injury compared to the placebo.
They found the exact opposite.
At the end of a 50-mile section of the race, researchers saw an 18% increase in the rate of kidney injury in the ibuprofen group. (Lipman, et. al.)
This finding is especially worrisome when you consider that endurance athletes are already at a higher risk of kidney damage from dehydration.
Not only can NSAIDs cause intestinal bleeding, heart attacks, and renal failure, but they dramatically reduce your body’s ability to recover after exercise.
Obviously, there is a huge incentive to find a safe alternative to NSAIDs. And research surrounding one potential alternative, curcumin, has been gaining momentum over the last 10 years.
What is turmeric curcumin?
Curcumin is the yellow pigment found in the spice turmeric.
Research indicates that curcumin is an anti-inflammatory pain reducer that increases antioxidant production.
It may even reduce depression.
Curcumin can be extracted from turmeric to create a more potent anti-inflammatory. However, curcumin has poor bioavailability, meaning that much of the dose of curcumin cannot be absorbed by the body.
Yet, you can make curcumin more readily available by adding it to various formulas that can be absorbed.
What are the proven benefits of curcumin?
Curcumin as an anti-inflammatory
One study looked at how curcumin affects anti-inflammatory markers of arthritic participants.
This eight-month study looked at the effect of Meriva, a formula including curcumin, on 100 patients walking on a treadmill. Researchers concluded that Meriva could be a long-term management solution for arthritic patients, stating “Significant improvements of both the clinical and biochemical endpoints were observed for Meriva compared to the control group.
This, coupled with excellent tolerability, suggests that Meriva is worth considering for the long-term complementary management of osteoarthritis.” (Belcaro, et. al.)
Curcumin for pain relief
A 2014 randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial of curcuminoids found that curcumin relieved knee pain in osteoarthritic patients. Forty patients were divided into a curcuminoid group or a placebo group and studied for six weeks.
Researchers concluded that the curcuminoid group showed “significant improvements in the pain and physical function scores,”, and that curcumin could be “an effective and safe alternative treatment for OA.” (Panahi, et. al.)
Other uses for curcumin
Curcumin may have additional benefits beyond pain relief and inflammation reduction.
A 2020 review of 11 studies on the effect of curcumin on physically active participants experiencing exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD) found that curcumin reduces the perception of pain, among other benefits.
Researchers concluded, “The use of curcumin reduces the subjective perception of the intensity of muscle pain; reduces muscle damage through the decrease of creatine kinase (CK); increases muscle performance; has an anti-inflammatory effect by modulating the pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as TNF-α, IL-6, and IL-8; and may have a slight antioxidant effect.” (Fernandez-Lazaro, et. al.)
While more research is needed, curcumin may be an antioxidant and an antidepressant. (Fernandez-Lazaro, et. al.) (Lopresti, et. al.) (Kulkarni, et. al.)
One study even suggests curcumin can reduce symptoms of PMS and can even reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. (Khayat, et. al.) (Campbell MS, et. al.)
What are the side effects of curcumin?
So far, research suggests that doses up to 8 grams are safe. Large doses may cause nausea or GI distress.
Because curcumin has to be combined with other substances to be bioavailable, it’s important to know what formula is used. For example, use of curcumin with piperine may negatively interact with other drugs. (Kamal)
More research is needed on curcumin and the various formulations of curcumin.
How to take curcumin?
Curcumin is combined with other compounds to increase bioavailability. Each formula containing curcumin has different dose recommendations. According to Examine, these are the following recommendations:
- BCM-95 is a combination of curcumin and essential oils. Take 500 mg 2x daily.
- Meriva is a combination of curcumin and soy lecithin. Take 200–500 mg 2x daily.
Curcumin with piperine
- Piperine is an extract from black pepper. Take 500 mg of curcumin with 20 mg of piperine, 3x a day.
Matt Mosman (MS, CISSN, CSCS) is a research scientist, endurance athlete, and the founder and Chief Endurance Officer at EndurElite. Matt holds his B.S. in Exercise Science from Creighton University and his M.S. in Exercise Physiology from the University of California. Matt and his family reside in Spearfish South Dakota, where they enjoy running, mountain biking, camping, and all the outdoor adventures Spearfish has to offer.
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