The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: What Science Says About Turmeric In 2017

Posted by Jennie Ann Freiman MD on

Overall, 2017 has been a great year for the continued scientific support of turmeric (curcuma longa) as a potent agent of wellness. The small number of exceptions to this conclusion involve reports of side effects and harm caused through misuse, abuse and less-than-ideal formulations, each unnecessary and avoidable.

Year to date, PUBMED, the NIH National Library of Medicine biomedical search engine, responds with over 400 scientific results for a search of the term "turmeric." The overwhelming majority suggest turmeric or its components can be useful in the management of cancer, Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases, infection, and cardiovascular, gut, bone and mood disorders. How one plant and its derivatives can impact such a wide array of diverse problems makes sense given that turmeric is a powerhouse in the fight against inflammation and oxidative stress, two processes at the root of all illness. The following is a brief summary of what researchers reported this year: the good, the bad and the ugly.  

A few caveats:  

  • Researchers continue to use the terms "turmeric" and "curcumin" interchangeably, even though they are not remotely close to being the same thing. Curcumin is the most-studied bioactive component of turmeric but it's far from the only one: whole turmeric has hundreds of bioactive ingredients that work together in synergy. The search for a magic bullet, isolating one active ingredient and fiddling with it to improve its action, is historically how drugs were developed. The race to pharmaceuticalize curcumin is underway.                         
  • Most of the research reports the use of turmeric and components for treatment rather than prevention. Heads up: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 
  • There is no standard turmeric or curcumin preparation and different formulations are not tested against each other or over the long term. This makes comparison of products and long term outcomes impossible to know.
  • The research is a mix of lab, animal and human studies.

The Good

Breast cancer: Of all cancers reported, a role for turmeric and its components in breast cancer had the most hits, a total of 22, and both hormone positive (1) and triple negative breast tumor cells (2) show suppression. Regular, daily consumption of turmeric may complement traditional treatment of hormone receptor positive breast cancer (3). A turmeric based cream is useful in treating radiation-induced skin damage (4). 

Colon cancer: Of 5 common culinary herbs tested (turmeric, bay leaf, ginger, sage, rosemary), turmeric was the most potent in inhibiting human colon cancer cell growth, and combinations of these herbs had a synergistic (additive) effect (5).

HPV infection & cervical cancer: Curcumin shows promise in the prevention and treatment of cervical cancers, both HPV-related (the most common) and non-related (6).

Other cancers: Curcumin inhibits prostate (7), bladder (8), pancreatic (9) and laryngeal (10) cancer cells. Curcumol exerts a similar effect on stomach cancer cells (11). Curcuminoids have a potential therapeutic role in lung cancer (12).

Memory & neurodegenerative disorders:  Whole turmeric extract protects brain cell connections during the aging process (13). Animals studies show whole turmeric extract protects the hippocampus (ground zero for Alzheimer's disease), preventing memory loss (14), and whole turmeric (20mg/kg) improves stress-induced memory impairment (15). A whole turmeric extract exerted a dose-dependent neuroprotective effect in a cell model of Parkinson's disease (16). Curcumin shows therapeutic potential in multiple sclerosis, an auto-immune, inflammatory disorder linked to memory loss (17).

Cardiovascular health: Both turmeric and curcumin reduce LDL-cholesterol ("bad" cholesterol) and triglycerides (18). Turmeric is one of four common spices (along with cardamom, ginger and coriander) shown to be effective in the prevention and control of cardiovascular disease (19).

Gut health: Turmeric maintains and promotes good gut bacteria, supporting the healthy microbiome so crucial to overall wellness (20). Dietary turmeric helps prevent and regress cholesterol gallstonces (21). Curcumin is a useful adjacent to Remicade treatment of Crohn's disease, and can reduce disease activity and inflammatory markers on its own (22).

Bone health: Curcumin-based supplements in combination with a healthy lifestyle are useful in the prevention and management of osteopenia, as monitored by bone density (23). Turmeric extract treatment of osteoarthritis of the hip, knee and hand results in reduced pain and improved mobility in the short term (24). 

Mood disorders: Curcumin has the strongest scientific support for the treatment of major depressive disorder but is also useful for anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other neuropsychiatric conditions (25).

The Bad

Lead exposure: Turmeric is a source of lead exposure in the U.S. when adulterated with lead chromate to improve its color and/or weight (26). Thirteen brands of lead-contaminated turmeric have been recalled in the last several years. Heavy metal testing is a must for turmeric (and other spices).

Kidney toxicity: A case report of a middle aged male liver transplant recipient taking Tacrolimus, an organ rejection drug, who experienced kidney toxicity (27). The patient reported taking 15+ spoonfuls (!!!) of turmeric daily on the advice of a family member. Kidney function improved when heroic doses of turmeric were discontinued. The lesson here applies to food, supplements and drugs: it's a mistake to assume if some is good then more is better. Too much and too little both miss the sweet spot...the Goldilocks effect in action.

Beware the GMO: Curcuminoids made by genetically engineered E coli, a common bacteria, is being investigated for its ability to increase the production of two turmeric components (28). Synthetic curcumin is also under study.

Loss of potential benefits: Most of the scientific focus is on curcumin, yet studies show benefits are lost with such isolated components. A turmeric extract outperformed isolated curcumin in preventing tumor-promoting effects of iron in an animal cell model (29). In this study, isolated curcumin at low doses actually promoted tumor formation, yet again a Goldilocks effect. Multiple studies identified new bioactive components and new actions for known non-curcumin components of turmeric, including calebin A, a newly found component with potential use in cancer prevention (30), turmeric polysaccharides that promote cellular immune response (31), turmerone oils that fight neuroinflammation and reduce memory loss (32),  suppress lung cancer cells (33), and inhibit inflammation by suppressing nitric oxide, a key factor in cardiovascular disease (34).

The Ugly

Death by intravenous curcumin: A young woman died of cardiopulmonary arrest after an intravenous infusion of a curcumin emulsion in castor oil, prepared by a compounding pharmacy (35). The FDA determined the infusion was contaminated by diethylene glycol, a solvent, which may have contributed to her death. No published studies exist to justify the use of intravenous curcumin as an anti-inflammatory treatment.

2017 Take home: Turmeric is an awesome wellness tool!


Disclaimer: This article was created for informational purposes only, is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Oobroo™ Inc or its staff.


1. (The immunomodulatory potential of selected bioactive plant-based compounds in breast cancer: a review)

2. (Curcumol triggers apoptosis of p53 mutant triple-negative human breast cancer MDA-MB 231 cells via activation of p73 and PUMA)

3. (Regular daily consumption of turmeric may be a  complementary agent for the adjuvant treatment of hormone-receptor positive breast cancer)

4. (Sandalwood oil and turmeric-based cream prevents ionizing radiation-induced dermatitis in breast cancer patients: clinical study)

5. (Inhibitory effects of culinary herbs and spices on the growth of HCA-7 colorectal cells and their cox-2 expression)

6. (Curcumin as a multifaceted compound against human papilloma virus infection and cervical cancers)

7. (Targeting multiple pro-apoptotic signaling pathways with curcumin in prostate cancer cells)

8. (Antitumor effects of curcumin in human bladder cancer in vitro)

9. (Curcumin induces autophagy, apoptosis and cell cycle arrest in human pancreatic cancer cells)

10.  (Curcumin inhibits cell proliferations and promotes apoptosis of laryngeal cancer cells...) 

11. (Curcumol inhibits the proliferation of gastric adenocarcinoma ...cells..)

12. (Biological activities of curcuminoids, other biomolecules from turmeric and their derivatives, a review)

13. (Curcuma longa extract improves the cortical neural connectivity during the aging process)

14. (Turmeric (Curcuma longa L) extract may prevent the deterioration of spatial memory...)

15. (Pharmacological effects of turmeric on learning, memory and a stress-induced mouse model)

16. (Dose-dependent effect of Curcuma long for the treatment of Parkinson's disease) 

17. (Therapeutic potential of curcumin for multiple sclerosis)

18. (Efficacy and safety of turmeric and curcumin in lowering blood lipid levels in patients with cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials)

19. (Spices: therapeutic value in cardiovascular health)

20. (Interaction with turmeric (curcuma longa) with beneficial microbes: a review)

21. (Anti-cholelithogenic potential of dietary spices and their bioactives)

22. (Comparison of remade to curcumin for the treatment of Crohn's disease: a systematic review)

23. (Effects of curcumin-based supplementation in asymptomatic subjects with low bone density...)

24. (Dietary supplements for treating osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis)

25. (Curcumin fo neuropsychiatric disorders: a review of in vitro, animal and human studies)

26. (Ground turmeric as a source of lead exposure in the United States)

27. (Acute calcineurin inhibitor nephrotoxicity secondary to turmeric intake: a case report)

28. (Production of curcuminoids in engineered E coli)

29. (Curcumin and turmeric modulate the tumor-promoting effects of iron in vitro)

30. (CalebinA, a novel component of turmeric..) 

31. (Effects of water extract of curcuma longa (L) roots on immunity and telomerase function)

32. (Aromatic turmerone attenuates LPS-induced neuroinflammation and consequent memory impairment...)

33. (Cytotoxic and anti tumor effects of curzerene from curcuma longa)

34. (Chemical constituents from curcuma longa and their inhibitory effects of nitric oxide production)

35. (Death associated with intravenous turmeric (curcumin) preparation)

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  • Incredible information! Thank you Jennie. Love, George.

    George Bayless on

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